TOPEKA — Gov. Sam Brownback went around to each person on his staff.
Should he sign it?
It was May 2012 and the Legislature had just passed sweeping legislation that would lower personal income taxes while eliminating some types of business income taxes altogether. The House, under the reign of conservative Speaker Mike O’Neal, sent the legislation to the governor after the Senate, dominated by moderates, passed it.
The Senate acquiesced only after Brownback personally pleaded with Steve Morris, the moderate Senate president, to get the bill out of the chamber as a way to open negotiations with the House. In fact, senators had initially voted it down. The legislation, as Morris understood it, was never meant to become law.
But the House passed it anyway — a political backstabbing, one past senator now calls it.
With the bill in hand, Brownback pondered his options. The situation before him provided a test of leadership. How he handled this moment would come to define his time in office and it continues to provide a window into how he leads as governor.
On the one hand, he had been pushing for a tax cut. On the other, the legislation was more aggressive than the plan he had originally sought publicly and critics warned it could eventually bankrupt the state.
Before becoming governor, Brownback had spent more than a decade in Congress. He returned to Topeka in 2011 to begin his first gubernatorial term with several members of his Senate staff in tow to fill executive positions.
The staffers who came with him from Washington were reluctant about Brownback putting his signature to the bill, recounted Steve Anderson, the budget director at the time, in a speech last year. Yet Anderson said Tim Shallenburger, a legislative liaison with deep roots in Topeka — who himself had run for governor before and had been speaker of the House — told Brownback he had to sign it.
Anderson himself was also on board. He said he told the governor the costs wouldn’t be as large as Brownback had been told.
The economist Art Laffer, beloved by many conservatives, had personally come to the Statehouse to lobby for a tax cut (he was also paid $75,000 to consult on Brownback’s tax plan).
Laffer told Brownback Kansas wouldn’t see benefits from the tax cuts for two to five years, Anderson said.
“I think the great thing about Art is I think Art is appropriately cautious. I’m not near so cautious, because for one thing I don’t need to make a living doing that — I go back to doing tax returns,” Anderson told a group of Oklahoma conservatives in 2014.
“I told the governor, ‘I think you’ll get it quicker. I think you’ll get it in 12 to 18 months you’ll start to see the money coming back in.”
The assumption, Anderson said, was this was the only tax plan Brownback might get to sign. In other words, it was better than nothing.
Yet, despite inviting the input of his staff, Brownback’s decision was never really in doubt.
“He didn’t seriously entertain a veto of that, so now he’s stuck with the thing,” said Dennis Taylor, a former secretary of administration for Brownback.
On May 22, 2012, Brownback signed the bill. Though the governor is now — in public remarks and comments to the media — quick to say the legislation wasn’t the version he originally wanted, at the time he showed no signs of hesitancy.
“Today’s legislation will create tens of thousands of new jobs and help make Kansas the best place in America to start and grow a small business,” he boldly declared at a celebratory bill-signing ceremony.
The decision to approve the bill proved hugely consequential. It arguably stands as the single most important choice Brownback has made as governor.
The fallout of the tax cuts drew national attention, forced Brownback into a competitive re-election contest, and led to the longest legislative session in Kansas history this past spring as lawmakers sought to pass a balanced budget amid falling revenue estimates.
And the effects appear to be continuing: Revenue continues to fall below estimates — Kansas collected $61 million less than projected in taxes in the first quarter of the fiscal year.
The fateful decision to sign the 2012 bill and how he’s dealt with the consequences provides a look into Brownback’s leadership and management style, revealing the son of rural Kansas farmers as a leader who seeks input while at the same time possessing a strong internal sense of the right way forward.
While all elected officials bring their own brand of leadership into office, a governor’s approach to wielding power results in real-world consequences of a magnitude not seen in other positions. From tax policy to how the state selects judges to school finance — the effects are felt far and wide.
The Topeka Capital-Journal interviewed former administration officials, current and former lawmakers, political observers, longtime acquaintances and reviewed the past remarks of officials in an effort to provide greater insight into how Brownback leads as he progresses into his second term and past the most contentious legislative session of his governorship so far.
Taken together, these individuals paint a picture of a man with deep, core convictions and a strong determination to pursue the path he sees as the right one, yet who as governor also aggressively seeks to avoid conflict among supporters and allies — so much so he has altered the political landscape in an attempt to eliminate the chance of strife.
Ultimately, those who have been close to Brownback see him as a complex figure, even as he has polarized Kansas and generated the kind of anger not often seen in the Sunflower State — from protesters who pop up at public events to a chorus of boos at a nationally broadcast college basketball game.
“That’s what I think to me is astounding — is the inflammatory speech against a politician," Kim Borchers, Brownback’s deputy chief of staff, told a Wichita radio program recently.
“I did radio in Topeka, and I’ve never seen it like this.”
Before Topeka, and even before Washington, Brownback was a creature of the Little Apple.
After graduating from Kansas State University, where he led the Wildcats as student body president, he earned his law degree from the University of Kansas in the early ’80s. He then took a turn as an attorney in Manhattan at a law office with deep roots in the city.
It was there his political career began to take root and he displayed the kind of ambition that would propel him to the U.S. Senate, the governor’s office and even a one-time presidential bid.
Longtime Manhattan resident Dixie Roberts first crossed paths with Brownback back then through their mutual involvement in Republican politics. Brownback was affable and friendly, she said, and remains so today. Roberts was enough of a Brownback fan that she initially supported his 1994 run for Congress and volunteered for the campaign.
A Republican fervor swept the country that year, two years after Americans sent Democrat Bill Clinton to the White House. That November, Republicans gained a massive 54 seats in the U.S. House in what became known as the Republican Revolution.
That election also came three years after the so-called Summer of Mercy that rocked Kansas. In the summer of 1991, anti-abortion activists staged sit-ins and protests at abortion clinics in Wichita. Weeks of demonstrations galvanized abortion opponents in a way not seen since the Roe v. Wade decision and thrust abortion into the center of Kansas politics.
Brownback faced Bob Bennie during the Republican congressional primary. A political novice, Bennie nevertheless won the backing of anti-abortion activists.
Before the Summer of Mercy and before an increasing tide of explicitly anti-abortion candidates, Bennie might not have posed much of a concern for Brownback. Brownback was a well-respected Manhattan lawyer, part of the political scene and previously had served as secretary of the Kansas Board of Agriculture.
But Brownback began to court anti-abortion activists, Roberts recalls, and the issue started to dominate the campaign. Abortion seemed to overshadow everything else, she said.
Yet even as Brownback sought the favor of the abortion opponents, he tried to keep the support of moderates.
“I know he sat in my living room and told me he was a moderate Republican,” Roberts said. “He did that to keep me on, keep working through the primary.”
Brownback was not as upfront and honest with her as he could have been, Roberts said.
“He was playing both sides is what he was doing. In his mind, he had to win that primary and he knew some of us well enough to know where we stood. I just think he played both sides and did whatever was convenient for who he was talking to,” Roberts said.
With the exception of Jon Hummell, the chief of staff, the governor’s office declined to make Brownback and other administration officials available for interviews, citing schedules.
But past comments and writings from the governor provide insight into his past.
Brownback, in his 2007 book “From Power to Purpose,” wrote that going into that campaign he thought he knew how to “play the game” — not declaring firm positions on big issues but trying to keep as big a tent as possible for voters — from watching the GOP machine for years and interning in Sen. Bob Dole’s office.
In retrospect, Brownback believes he almost lost the primary by running his campaign that way.
“I have always been pro-life, but during the first few weeks of the campaign, I chose to focus on particular policies rather (than) broad principle. Instead I talked about where I stood on taxpayer funding of abortion, on the use of military bases for abortion, and things of that sort,” Brownback wrote.
“All of that articulated a pro-life position, but I didn’t want to irritate anybody, so I wouldn’t come right out and state clearly where I stood, and that irritated many people in my state.”
Roberts ultimately left the campaign, she said, after showing up to a meeting that was overtaken by anti-abortion activists. Brownback went on to successfully outmaneuver Bennie, winning the primary and then the general election.
Whatever abortion represented to Brownback in 1994, opposition to it is now unquestionably a core conviction.
Reflecting in 2007 on the death of Democratic U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, Brownback drew a distinction in politics between core convictions and noncore convictions, according to remarks printed in the Congressional Record that were highlighted in an interview he gave last fall to the Journal, a magazine published by the Kansas Leadership Center.
In the speech, Brownback marked out a philosophy for when to work with his opponents.
“I think (Wellstone) has also taught a good lesson for the rest of us about core convictions. There is no problem with having core convictions. It is a good thing to have core convictions and to stand by those. It is also a good thing to recognize when it is that the topics you are talking about are not your core convictions, so you can reach out across the aisle,” Brownback said.
Brownback stands firmly behind a set of core ideas, Hummell said. Those ideas include small government, low taxes — and anti-abortion positions.
“In terms of leadership, I think he feels very strongly about a core set of ideas and he leads very strongly, we push very hard on those core set of ideas. But he’s also a very humble man, and this doesn’t come out very much to people who don’t know him,” Hummell said.
Through time, Brownback has become more determined to pursue what he believes is the right thing, Roberts said. That determination, she believes, can sometimes cause Brownback to ignore what is actually best for the people.
“I think it stems from his religious convictions, and it has become a personality issue,” Roberts said.
Brownback has evolved over time from a mainline Protestant to evangelical and is now Catholic. Religion plays a central role in how he approaches public service and the way he views leadership.
In 1995, Brownback discovered he had melanoma. According to a 2006 Washington Post story, in a speech he compared having cancer to God pounding on his hardened heart. Cancer, he said, led to a “wonderful and radical transformation of focus.”
Brownback is known to leave the Statehouse on weekdays and head to Mass. He is comfortable enough with religion that at times he talks about it informally. During Holy Week he suggested a reporter watch “The Passion of the Christ.”
It is easy to draw lines from Brownback’s religiosity to some of the topics he has chosen to emphasize in public life. Abortion might have first emerged for Brownback as a political issue during the 1994 campaign, but it has remained a mainstay for him ever since.
Earlier this year, he signed a bill outlawing dismemberment abortion and knocked Planned Parenthood over videos showing workers discussing fetal tissue. And, after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide this summer, Brownback issued an executive order he said was necessary to protect religious liberty for clergy.
In his book, Brownback connected his approach to public service back to his view of God.
“It wasn’t the glitter of gold that I was after, but I confess I was drawn by the lure of notoriety and influence. It didn’t take long to discover the emptiness of that track. It was only when I understood and followed my true purpose of service to God and my fellow man that I found what I was really looking for. Not power but purpose,” Brownback wrote.
But Brownback’s willingness to pursue positions informed by his religious belief has limits. Most of the time, those positions have been political winners in conservative Kansas, but not always.
While in the U.S. Senate, he worked with a bipartisan group on an ultimately failed effort to achieve immigration reform. Brownback wanted a way for undocumented immigrants to become legal residents. He has become less outspoken on the topic in recent years.
“It’s sort of like his heart was for an immigration policy like Jeb Bush: We have to have heart,” said Bob Beatty, a political scientist and Washburn University professor. “But he was up against the political reality that in the state of Kansas, people are really hardline about this. And in that issue he made a decision to not try to convince people to be honest. He started shying away from the moderate approach to illegal immigration.”
Brownback has also declined to wade into the debate about the death penalty, despite belonging to a church opposed to it and having expressed reservations about it in the past.
“Why not get involved in the death penalty debate? Why not?” Beatty said, noting Brownback is now in his second term and free from having to worry about re-election.
Though political reality has at times frustrated Brownback, his answer as governor has sometimes been to change political reality itself — rather than take the path favored by Paul Wellstone, the path of compromise and negotiation.
Brownback, with the help of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and conservative activists, crushed moderate senators following the 2012 legislative session. The session had produced the governor’s sought-after tax cuts, but only after moderate Republicans had been persuaded to vote for legislation they didn’t support and didn’t believe would become law.
Morris, president of the Senate at the time, previously has recalled how Brownback urged him during a phone call to pass the tax cut legislation that the Senate had earlier rejected in an effort to open up negotiations with the House. He said his members were reluctant, but that he pushed for it since the governor had asked. The senators went along.
Tim Owens, a Republican senator at the time representing Overland Park, said he tried to warn Morris against going along with Brownback’s request. He said he didn’t trust where the governor was heading.
Of course, after the Senate passed the bill the House, led by conservatives, ended up approving the bill as written, and Brownback signed it.
“They just stabbed Steve Morris in the back,” Owens said.
Even though Brownback had successfully persuaded Senate moderates to go along with him on the tax cut bill, the overall relationship wasn’t good, and certainly not helped by what was perceived as a double-crossing in the tax debate.
“In a broad sense, the relationship with the Brownback administration was cautious, tentative, and not as open as I would hope it would be,” said John Vratil, a Republican who was Senate vice president when Brownback came into office. “Not as open as the relationship with the (Mark) Parkinson administration or the (Kathleen) Sebelius administration — certainly not as open as the relationship with the (Bill) Graves administration.”
Brownback also liked to take a 30,000-foot view of policy — a perspective that at times appears to have kept issues from progressing.
“I can remember having the same conversation with the governor week after week, sort of like Groundhog Day,” Morris said, referring to the Bill Murray film.
“Particularly on school finance, and there were probably some other major topics too, we’d have a conversation about school finance and I’d give the governor my views and he’d say, ‘Yeah, we need to check into that.’ The next week we’d have the same conversation and it was like we didn’t have the conversation before. That went on for several weeks. It was a little strange to me to have conversations with somebody like that and then you’d have the same conversation over and over again.”
Chapman Rackaway, a political science professor at Fort Hays State University, said he believes Brownback was frustrated with the ponderous nature of the U.S. Senate as a lawmaker, which made an executive position such as governor attractive.
As governor, however, Brownback found himself frustrated with the Kansas Senate — specifically the moderates.
“Gov. Brownback obviously believes much more in the command and control school of leadership: ‘I can’t get what I want done with these shifting coalitions in place; I’m going to blow up the coalition and put in people that are more loyal to me,’” Rackaway said.
Sure enough, that August nine Republican senators were ousted by primary challengers.
“He tried to make it seem like he was Mr. Nice Guy, but he really wasn’t,” Owens said of Brownback.
While Brownback has always been comfortable battling Democrats, he can appear uncomfortable with internal struggle — whether it is among fellow Republicans or within his own administration.
Taylor, the governor’s former secretary of administration, said Brownback wants people to like him and has never been comfortable moderating or resolving differences of opinion.
“I’ve always been told in leadership and management styles, there’s an avoider, there’s an accommodater, compromiser, collaborator and competitor. Those are the types,” Taylor said. “Sam’s more of an avoider, I would say.”
But Rob Siedlecki, Brownback’s former head of Social and Rehabilitation Services (now renamed the Department for Children and Families), indicated the governor was open to differing opinions and ideas.
“I think all of us in the cabinet were very impressed with his leadership style. For example, in our cabinet meetings, he had no problem asking questions,” Siedlecki said. “He always solicited advice from the different cabinet secretaries: ‘What do you think, how can we make it better?’ Really, really listened. It was really comforting.”
Landon Fulmer, Brownback’s chief of staff until late 2014, painted much the same picture. He said the governor had a clear sense of direction on issues but nevertheless invited discussion.
“What I really enjoyed about working for him was you knew what he thought about the matter, but he would always try to bring in experts and other people to surround himself with so that when you're actually trying to take the thought and crystalize it into a policy, you have a lot of minds in the room,” Fulmer said.
Siedlecki’s and Fulmer’s statements largely mirror Brownback’s own statements on his leadership style. Brownback discussed his leadership style in the run-up to the 2014 election with the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Kansas Leadership Center publication.
The governor said before meetings he often checks his motivation. He called selfish ambition and pride poisonous. During meetings, he tries to solicit as much input as possible.
“Obviously, you want to try to get as much information as possible and as much input as you can. I like to get as much counsel and advice. It’s great if you can float trial balloons to people,” Brownback told the magazine.
‘The whole thing kind of backfired’
Brownback’s at-times competing desires to obtain both a diversity of opinions and avoid conflict met its greatest challenge yet this past spring during a legislative session that lasted weeks longer than normal and sparked bitter conflict among Republicans.
At issue: How to generate enough revenue to balance the state budget from the continuing effects of the 2012 tax policy.
After the Consensus Revenue Estimate issued in April lowered projections for the amount of cash expected to flow into state coffers, lawmakers set about trying to close an approximately $400 million gap between spending and revenue.
Brownback had put forward a plan in January that called for raising taxes on tobacco and liquor while slowing down the so-called “march to zero” income taxes. The plan gained little traction among lawmakers during the first few months of the year, and after the revenue estimate came out it was clear the plan wouldn’t generate enough cash to fill the budget hole.
But for about a month and a half — between the issuance of the estimate in April and the end of May — Brownback for the most part remained publicly silent about what the Legislature should do.
Only on May 30, the 100th day of a legislative session that is typically supposed to last 90, did the governor reveal a new plan to fill the hole. The proposal raised the state sales tax, yet at the same time kept tax exemptions for business income largely intact.
Brownback had in the past appeared to publicly prefer to defer to the Legislature — deciding to sign the 2012 tax cut legislation, for example, despite the fact it was more aggressive than what he had originally wanted. And for the first 100 days of this year’s session that’s what he largely did on the issue of taxes.
“As we got into the tax debate, my sense was that the governor and the staff were fairly hands off, to say ‘you guys come up with something,’” said Rep. Steven Johnson, R-Assaria.
Brownback often, but not always, takes a deferential approach toward the Legislature, and that included the tax debate, Hummell said.
“He doesn’t like to say this is how it’s going to be unless he feels very, very strongly in that particular position. So in some ways, in terms of the Legislature, he’ll be very deferential to the Legislature,” Hummell said.
“Leadership will come in and say, what do you think about that? And he’ll say, ‘I don’t feel very strongly about that, whatever you guys want to do is OK.’ There’s other issues where he does feel very strongly about it and he’ll let them know.”
But Brownback’s desire to avoid conflict among Republicans — a desire that had helped produce the 2012 purge of moderates — was now in some ways becoming an obstacle.
The coalition of lawmakers pushing for business income tax changes in the Senate was led, notably, by Senate President Susan Wagle. Although Brownback had clashed with moderate Senate leadership in 2012, Wagle’s conservative bona fides weren’t in question.
The governor couldn’t easily attack Wagle from the right. Instead, he issued a veto threat against any changes to the business income tax exemptions.
In the old days, there were enough moderates, at least in the Senate, that they constituted a majority when joining forces with Democrats. That was no longer the case, and Democrats declined to support any Republican plan.
That meant support from a sizable number of conservative lawmakers would be needed in both chambers for a plan to pass. But conservatives themselves, evidenced by Wagle, were split over how to deal with the business income tax exemption issue.
“I think he would just rather stay out of the way and see what the Legislature can come up with. But obviously, this legislature has a very difficult time in leading,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka.
House and Senate Republicans split into several factions, each pushing their own tax solution. The groups went as far as to hold regular meetings among themselves. In effect, they functioned as separate caucuses, with their own members and leaders.
A contingent of conservative lawmakers in both chambers pushed for a greater emphasis on spending cuts and elimination of tax credits, resisting any effort to raise tax rates and slowing down the process. Other lawmakers, however, had no declared allegiance.
As June ticked on, warnings from the administration over the lack of a revenue plan became more dire. At a joint House and Senate GOP caucus, Brownback appeared in person to plead with lawmakers to pass a plan.
At the June 11 meeting — a Thursday — the governor warned of massive cuts by that following Monday without quick action. About 24 hours later, after the House worked until 4 a.m. Friday, lawmakers passed a legislative package amounting to the largest tax increase in state history.
But the appeal to the caucus also amounted to an acknowledgment of deep divisions among Republicans — a recognition of the kind of internal conflict Brownback seeks to avoid.
Whether earlier intervention into the process by Brownback, or withholding the veto threat, would have changed the outcome or gotten a bill passed sooner is difficult to discern. Some lawmakers lay the majority of the blame at their own feet — or fault both themselves and Brownback.
But to Dixie Roberts, who has known Brownback for decades and been involved in Republican politics in and around Manhattan for even longer, the session was simply an embarrassment.
Brownback had stacked the deck, she said, and results weren’t good. The command and control approach — the conflict avoidance strategy — had failed.
“To me, the whole thing kind of backfired on him, as it turned out those young legislators hadn’t been in office long enough. We had the longest session in history, which we kind of became the laughingstock of the nation,” Roberts said.
“The governor just seemed to want it his way so he could get his agenda.”