President Donald Trump announced his intent Wednesday to nominate Gov. Sam Brownback as ambassador at large for international religious freedom.
Brownback, a former U.S. senator in his second term as Kansas governor, had been long speculated as the president’s choice for the post. A central element of Brownback’s life in Washington, D.C., and Topeka has been to usher religion into the halls of political power. He did it through simple expressions of personal faith as well as advocating for some of the nation’s most restrictive abortion laws and championing faith-based initiatives to guide prison inmates, foster children and welfare recipients.
“Religious freedom is the first freedom,” Brownback said in a Twitter post. “The choice of what you do with your own soul. I am honored to serve such an important cause.”
Republicans and Democrats in Kansas had theorized the governor wouldn’t complete his four-year term, but timing of a nomination and resignation wasn’t clear. Brownback’s inability to fend off the Republican-led Legislature’s attacks on his policies and agenda appeared to heighten the motivation for his departure. Since the national election in November, the governor routinely swatted away questions about an appointment in the Trump administration.
Brownback would likely delay his resignation until confirmed by the U.S. Senate to the post within the U.S. Department of State. Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer would be in line to be sworn in as the state’s new governor. Colyer has expressed interest in campaigning for the GOP nomination for governor in 2018.
U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, the Kansas Republican who served in the Senate with Brownback, said he was excited the governor was chosen for the important cause.
“Sam has always been called to fight for those of all faiths,” Roberts said in a statement, “and I am glad he has been given an opportunity to answer this call. I wish Mary and him all the best in this new chapter of their public service.”
U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, who was elected to the Senate following Brownback, expressed support for the governor’s appointment on Twitter.
Brownback “has long been a fighter for the persecuted — will be tireless, effective ambassador for international religious freedom,” Moran said.
Opposition to confirmation of Brownback emerged from Equality Kansas, an organization of LGBT Kansans and others who repeatedly fought the governor’s agenda. Thomas Witt, executive director of the group, urged U.S. Sens. Moran and Roberts to resist the nomination.
“Governor Brownback is unsuited to represent American values of freedom, liberty and justice whether at home or abroad,” Witt said. “His goal is not to use religion as a way to expand freedom, but to use a narrow, bigoted interpretation of religion to deny freedom to his fellow citizens.”
Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said Brownback was a good fit for the position, calling him a “staunch defender of religious freedom.”
“I hope the United States Senate works swiftly to approve Brownback to this post so that we can get Kansas back on track with new leadership,” Wagle said. “I hope that, as Kansas’ presumptive governor, Jeff Colyer will be open and eager to work with the Legislature to get back to fighting for Kansans.”
Kansas Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, offered a less flattering review of Brownback’s nomination.
“To paraphrase Gerald Ford’s statement about Nixon’s resignation, our long state’s nightmare is over,” Hensley said. “Sam Brownback will be remembered for becoming the most unpopular governor in America. His tax experiment failed to grow the economy as he promised. He is moving on not because of anything he accomplished in Kansas but because of who he knows in Washington.”
In 2016, more moderate Republicans and Democrats were elected to the Legislature. Those lawmakers aggressively pushed back against the governor’s conservative priorities, voting to expand Medicaid, increase spending on K-12 education and raise income taxes to balance the budget. Brownback had embraced higher sales taxes and other revenue measures to balance the budget to preserve his supply-side economic objective of driving down income taxes to create jobs.
Frustration with lackluster economic growth and concern about the future of schools, highways and other state programs led to consistent polling that indicated Brownback was among the nation’s least-popular governors.
Kansas Rep. Jene Vickrey, a former House majority leader from Louisburg, said Brownback’s legacy would include the ambitious 2012 legislation to eliminate the state income taxes on more than 300,000 businesses and reduce the state income tax on individuals. Colyer’s position as governor would give him time to chart a course unburdened by some views held by Brownback.
“He would have the opportunity to start walking out a new adapted or redirected vision,” Vickrey said. “It’s been hard for Gov. Brownback to do.”
Kansas House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, said Brownback’s leadership, which included years of budget shortfalls, brought “nothing but destruction to essential state government services.” He also took a shot at Colyer, who has been at Brownback’s side since elected lieutenant governor in 2010.
“I don’t expect to see anything different from Jeff Colyer as he assumes the position as governor,” Ward said.
John Gibson, chairman of the Kansas Democratic Party, doubled down on Ward’s critique of Colyer.
“Brownback leaving is by no means a saving grace for Kansans,” Gibson said. “Lt. Governor Colyer has been an active and willing participant in the disastrous policies of Sam Brownback.”
Colyer’s staff didn’t release a statement from the lieutenant governor about the Brownback nomination.
In April 2009, Democrat Kathleen Sebelius resigned as Kansas governor to become President Barack Obama’s secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Her lieutenant governor, Mark Parkinson, was sworn in, but he didn’t run for governor in 2010.
That same year, Brownback stepped away from the U.S. Senate after easily winning the governorship. He had served 15 years in Washington, first in the U.S. House and then in the upper chamber. He was an unsuccessful candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, dropping out of the race after early fundraising problems and lack of traction against comparable social conservatives.