TOPEKA — Gov. Sam Brownback and Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer are like junior high dance partners awkwardly turning in circles as a slow song plays on.
The duo keeps shuffling their feet, but go nowhere.
Brownback was nominated in July by President Donald Trump to lead a diplomatic office focused on international religious freedom.
“I am honored to serve such an important cause,” Brownback said.
The governor’s rush to clear out his Capitol office was premised on the reasonable assumption GOP buddies in Washington, D.C., would do what was necessary to confirm his appointment. Democrats without allegiance to the former U.S. senator from Kansas have blocked Brownback’s exit strategy. With big issues dominating the agenda, he can’t get a vote in the full Senate.
The delay is keeping his dance partner from being sworn in as governor and advancing an argument that he’s not a clone of his predecessor.
Colyer is eager to dig deep into a playbook of personnel and policy changes designed to separate himself from Brownback, who remains one of the nation’s least popular chief executives. The governor-in-waiting’s task is to avoid alarming Brownback loyalists while appealing to Kansans alarmed by state budget problems threatening core services and unhappy with unmet promises about job creation and economic gain.
Waiting on the U.S. Senate has proven agonizing for Colyer. He’s watched as Secretary of State Kris Kobach and 10 other GOP candidates for governor moved ahead with their campaigns.
In desperation, the Brownback administration let it be known Colyer was taking the point on development of a new state budget. Eyebrows were raised again in September when Colyer announced his selection of a new secretary at the embattled Kansas Department for Children and Families. More recently, Brownback was in Topeka lighting a Christmas tree while Colyer was in Wichita for Spirit Aerosystem’s announcement of a $1 billion expansion.
The contrast in assignments was overt, but Colyer cautioned: “We still have one governor at a time.”
The arrangement left political insiders and regular Kansans confused about where the Brownback administration ended and the Colyer administration began. At a basic level, people wondered if Brownback was punting the job he was elected and paid to do. Helping Colyer build a resume was one thing. Listening to speculation about Kansas having two governors went too far.
Brownback declared the state didn’t have a “co-governorship.” He suggested Kansans should view the transition in terms of a relay race.
“You’ve got continued momentum moving on forward,” he said. “That’s what can seem, I think, complicated to people.”
That doesn’t explain Colyer and Brownback both claiming credit last week for hiring Diane DeBacker at the Kansas Department of Commerce. In a news release from Brownback’s office, the appointment was credited to the governor. In an interview with KCUR, Colyer said he was responsible for choosing DeBacker to work as a liaison between industry and government.
By Christmas, the Topeka two-step will be five months old. Absent a resolution in Washington when the calendar flips to 2018, the governor is likely to face growing bipartisan pressure to choose between a Trump ambassadorship and the Kansas governorship.
If a decision to end the awkward dancing was made by Jan. 3, Brownback could await outcome of Senate wrangling as a private citizen or mark the new year with a push to re-establish his presence as governor. Colyer could remain lieutenant governor or be sworn in as governor and deliver a tone-setting inaugural address before the 2018 Legislature convened Jan. 8.