Gov. Sam Brownback has added a staffer and retained an agency head after the U.S. Senate’s failure to confirm him for a federal job sent his nomination back to square one, possibly leaving him in Kansas a while longer.
Brownback’s office announced Thursday the governor had hired Andrew Wiens to serve as his policy director more than two months after his former policy director, Brandon Smith, stepped down. Interim Commerce Secretary Nick Jordan also pledged to remain in office until Brownback is confirmed, according to a release from his department. Jordan had planned to step down effective Jan. 5.
“I have been asked by Gov. Brownback to continue serving in my role as interim secretary of Commerce,” Jordan said. “With the amount of economic development projects in the pipeline, I am happy to continue in this role to provide consistent leadership until the U.S. Senate votes on his confirmation.”
The staffing announcements came after Brownback’s nomination to become President Donald Trump’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom failed to gain approval by the U.S. Senate this year and could signal that he will remain governor longer than expected. Brownback faced fierce questioning about his record on LGBTQ issues at his committee hearing, and senators on the committee narrowly advanced his confirmation on an 11-10 vote. He hasn’t been able to get a vote by the full Senate.
Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer’s communications director, Kendall Marr, said key members of Brownback’s staff had left, and with the legislative session fast approaching, the positions had to be filled.
“I would say that this is just a signal that session is coming up, and we’ve got to make sure that we’re prepared to handle that situation, and that means being appropriately staffed,” Marr said.
U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, said during a Wednesday stop in Topeka the delay came in part because of general slowness of Senate Democrats to consider nominations. He said Brownback’s narrow committee vote also suggested there would be fierce debate over his confirmation on the Senate floor.
“That suggests that it would take a significant amount of floor time for his consideration on the Senate floor,” Moran said. “I don’t think there’s any question that he would be confirmed, but the process takes longer unless there’s cooperation from all senators.”
Moran said he was anxious for Brownback to be confirmed, and he and U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, had both pushed for his confirmation, but more difficult nominees were delayed until after Jan. 1.
“With the shortness of the time frame, it just became difficult to deal with those more contentious or controversial — those confirmations that would take a long time,” Moran said. “So the easier ones were put forward first. That leaves the ones that take a long time for later.”
Brownback previously has pledged he will not resign his position until he is confirmed by the Senate, but he had ceded some major responsibilities to Colyer, including developing the governor’s budget and choosing and announcing agency heads. He has said, however, he is still in charge and calling the shots.
Marr, the lieutenant governor’s communications director, said the two were working together on the governor’s budget.
“The ultimate decisions lie with Gov. Brownback,” Marr said.
Brownback has been criticized by Democratic legislators for absenteeism as he awaits his confirmation vote, but Marr said he thought it was clear Brownback was in charge.
“The only thing that was a question was timing,” Marr said. “So I think Kansans know, and I think our legislators know that the governor is the one that makes these decisions and is able to delegate if he chooses, but ultimately, he is the top dog.”
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said he thought Brownback would remain governor for a while.
“To me, it’s like watching a game of musical chairs,” Hensley said. “You don’t know for sure what’s going to happen, and I think it does a real disservice to the people of Kansas. I would advocate that if the governor — as he says — is so sure he’s going to be confirmed, he might as well resign as governor and give it to Colyer and let him be the leader of the state. There’s just too much uncertainty.”
Colyer is also seeking the Republican nomination to run for governor in 2018 and could benefit from running as an incumbent with some gubernatorial experience. Marr said he did not think it changed Colyer’s campaign strategy to have to wait a while longer to prove himself as governor.
Wiens previously served in Colyer’s office as policy director. Both Brownback and Colyer praised him in a release announcing his hire.
“Andrew is a solid conservative who is passionate about building relationships and developing policy that advances free enterprise and expands opportunity for Kansans,” Brownback said. “He’s been in the trenches fighting for conservative policies and brings a wealth of experience to the role of policy director.”
Brownback’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.