President Donald Trump announced Wednesday intent 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.
“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 anticipated the governor wouldn’t complete his four-year term, but timing of a nomination and resignation wasn’t clear. Since the national election in November, the governor routinely swatted away questions about an appointment in the Trump administration.
Brownback wouldn’t likely resign until confirmed to the federal post by the U.S. Senate. 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, “and I am glad he has been given an opportunity to answer this call. I wish he and Mary all the best in this new chapter of their public service.”
Opposition to confirmation of Brownback emerged from Equality Kansas, an organization of gays, lesbians, transgender Kansas and others that repeatedly fought the governor’s agenda. Thomas Witt, executive director of the organization, urged U.S. Sens. Jerry 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 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 decisions 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.”
In 2016, more moderate Republicans and Democrats were elected to the Legislature. Those lawmakers aggressively pushed back against the governor’s agenda, voting to expand Medicaid, increase spending on K-12 education and increase income taxes to balance the budget. Brownback had embraced higher sales taxes and other revenue measures to rebalance the budget the past several years to preserve his supply-side economic objective of driving down the states income tax to generate jobs.
Frustration with lackluster economic growth and concern about the future of schools, highways and other state programs led to polling that indicated Brownback was among the nation’s least popular governors.
“To paraphrase Gerald Ford’s statement about Nixon’s resignation, our long state’s nightmare is over,” said Kansas Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka. “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,” Hensley said.
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.”
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 didn’t run for governor in 2010.
While a member of the Senate, Brownback worked on the issue of religious freedom in several countries and sponsored a religious freedom bill in 1998.