In a year marked by political shakeups, controversial executive decisions and significant legislation, President Donald Trump and his administration have repeatedly turned to Kansans to lead key agencies and spearhead major projects.
Several Kansans are in high-profile positions influencing policies and conversations on voting rights and internet regulation. Others have been credited with helping Trump’s polarizing campaign cross the finish line or defending the president from a sweeping investigation into Russian meddling during his race against opponent Hillary Clinton.
The influx of Kansas influence in and around the White House seems to represent a banner year for the state’s representation in high-profile and hot-button issues, though they aren’t the first Kansans to hold prominent political positions. Some of the Kansans working with Trump have drawn controversy in their positions.
Secretary of State Kris Kobach was one of the first officials in Kansas to support Trump’s primary campaign against a roster of more traditional Republican candidates, and earlier this year the president tapped him to lead a commission on election integrity. Kobach said it was only natural for Kansas to have influence in a Republican administration given its status as a red state, but he thought Kansas was well-represented in the Trump administration for a small state.
“There’s no question that Kansas is punching above its weight class in terms of this administration,” Kobach said.
Kansans with influence
Brad Parscale, who hails from Topeka, ran the campaign’s digital operation and has credited Facebook with helping Trump win the White House. At an event this fall sponsored by the Kansas Republican Party, he and former Trump spokeswoman Katrina Pierson said they were some of the first to know Trump would win. Parscale got started working for the Trump family businesses before joining the Trump campaign, making at least $90 million for his digital firm.
“It’s kind of funny when you’re sitting in New York and your guy wins president of the United States, and you’re like, ‘I went to Shawnee Heights,’ ” Parscale said in September.
Trump’s White House attorney, Ty Cobb, grew up in Kansas before joining the administration and defending Trump against an ongoing investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 election. Cobb told Law.com, a legal news site, he took the job because it was “an impossible task with a deadline.”
“If the president asks you, you don’t say no,” Cobb told the site. “I have rocks in my head and steel balls.”
Ajit Pai, of Parsons, is leading the Federal Communications Commission and has played a key role in discussions over repealing net neutrality, increasing internet access, ending robocalls and boosting transparency. Chairman Pai and two commissioners voted to scrap the net neutrality rules that require internet providers to treat all content the same, stoking fears companies would be able to charge more for some content.
Pai and supporters of the move say rules have only been in place since 2015, not for most of the internet’s existence.
“It is truly an honor to serve as Chairman of the FCC, the first Kansan and first Indian-American to hold this position,” Pai said in a statement. “My number one priority has been to bridge the digital divide — the gap between Americans who have access to the Internet and advanced technologies and those who don’t. That’s because the Internet is increasingly critical in our daily lives.”
Pai said Kansas made him who he is.
“And I’m proud to have grown up in a place where neighbors look out for each other and where people work hard and take pride in their communities,” Pai said. “In turn, Kansans have had an incredibly positive impact on national policy, whether in elective office or appointed positions. It’s a privilege to count myself among the many other officials from the Sunflower State in public service.”
Former Congressman Mike Pompeo is now leading the Central Intelligence Agency and has reportedly been considered as a replacement for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Trump denied a plan to oust Tillerson. He served as a Republican in the U.S. House representing Kansas’ 4th District.
Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University, said it would be significant in any year for a Kansan to head the CIA.
“That is simply one of the most important positions in American government, and a lot of people don’t really understand that because of the nature of the job,” Beatty said. “Much of what the CIA director does, by definition, isn’t publicized, but it’s very significant that he is in that position.”
Patrick Miller, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, said U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, also had major influence this year. Moran helped sink bills aimed at repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act over concerns about the bills’ effect on markets and consumers.
Miller said Kansans, like former U.S. Senator Bob Dole, have had national influence for years, but this year Kansans have played roles in high-visibility policy conversation, like those on net neutrality and voting rights.
Kobach, too, said it wasn’t unusual for Kansans to play a significant role on the national stage.
“For many years Kansans, especially during Republican administrations, have played a significant role,” Kobach said. “And then the question is why — I think part of it has to do with our culture in Kansas. There’s definitely an ethic and a culture of working hard and achieving through determination.”
Reception of Kansans’ work
Several Kansans working in Washington have drawn controversy for their work, including Kobach and his commission. The firebrand conservative’s leadership and Trump’s claims that massive voter fraud handed the 2016 popular vote to Clinton have put the commission in the crosshairs of national progressive advocacy groups that take issue with the group’s objectives and transparency. Many believe it to be a tool to suppress voters.
The FCC’s decision on net neutrality has been a hot button issue for many, and the Russia investigation has put the Trump administration on edge as its defended by Cobb.
Kobach said he thought he and each “agent of change” from Kansas had been well-received, though some Americans may not like the direction the administration has gone.
“And President Trump unquestionably held himself out to the American people as someone who was going to shake things up in Washington,” Kobach said.
Beatty said he thought Pompeo’s influence would be the most lasting and could have come in another Republican administration, but his work is the most secret because of his role.
Miller said he thought Kobach and Pai had stirred some controversy while Pompeo flew under the radar.
“I think anything that they do is going to be seen through the lens of Donald Trump,” Miller said. “Just like when Barack Obama is president, the actions of the executive branch and its agencies get perceived through that lens as well, and Donald Trump is not very popular.”
In a different Republican administration, Beatty said, there might be more enthusiasm for having Kansans near the President.
“If there was a Marco Rubio, a John Kasich, a Jeb Bush — if any of those Republicans were president now and these Kansans were working for them, I think there’d be a little more excitement,” Beatty said. “Trump brings out a bit of trepidation among people for all the reasons we know.”