On Wednesday, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer goes from one of the most anonymous jobs in state politics to its most prominent.
Kansans, in turn, will find themselves with a new governor. Colyer’s politics may run as conservative as the man he’ll replace, Sam Brownback, just more low key.
Brownback is stepping away from the job with a year left in his term to work in the U.S. State Department for the Trump administration. That gives Colyer a chance to show that he’s up to the job and to catapult his prominence in this year’s race for a full term as governor.
The interim promotion gives Colyer a chance to rise above what’s been a relatively low-profile political career, marked more by gradual success than confrontation or daring choices.
Yet friends who know him best rarely use his political biography — failed run for the U.S. House, election to the Kansas House, the state Senate and as lieutenant governor — to explain him.
Instead, they talk about the plastic surgeon who travels to war-torn corners of the world to fix the battle wounds of children.
“Gosh,” said former Kansas House colleague Steve Brunk, “Lt. Gov. Colyer is certainly a real humanitarian.”
In 2002, for instance, the Johnson County physician traveled to Sierra Leone to fix scars, including on children who had rebel brands burned into their flesh by various factions in the west African country’s civil war.
“I don’t think you can ever accept the fact that you’re taking children and branding them,” he told a “60 Minutes” crew that documented some of the work he did on a volunteer medical team.
Colyer’s charity work is also the focus of TV ad designed to introduce him to voters at the outset of the governor’s race. A young woman talks about how Colyer transformed her life by surgically repairing a disfiguring birth defect.
“Dr. Colyer,” she says in the spot, “does the right thing even when nobody’s looking.”
A group connected to Koch Industries paid for the commercial. That suggests that Koch’s powerful political network is backing Colyer and not Secretary of State Kris Kobach, his more dynamic conservative rival in the governor’s race.
Still, it doesn’t reveal much about either Colyer’s politics or his policies.
Kansas House Democratic Leader — and candidate for governor — Jim Ward said Colyer has always been a bit of a political mystery man, even when he was a legislator.
“He served in the House for four years and didn’t leave much of a footprint,” Ward said. “(Colyer) wasn’t in the Senate long enough to leave a footprint. And he’s been kind of the back room guy for the governor.”
The lieutenant governor has left a mark in at least one policy area — health care. He’s the architect of KanCare, the state’s privatized Medicaid program.
Launched in 2013, it has reduced the cost of providing health care for low-income, elderly and disabled Kansans, but increased red tape and billing disputes have frustrated both providers and patients.
Colyer was recently forced by legislative resistance to back off an attempt to preserve his signature program while adding some controversial features, such as a requirement that some recipients work in exchange for their health care benefits.
Colyer insists there’s real no mystery about his politics. He’s an anti-abortion conservative who believes that government at both the state and national levels is too big.
“Everybody knows I worked for Bob Dole and Ronald Reagan, so you know where I’m coming from,” he said in an interview.
Since Brownback’s nomination for an ambassadorship began the conversation about a transition several months ago, Colyer has said he’ll be a different kind of governor. He’s talked a lot about listening to Kansans and “changing the tone.”
“You just need to be a good governor,” he said. “We’re going to do a very good job. And we’re going to work for Kansas. We’re going to listen for them. We’re going to change the tone. And we’re going to work very hard.”
Even before the transition, Colyer was gearing up to use the power of incumbency by making appointments and scheduling events across the state that allowed him to connect with voters, local officials and business leaders with reporters tagging along.
Former Kansas House Speaker Mike O’Neal spent decades in Kansas Republican politics. He said Colyer needs to use the next several months to define how he’s different if he hopes to top a crowded field of GOP hopefuls in the governor’s race.
O’Neal and others say running as an incumbent could be a real advantage for Colyer. But only if he uses the opportunity to show that he’s up to the job.
“This is his opportunity,” O’Neal said, “to show what he’s made of and that he’s just not going to be a carbon copy of the last administration.”
Jim McLean is managing director of the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics.