TOPEKA — Republican Jeffrey William Colyer promised a "new day in Kansas" Wednesday shortly after he was sworn in as Kansas' 47th governor to replace Sam Brownback, who stepped down to become President Donald Trump's ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
Colyer, a 57-year old plastic surgeon, served as Brownback's lieutenant governor for seven years, holding the post longer than anyone in state history, but he promised a tone change amid tension between the executive branch and the Republican-controlled Legislature. He will finish the final year of Brownback’s term while he runs for his own. Brownback was set to be sworn in for his role Thursday.
“As a humble Kansan, I know how to listen,” Colyer said. “I love to serve, and I’m ready to lead.”
Accompanied by his wife, Ruth Colyer, and two of his daughters — Dominique and Serena — Colyer took the oath of office in a ceremony in the Kansas Statehouse attended by several hundred members of the public and statewide elected officials in addition to legislators who have soured on Brownback and hope Colyer will take a collaborative approach to governing.
“I demand transparency and we embrace accountability," Colyer said. "I pledge to do the right thing even when nobody is looking, and we will set a tone and insist on an environment of openness, honesty and respect and without harassment, especially in this building.”
Colyer will address a joint session of the Kansas House and Senate next Wednesday.
Since announcing his gubernatorial campaign this summer, Colyer has been promising to shift the tone at the Statehouse and “listen, serve and lead.” He faces a tough GOP primary field with several fellow statewide office holders, but he will have several months in office to demonstrate his leadership style. Democrats are also hoping to flip the seat, and independent Greg Orman shook the field with his entrance last week.
In his inaugural address, Colyer drew parallels between his pledge to serve and the service of Kansas’ first governor, Charles Robinson, also a doctor, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Colyer said Kansans can be underestimated but show character.
“The loudest voices in the room don’t always have the best ideas,” Colyer said. “Kansans are often underestimated, but we — we all know that if we listen and serve with humility, with strength, we will see our finest days.”
Colyer said Eisenhower’s leadership was humble and tenacious.
“Eisenhower taught us that you have to listen before you serve, and you have to serve selflessly ... before you can lead effectively,” Colyer said.
A fifth-generation Kansan, Colyer grew up in Hays before getting his bachelor’s degree at Georgetown University, his master’s at Cambridge University and his medical degree from the University of Kansas. He served in the White House during Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush’s administrations and in the Kansas House and Senate before he and Brownback won the executive branch in 2010. They won re-election in 2014.
Colyer said he will continue performing surgery in Johnson County for a few hours each week because of the relationship he has with his patients.
“I know that’s a learning opportunity for me, and it makes me a better governor,” Colyer said. “The thing is, politics will steal your soul, and I’m not going to allow that to happen.”
As part of his surgical career, Colyer has volunteered with International Medical Corps on relief missions and performed surgery and trained physicians in Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan, Rwanda and the Central African Republic. He said he and his wife learned to lead by working with people during the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s.
Colyer didn't divulge specific policy proposals in his speech, and some legislators were unsure what to expect from Colyer in terms of policy, though they anticipated a fresh start with the executive branch.
“I think that may be one of the biggest unknowns,” said House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a Dighton Republican.
The Kansas Democratic Party sought to brand Colyer as another Brownback, launching www.BrownbackClone.com ahead of his inauguration.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said he expected Colyer would represent “more of the same.”
As Colyer develops his policy priorities, lawmakers face a difficult session. The Kansas Supreme Court ordered them in October to add more money to K-12 schools, but legislators have yet to coalesce around a plan. Colyer promised to look at settling the lawsuit with the plaintiff attorneys and amending the constitution to minimize the court’s role in school funding in addition to weighing the $600 million in spending Brownback proposed in his budget.
“When others blame and complain, I’ll be busy working for you, trying to find a solution,” Colyer said. “I will not be responsible for shutting down Kansas government or our schools. This is not Washington.”
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat running for governor, said he read that as a pledge to build a constitutional school finance plan. He said Colyer will meet with legislative leaders Thursday.
Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican, said she hoped to see the collaboration Colyer promised.
“What I would like to see brought back to the Statehouse from Gov. Colyer is a willingness and an eagerness to work together rather than the 'my way or the highway,' ” Bollier said.
Colyer called on Kansans to embrace what he saw as Kansas’ culture of service.
“Today, I challenge you to embrace the Kansas spirit of service," Colyer said. "I challenge you to give yourself to your fellow man. I challenge you to put your long-term interests ahead of short-term gain. I challenge all of us to come together, to work together, to show that Kansas is the true heart of America.”