TOPEKA — Democrats in the Kansas House installed Rep. Tom Sawyer as their leader Monday, signaling displeasure with Rep. Jim Ward's candidacy for governor and problems with communication within the minority party.
Sawyer reclaims the position he held during his first stint in office, which began 32 years ago, winning support over his fellow lawmaker from Wichita in a 24-16 vote.
Earlier this year, Ward flirted with the idea of running for governor before dropping out of the race in time to seek re-election to the seat he has held for 16 years. He spoke harshly of eventual winner Laura Kelly, a senator from Topeka, while the Legislature was grappling with passage of a new school finance plan.
"There were a number of people who felt like he kind of abandoned this caucus when he ran for governor," Sawyer said.
Ward highlighted the influence of the Democratic caucus during his reign, including the repeal in 2017 of former Gov. Sam Brownback's supply-side tax policy, which required an override of the governor's veto. Democrats also improved oversight of the state child care system and passed legislation to exempt state hospitals from concealed carry, Ward said.
“It has been my honor and privilege to serve you for the past two years — two years where we were incredibly successful," Ward said. "This caucus drove the initiative to repeal the Brownback tax experiment. We did it with the House Democrat caucus fingerprints.”
He also touted his relationship with the governor-elect. Kelly trusted him enough, Ward said, to include him on her team to prepare for debates.
But Democrats expressed concern about whether Ward effectively included them in decision making amid fast-paced action on the House floor, with leaders staking out a gameplan in isolation at the front of the room.
"A lot of people felt like we needed better communication, that they weren't as informed as they should be — on the floor in particular, when things happen quickly," Sawyer said. "A lot of people in the back said, 'Hey, we didn't know what you guys in the front were doing.' "
Rep. Annie Kuether, of Topeka, spoke in favor of Sawyer before the vote. She said she appreciated his willingness to hear from more representatives.
“It means a great deal to me to hear his message that he wants us all to work together and have a seat at the table," Kuether said.
Democrats also selected three women for leadership positions, with Rep. Valdenia Winn, of Kansas City, becoming assistant minority leader, Rep. Eileen Horn, of Lawrence, in charge of policy, and Rep. Barbara Ballard, of Lawrence, named caucus chairwoman.
They picked Rep. Jim Gartner, of Topeka, as their whip and Rep. Brett Parker, of Overland Park, as agenda chairman.
Former legislator Josh Svaty, who also was a candidate for the party's nomination for governor, attended the leadership election. He said he loves the high drama of such proceedings, where stakes are especially high for newcomers who may not know the candidates.
He said he admired Sawyer's "incredible pragmatism."
“Republicans are not going to automatically do what the Democratic governor wants, and so it’s a mix of finding compromise and working with the (House) speaker and the Senate president as a Democratic governor, and I think Gov.-elect Kelly is up for that," Svaty said. "She has been on the other side and knows how crucial it is.
"But you also have to have party leadership in the House and Senate that knows how those deals can be found. How do you get Medicaid expansion across the finish line? And what does that look like? That entails an incredibly skilled deal-maker, and Tom Sawyer can certainly do that.”
Svaty said he also thinks Ward is a good leader and that there were no hard feelings between the two over Ward's interest in the governor's race.
"The Democratic party is a small group of people," Svaty said. "It’s pretty hard to have any long-standing lingering animosity."
Rep. Gail Finney, of Wichita, wasn't able to attend the election after suffering a heart attack over the weekend. Ward said she was expected to recover and return for the start of the session next month.