Kan. Governor Draws National Attention
Sunday, January 28, 2007; 2:14 PM
TOPEKA, Kan. -- Most of the Kansans who've made a mark on national politics have been Republicans, like Dwight Eisenhower and Bob Dole. Another, Sen. Sam Brownback, is running for president.
But now a Kansas Democrat, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, is generating some buzz with her 58 percent re-election margin, glowing write-ups in national magazines and political chatter about her place on short lists for Cabinet posts should Democrats recapture the White House next year.
Sebelius, who's made her fortune in Kansas politics by winning over moderate Republicans, has even popped up in speculation about potential vice presidential nominees. And this year, she's chairwoman of the Democratic Governors' Association.
"It's hard to imagine that her name's not going to appear on everybody's list," said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster in Washington. "You've got to say Kathleen Sebelius is in demand as a role model, as a political figure, as a governor."
The 58-year-old governor is a self-described "aging rocker" who squeezed a ride in an Indy race car and a Rolling Stones concert into the same day last year. She runs nearly 15 miles a week and regularly attends college football and basketball games.
Her wit occasionally gets her into trouble, as during a 2002 gubernatorial debate when she said driving roads in neighboring Missouri was "much more terrifying to me than the attacks on the World Trade Center."
Her father, John Gilligan, a Democrat, was governor of Ohio in 1971-75, making them the only father-daughter governors in U.S. history. Her husband, Gary, a federal magistrate, was a son of the late Rep. Keith Sebelius, a western Kansas Republican.
After eight years in the Kansas House and two terms as insurance commissioner, she ran for governor in 2002, winning over moderate Republicans by portraying herself as pro-business and promising to make government more efficient.
She's continued the political mix this year, proposing that legislators draft a plan for eventually bringing universal health care coverage to Kansas while seeking tax cuts for businesses. She's also been a visible supporter of the military, going to Iraq in 2005 to visit National Guard troops.
During her first term, the state weathered its most severe fiscal crisis since the Great Depression and was forced by its highest court to dramatically increase spending on public schools. With the economy improving, both tasks were accomplished without a general tax increase _ though Republicans note Sebelius proposed a swiftly rejected tax package for schools in 2004.
That year, Time named Sebelius one of four "rising stars from the heartland," and a year later it touted her as among the nation's five best governors. Newsweek identified Sebelius as "one to watch" this year.
Much of the attention focuses on her ability to draw moderate Republicans, a necessity for statewide office in Kansas. Only 27 percent of the state's 1.6 million voters are registered as Democrats, compared to 46 percent as Republicans, giving the GOP a 322,000-person advantage. No Democratic presidential candidate has carried the state since 1964.