To the stars through difficulties is the Kansas state motto. One star has been steadily rising in Kansas, leading her party and state through difficulties often brought on by social conservative ideologues and an agenda that distracts many politicians from doing what they were elected to do, govern. Governor Kathleen Sebelius, winning her second term in a cake-walk, is a bona fide national leader with accomplishments forged of collaboration and pragmatism. She did that without dodging or compromising her beliefs on difficult social issues in red state Kansas. As an unapologetic pro-choice Catholic, she places social issues in the larger context of issues that genuinely matter to the vast majority of people, like education, the economy and health care. But she does not ignore them.
Sebelius does not define herself by focusing on social issues. She starts from a place of inclusion and collaboration, understanding that America is a pluralistic democracy that must have space within the law for people to make private decisions based on individual beliefs and values. She makes government work not by forcing her beliefs on others, but by respectfully disagreeing where she must, and reminding people she was elected to serve all Kansans.
Governor Kathleen Sebelius did not just win a second term in red state, socially conservative Kansas, she won in a landslide of her own creation, and carried with her Attorney-General elect Paul Morrison defeating meddlesome Phill Kline, and Congresswoman-elect Nancy Boyda (D-02) defeating do-nothing Jim Ryun. Thomas Frank, in What's the Matter With Kansas, called Sebelius' first win, "a fluke." Those who have been watching her since her early days in the legislature never doubted her.
Her efforts to make new Democrats of brutalized moderate Republicans were aided by Congressmen Dennis Moore (D-03) who just won a fourth term in a seat previously held by the GOP for 38 years. State Party Chairman Larry Gates has long held this vision for Kansas Democrats even though it took him a while to see it realized, and led by Governor Sebelius, Kansas shows candidates can win and be true to their beliefs. In her case, pragmatic, progressive, and pro-choice.
Her second term might have been a footnote in a national election with landslides of Biblical proportion, but what she has done for the Democratic Party in Kansas cannot be ignored nationally. In a year when everyone is a genius, Sebelius reaches star status.
Kansas has been embarrassed by a passing era ushered in by Operation Rescue's "Siege of Wichita" in 1991 and during which the Rev. Fred Phelps has been channeling Carrie Nation, replacing Nation's axe-wielding bar room tirades against liquor with Phelps' fag-bashing pickets protesting gay rights. Kansas social conservatives evolve from Phelps' hatred one step up the food chain at a time. The Kansas Bored of Education briefly gave President Bush reason to think teaching Intelligent Design in place of science was important for 21st Century learning. Phill Kline led a crusade against medical privacy and teenagers making out. Jim Ryun has done nothing in Congress except be a warm body for social conservative votes. The man in whom the party of Landon, Eisenhower, Capper, Pearson, Dole and Kassebaum trusted with that proud political heritage, Senator Sam Brownback, has Presidential ambition. But unlike Bob Dole who led the Kansas GOP and ran for Vice-President and President as a moderate, Brownback remade the party in his own image. The result could not be more clear: Brownback will need to run for higher office because Gov. Kathleen Sebelius has ensured he could not win reelection in his Kansas home.
Contributions to the national political landscape of that significance cannot be ignored.
Governor Sebelius will benefit from the national landslide as some pundits now predict that Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton will decide to stay in the Senate; a legislative body perfect for her intelligence, tough-minded political style and where she could be Majority Leader and have impact on the nation for as long as she served.
Governors are where the people have been finding their Presidents, and Sebelius' gubernatorial roots go back one generation to her father, Governor John J. Gilligan of now Democratic Ohio.
Governor Sebelius has been a model of pragmatic, intelligent, thoughtful, coalition-building, solution-oriented, public service. She is more pragmatist than charismatic, but her dedication manifests in a centeredness that reminds people of what leadership is at a moment when the wild passions of social conservative ideologues and single issue voters have taken this nation off course. She is a model for mealy-mouth Democrats who cannot figure out how to say what they believe about social issues like abortion, while she works for smart public health policies that increase the potential for people to make smart choices about reproductive health, thus reducing unintended pregnancies and abortions. She says:
As a Catholic, I believe that abortion is wrong. But Governors take an oath to uphold the Constitution – and the Supreme Court has spoken. The only thing we can do, under the law, to reduce the number of abortions is to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and offer alternatives to pregnant women. Doing that has reduced the number of abortions in this state 11 percent during my term. I will work hard to see that trend continued.
That being said, politicians have spent a lot of time and energy debating this topic and it is time we move on to the issues that face every Kansan, every day such as ensuring better schools, safer streets, and a growing economy.
She has proven that social conservatives may talk about reducing abortion, but Gov. Sebelius has done it and remained solidly pro-choice. Moreover, in a state where social issues have distracted many, she has remained focused, unapologetic about her views, and consistently successful at reminding Kansans that they elected her to run the state well, not dictate morals.
Social issues have been the most divisive and have derailed government from functioning by focusing people on fear rather than healing, hate rather than hope. Governor Sebelius recognizes that the government that governs best, leads by example and is responsible and accountable. She is leading a quiet revolution to return accountability to government that may well usher in an era that will focus less on what divides us, and more on what unites us as Americans.