By John Celock
Kansas has been home to one of the country’s most interesting state political scenes in 2014. From competitive races for governor and U.S. Senate, to battles in state legislative races and for the state Supreme Court, there has been no shortage of races and people to watch.
To mark the end of the year, The Celock Report presents a list of the 14 most interesting people in Kansas politics in 2014. This list does not include statewide elected officials – or their 2014 opponents – on the basis that those officials and candidates can be deemed interesting without doing much at all. In some cases groups of people or organizations were cited. In two cases two people were placed together on the list and counted as one. In both cases, the reasons for each making the list were similar to the other.
The names on this list are not placed in a particular order. A list like this is also meant to stimulate discussion over the past year. Please feel free to share your thoughts on who you think are the most interesting people in Kansas politics in 2014, either in the Facebook comments section or by email.
House Speaker Ray Merrick (R-Stilwell)
Tony Danza and Judith Light better not step foot in the Kansas House chamber because House Speaker Ray Merrick has proven that he’s the boss. The speaker’s committee assignments for the next two years have shown that he’s in clear command of the House. Merrick has put allies in positions of power and shaped committees that match his vision. While some have argued that he has taken opposition voices off of key committees – such as education – at the end of the day he has shown a willingness to take charge, similar to many of his colleagues in other states.
Johnson County Parents
Parents in Johnson County are prepared to speak out and make sure they are heard on the issue of education and school funding. They have been outspoken in their districts, in Topeka and on social media pressing their case. They have been quick to defend their turf and to challenge Brownback and conservative Republicans on the school-funding bill this year and on proposed changes to the school funding formula. This includes Heather Ousley’s walk from Kansas City to Topeka, Devin Wilson’s Twitter advocacy and the work of Game On for Kansas Schools. They have even elected Ousley’s husband, Jarrod, to the state House. Johnson County parents have become a vocal political lobby and one that won’t be silenced soon.
State Rep. Ron Ryckman Jr. (R-Olathe)
Hopefully Ron Ryckman Jr. has been wearing his seat belt because the only word that can describe his two years in the state House is meteoric. At the beginning of 2014 Ryckman was elected House majority whip and appointed Social Services Budget Committee chairman. At the end of the year, he had been reelected majority whip and tapped as the next chairman of the Appropriations Committee. With budget cuts around the corner and debates over school funding, Ryckman has very quickly gone from freshman to power player.
State Reps. Brandon Whipple (D-Wichita) and Ed Trimmer (D-Winfield)
Some Democrats have argued that if the party wants to be viable again statewide it needs to broaden its base outside of northeast Kansas. Brandon Whipple and Ed Trimmer, both new members of the House Democratic leadership, represent new Democratic leaders outside of the northeast. Whipple, a Wichita resident, and Trimmer, a Winfield resident, bring a perspective to a caucus leadership that is dominated by Kansas City and Lawrence residents. The Senate Democratic caucus leadership is dominated by the northeast with one member, Sen. Tom Hawk, from Manhattan. Trimmer, an educator, has been known for his work on education issues, while Whipple, a young professor, has been active on labor issues. As Democrats move to rebuild after this year’s election, they can add to the party’s statewide perspective.
State Rep. Melissa Rooker (R-Fairway)
A moderate Republican from Johnson County, Melissa Rooker has been a passionate defender of the county’s schools and has opposed changes to the state’s school funding formula in her first term. A former PTA leader, she used her perch on the House Education Committee this year to question proposed changes to education in opposition to conservative Republicans. Not pursuing a go along to get along mentality, you could almost picture Rooker, a former director of development at Clint Eastwood’s Malpaso Productions, telling caucus leaders “go ahead make my day” with her decision to not waiver from her beliefs. Off the education committee in the recent reshuffle, Rooker has been public with her opposition to the move and has shown that she’ll continue to pursue her beliefs going into 2015.
Kansans for Justice
A group founded by the family and friends of the victims of the Carr Brothers massacre, they were focused on one thing and one thing only, defeating state Supreme Court Justices Lee Johnson and Eric Rosen in the retention election. The campaign started late, after Johnson and Rosen voted to take the Carr Brothers off death row this summer, a decision that shocked many in the Wichita area. While they were unsuccessful, they held Johnson and Rosen to just under 53 percent of the statewide vote, a close margin in a race that received little attention until they started their campaign late in the game. At the same time both Johnson and Rosen lost Sedgwick County, where the 2000 massacre shocked the population. The group’s efforts received backing from KQAM radio show host Joseph Ashby in Wichita, who used his morning show to promote the movement to defeat Johnson and Rosen.
Kansas Democratic Party Chairwoman Joan Wagnon
With all the debate over whether or not Democrat Paul Davis could have won the governorship, one fact remains for Democrats; they are debating a narrow loss not a landslide defeat. When Joan Wagnon became state Democratic chairwoman four years ago, the KDP was reeling from being knocked out of statewide office. Under her leadership the party has become a vocal opposition and positioned itself to give Davis a shot at defeating Gov. Sam Brownback. Through it all, Wagnon, a former state revenue secretary and Topeka mayor, withstood questions from the party’s progressive wing over whether Democrats should be more vocal in their opposition and whether she was the right leader. While the party’s soul searching regarding the strategy over the last four years remains, it will be after Wagnon may not have lead them out of the woods but very close to it.
State Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady (R-Palco) and Kansas GOP political director Heath Kohl
If MTV ever brings back “Road Rules” these two Republicans might as well be cast. Both seemingly lived on the road all year helping candidates across the state. Travis Couture-Lovelady, a first term state legislator and campaign manager for U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, traveled the state not only in tbe Big First but also in helping field operations for the statewide ticket. Sightings of him in communities from Dodge City to Pittsburg were not uncommon, assembling 4 by 8s and boosting the GOP ticket. Kohl, the Kansas GOP political director, traveled to all 125 state House districts and tens of thousands of miles across the state this year, working with local party organizations and boosting the field staff for the statewide ticket. Their hard work paid off in more ways than one. Kohl has been credited with helping the GOP achieve their sweep in what had been touted as a tough year for Kansas Republicans. Couture-Lovelady, the new House GOP caucus chairman, is being watched as a young Republican on the rise.
State Rep. Barbara Bollier (R-Mission Hills)
Barbara Bollier has shown that she’s willing to cut her own figure in the House Republican Caucus, even when it diverges from many in the party. The Mission Hills Republican has shown that she’ll stick to her beliefs, including joining a new national coalition for increased gun violence prevention. A retired physician she’s pushing to have gun violence classified as a public health crisis and has helped led the charge against anti-abortion bills. All the while she’s withstood the opposition of conservatives and primary challenges. Heading into her third full term, Bollier is showing no signs of changing who she is.
State Sen. Laura Kelly (D-Topeka)
With roots in the western Queens, N.Y. neighborhood of Woodside, Laura Kelly has brought the neighborhood’s no nonsense attitude to the Kansas Senate. The ranking Democrat on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, she has been outspoken on budget issues but this year has also taken an active role in pushing candidates on both sides of the aisle. She offered to campaign for Rep.-elect Fred Patton’s (R-Topeka) GOP primary campaign against Rep. Josh Powell, while also donating to Democrat Chris Huntsman, who was running in the same district. Kelly was fairly direct with her support of Patton, noting that she wanted to get a moderate elected in that House district – which is located in her Senate district – instead of the conservative Powell.
State Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina)
J.R. Claeys was hit with everything but the kitchen sink in his reelection campaign this year and came out with a 22-point victory. Attacked for questions over his residency, Claeys stuck to playing up his roots in Salina and work in his first term, along with raising questions about his opponent. In Topeka Claeys had gained noticed for his work on tax issues, including restoring the disability tax credit and lowering the boat tax. In the committee reshuffle for 2015, Claeys was tapped as the new chairman of the House Transportation and Public Safety Budget Committee, placing him in the center of debates over funding for the nation’s third largest state highway system, along with police, emergency management, military and prison issues.
Independent Expenditure Organizations
With Kansas leading the nation in state level independent expenditures in 2014, these groups will continue to influence Sunflower State politics. With groups popping up on both sides of the aisle and bridging the moderate/conservative divide in the GOP, all sides can see support or opposition going forward. With the 2016 elections likely to feature a moderate GOP push to win back the state Senate, these groups will only continue to have an impact.
Brownback/Colyer campaign manager Mark Dugan
Rarely around the country does the lieutenant governor’s chief of staff end up running the governor’s reelection campaign, but Mark Dugan did it in Kansas. Stepping in to run one of the most competitive gubernatorial races in the country, Dugan pressed forward with a statewide field campaign and the television ad wars. Since the election, Dugan has fought back on those who say that Brownback’s victory was a result of investment for Sen. Pat Roberts’ campaign, instead touting the governor’s campaign and that the state was backing Brownback’s record.
Kansas National Education Association
The state’s teachers union has become the most vocal lobbying group in Topeka this session. Pushing back against the school finance bill, including changes to the due process rules for teachers, the KNEA was vocal in flooding the state Capitol. Packing the gallery for late night votes and saying that the new due process rules were being snuck through the Legislature, the KNEA has shown they will not sit quietly. With the school finance formula coming up in 2015, the KNEA will continue to remain vocal.