New Democratic Kansas governor promises bipartisan approach

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) Kansas’ new Democratic governor called Monday for the state to “forge a new chapter” of bipartisanship, arguing as she took office that the Statehouse had lost the “spirit of neighbor-helping-neighbor” under her Republican predecessors.

Gov. Laura Kelly delivers her inauguration speech on January 14, 2019 (WIBW)

Laura Kelly was sworn in as the state’s 48th governor on the Capitol steps, in front of huge banners declaring “Equality,” ″Education” and “Opportunity.” Her supporters celebrated a sharp break with her conservative GOP predecessors, even as she attempted to summon an ethos of cooperation across political, ethnic and religious lines.

“Somewhere along the way, that spirit of neighbor-helping-neighbor that runs so strong in our communities failed to extend into this building,” Kelly said in her speech to a crowd of a few thousand people. “Public service gave way to partisanship. And the voices of Kansas families were not heard. Kansas lost its sense of self, its sense of community.”

The 68-year-old governor was formerly a veteran state senator who pitched herself to voters as a no-nonsense problem-solver who could work with Republicans, who control the Legislature.

Top Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature brushed off Kelly’s critique of state government under her Republican predecessors and focused on her promise to work with the GOP.

“What I’m excited about is that she ended with that she wants to compromise and work out things over shaking hands,” said Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, a conservative Wichita Republican. “And so, I’m looking forward to that, and I’ll hold her to it.”

Kelly’s inaugural address at times seemed an implicit rebuke of President Donald Trump’s sometimes divisive rhetoric on issues such as immigration. Trump carried the state in 2016 by nearly 21 percentage points, but Democrats made political gains in the state’s Kansas City area suburbs in last year’s midterms because Trump was unpopular there.

Inaugural events began Monday with an interfaith prayer service at the Statehouse that included a liberal rabbi, a Muslim imam and a representative of a Hindu temple. The event was relocated from the national historic site commemorating the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 declaring segregated schools unconstitutional because the building has been closed by the partial federal government shutdown.

The inauguration itself contained strong echoes of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. The big banners behind Kelly were borrowed from a 50th anniversary celebration of the Brown decision, and a choir from Wichita sang an anthem of the movement, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

“The ideals that bind us are being strained,” Kelly said. “And sometimes it can feel like the forces of division are succeeding.”

But Kelly and her fellow Democratic legislators also felt pushed aside during the past eight years under Republican Govs. Sam Brownback and Jeff Colyer. Brownback sought to make Kansas a laboratory for conservative fiscal policies, enacted through the GOP’s supermajorities in the Legislature.

“We must forge a new chapter in our story, starting today,” the new governor said.

Kelly’s victory drew national attention because Kansas is a Republican-leaning state and her opponent, departing Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, touted his history of advising Trump. Kobach won a narrow victory over Colyer in the GOP primary after Trump endorsed Kobach.

“We must work together in the spirit of putting the collective good ahead of any individual ambition or agenda,” Kelly said. “We must seek to lift up ALL Kansans regardless of whether they look like us, think like us, worship like us, love like us or vote like us.”

But Kelly made the governor’s race more about whether Kobach’s fiscal policies would align with those of Brownback, who pushed legislators to slash state income taxes as an economic stimulus. Most voters deemed Brownback’s experiment a failure because of the budget woes that followed, and legislators reversed most of the cuts in 2017.

The new governor has little choice but to work with Republicans, given their large majorities in the Legislature, which opened its annual session Monday afternoon. Even as voters were electing Kelly, in more local Statehouse races, GOP conservatives gained seats.

Top Republicans have said they will hold Kelly to a campaign promise not to increase taxes to pay for additional state spending. They will learn more about Kelly’s budget proposals later in the week, after she gives the annual State of the State address Wednesday evening.

“We’re going to try to find places where we can work together,” said Kansas House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, another conservative Wichita Republican.