Pleas from former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and others thrust Laura Kelly into this year’s governor’s race, where opponents in a three-way fight were outgunned by a woman regarded for her competitive spirit, analytical approach and knack for building coalitions of support.
Those who have worked with Kelly throughout her career — from a psychiatric center in New York to a hospital in Denver, and from building a statewide nonprofit in Kansas to representing Topeka for 14 years in the Senate — rave about the governor-elect’s leadership skills.
And as far as Sebelius was concerned, the future of Kansas was on the line during the election.
“There were lots of people who came to her and said: ‘We really need you. This may not be something you contemplated. It may not be the turn you were expecting. It may not be your favorite thing in the world. But there’s a bigger need, a bigger calling. If you do it, we’ll be with you,’ ” Sebelius said.
Kelly, the Democrat who prevailed in November by defeating Republican Kris Kobach and independent Greg Orman, is The Topeka Capital-Journal’s Kansan of the Year, continuing a tradition of honoring incoming governors.
In the weeks following the election, Kelly and her staff have hunkered in drab transition quarters within the Statehouse, assimilating the challenges ahead. Decimated agencies and fear of a Kobach victory were deciding factors in convincing her to seek the office.
“It’s a major responsibility,” Kelly said. “If I had one feeling going into election night, it was I didn’t want to let the people of Kansas down. I didn’t want to lose, because I knew there were so many people out there counting on me.”
To achieve her goals, which include funding public schools and expanding Medicaid, she will need to flex her vast experience as a listener who collects a wide range of ideas, makes decisions based on facts and inspires those who interact with her.
Annie McKay, president and CEO of Kansas Action for Children, said she appreciates that Kelly is never interested in rubber-stamping anything.
The two have known each other for about a decade, first working together when Kelly was on a panel reviewing tobacco-settlement money earmarked for children’s programs and McKay was a project manager at the University of Kansas.
“There is nobody I will prepare as hard for if I’ve got a meeting, because I know she knows what she’s talking about,” McKay said. “She’s not somebody that you’re going to get something past. Her level of scrutiny, her attention to detail, her knowledge of issues is at a level that for me is refreshing.”
Manhattan city manager Ron Fehr said he learned from Kelly as she strengthened the Kansas Recreation and Park Association into a statewide network. He was on the nonprofit’s board from 1988 to 1992 while she was executive director.
By gathering input from people as she garnered support for projects, he said, Kelly showed him that a leader can’t do it alone.
“She was always very positive, very willing to reach out to different folks and learn their opinion, and she encouraged others to do this same,” Fehr said.
Before coming to Kansas in the mid-1980s, Kelly honed her leadership style as a recreational therapist working with children.
At National Jewish Health in Denver, she impressed her boss, Craig Melin, with her creativity and ability to find resources as she crafted programming for kids with asthma.
Even then, Melin said, Kelly wanted to hear from others before reaching a logical conclusion. However, Melin, who went on to serve as president for 26 years at a hospital in Northampton, Mass., passed her over for a promotion because he found her to be insensitive to others.
“She heard what other people were saying, but she didn’t help them to know they were being heard,” he said. “And the result was that people who were in other departments — not the one she was heading, because her employees were very supportive of her — were almost jealous of her. She had a true instinct for leading and getting her way, and most people didn’t understand how she did that so effectively.”
Clearly, Melin said, “she’s gotten way past that.”
Kelly said she clearly remembers the admonition, and she has thanked Melin for telling her what she needed to work on if she wanted to be a good leader.
“I really did change my management style and my perception of my role as a leader,” Kelly said.
Melin also remembers her as a skilled softball player — invoking a recurring sports theme that illustrates her competitive nature.
Kelly’s father was a rabid New York Yankees fan, and as a little girl she was upset to learn she could never replace Mickey Mantle in centerfield because of her gender. At Jane Addams Junior High in Royal Oak, Mich., she set a school record for longest softball throw.
“When I was growing up, I was out on the streets or down in the A&P parking lot playing stickball with the boys,” Kelly said. “I always loved sports.”
When she was working at Rockland Children’s Psychiatric Center in Orangeburg, N.Y., she went head-to-head with male administrators on the tennis courts. One guy in particular, she said, had a wingspan like you wouldn’t believe. He would rush the net and smash the ball at her. She had to get better.
Bert Rappaport, who worked for Kelly at Rockland, said even in idle time, her drive to improve could threaten the beverages of those around her.
“I remember being at a party with Laura where, while she was talking to people, she was going through the motions of a forehand and a backhand,” Rappaport said. “She was intense in that way. Other people are holding a beer or something.”
For two summers in a row, Kelly said, she went to a tennis camp at Amherst College, where she worked on her lob. Then, when an opponent charged the net, she would lob the ball over his head and make him run for it.
“I did that over and over and wore him down,” Kelly said. “Then they get frustrated and smash it into the net. So yeah, I try to build on the skills I don’t have and figure out ways.”
Sebelius, who still plays golf with Kelly, said those competitive juices show up in a campaign setting, but in a thoughtful, educated style, where Kelly wants to match opponents fact for fact.
The two are close friends and neighbors in Topeka’s Potwin neighborhood. Sebelius said she tried to convince Kelly to take her seat in the Kansas House when Sebelius ran for insurance commissioner, the position that became her springboard to the governor’s office. In the state Senate, Kelly was an ally to Sebelius as the governor wrangled with lawmakers over school finance litigation.
Sebelius said the two laughed during this year’s campaign about the differences in style between Kelly and Kobach. Kelly isn’t a “blowhard” who repeats slang and phrases, and she knows the budget and legislative process, Sebelius said.
“I think those kinds of skills are very appealing to Kansas voters in an era where there’s a lot of rhetoric, a lot of nastiness, a lot of partisan battling,” Sebelius said. “That’s really the opposite of Laura’s style. She has firm opinions, she knows what she believes, she wants to achieve goals, but she doesn’t call names, she doesn’t punish people, she doesn’t mock folks. She is really a collaborative, collegial kind of leader.”
A few years ago, McKay was moderating a luncheon, noticed Kelly and invited her to make a few remarks, a common gesture for attending legislators. The senator could have talked about anything. Kelly talked about McKay.
Even thinking about it now, Kelly’s kind words give McKay goosebumps. The validation of her leadership was an honor, McKay said, because she has such tremendous respect for the way Kelly moves through the world.
Kelly, McKay said, represents the best of Kansas.
“There is a fearlessness in her leadership that is something we should all aspire to, but when you are an other — whether that’s a woman, a person of color, a queer person — and you know that is your leader of your state, you feel empowered in a way that you might not have before,” she said. “That’s about leadership style. She sees people, and acknowledges them.”