Upcoming Kansas governor is a surgeon and a Brownback loyalist
TOPEKA — Jeff Colyer is preparing to become Kansas’ next governor after nearly a decade helping fellow conservative Republicans shape health care policy by drawing on his background as a plastic surgeon who squeezed in medical relief missions to disaster and war zones.
Loyal to GOP Gov. Sam Brownback, Colyer would be elevated when his two-term running mate resigns to become President Donald Trump’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. Trump nominated Brownback for the post.
Brownback wouldn’t say Thursday whether he’ll wait to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate to step down as governor or resign earlier. Colyer kept a low profile, turning down a request for an interview and not attending a Statehouse news conference at which Brownback discussed his nomination and tenure as governor.
Colyer would serve the remainder of Brownback’s term, which ends in January 2019. The 57-year-old Colyer already was seen as a potential Republican candidate for governor next year because Brownback was term-limited. He was often the administration’s spokesman on health issues and served in the Legislature before first running on Brownback’s ticket in 2010.
Colyer may deviate little from Brownback’s policies on fiscal and social issues. In an Associated Press interview in December, Colyer described himself in classic “Star Trek” terms as a first-officer Spock to Brownback as Captain Kirk, saying, “We’re working for the same goals.”
But Brownback told reporters: “He’s his own man, his own person. He’s an accomplished physician, an accomplished public policy person.”
Brownback is known nationally for aggressive personal income tax cuts in 2012 and 2013 designed to stimulate the economy. Kansas has struggled to balance its budget since.
The GOP-controlled Legislature in early June enacted income tax increases over a Brownback veto that would raise $1.2 billion over two years. Their changes will increase income tax rates, end an exemption for more than 330,000 farmers and business owners and largely roll back the past cuts Brownback championed as pro-growth policies.
If Colyer runs as expected for a full, four-year term as governor in 2018, he’s likely face a crowded field. His ties to Brownback would be a liability in a general election campaign and “a mixed bag” even in a GOP primary, said Patrick Miller, an assistant political science professor at the University of Kansas.
“I don’t sense that he has really strong name recognition or a really strong personal brand,” Miller said.
State Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, who is part of a working group Colyer formed on Medicaid issues, said she thinks he will be “a little more open” to working with his political opponents than Brownback.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., an Olathe Republican, said he doesn’t yet have a feel for how Colyer would govern but said the lieutenant governor would be guided by “a different set of life experiences.”
“Ideologically, I think he’s aligned with Gov. Brownback,” Ryckman said.
Colyer would face formidable opposition for the Republican nomination. Secretary of State Kris Kobach is running for governor, and at least five other GOP candidates are running or considering a run. Two Democrats have launched campaigns for governor as well.
While Colyer has been influential on health care policy and is personable, he’s not as dynamic a stump speaker as Kobach and does not have as high a national profile. Kobach is vice chairman of a presidential commission on election fraud.
Yet Colyer’s tenure as lieutenant governor has seen its own waves of attention and controversy. He oversaw an initiative that in 2013 turned over the administration of the state’s Medicaid health coverage for the poor and disabled to three private companies.
He also made three $500,000 loans to Brownback’s and his re-election campaign in 2013 and 2014 that were highly unusual for their size and timing; two were paid back within days. Prosecutors ended a grand jury investigation in 2015 without plans for criminal charges.
Colyer’s friendship with Brownback began more than 20 years ago, when both were White House fellows; they occasionally attended Mass together.
Colyer owns a plastic surgery practice in Overland Park that performs cosmetic procedures as well as reconstructive surgery. He remains on call at multiple Kansas City-area hospitals to help trauma victims.
He also has continued going overseas with the International Medical Corps, a group with whom he’s been affiliated since the mid-1980s. He’s performed trauma and reconstructive surgery and trained local doctors in countries including Afghanistan, South Sudan, Rwanda and Iraq.
Colyer gained a reputation with the group for being adept at handling high-pressure, life-and-death situations.
The father of three daughters, Colyer ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2002. He served in the Kansas House in 2007 and 2008, where he helped draft health care legislation. He won a state Senate seat in 2008.
Colyer was a vocal critic of the 2010 federal health care overhaul championed by former President Barack Obama, a Democrat, and still opposes expanding the state’s Medicaid program as contemplated by that law.