Less than a month after replacing Sam Brownback, Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer has already visited the White House and ramped up his campaign for a full term. The Republican plastic surgeon sat down with Zach C. Cohen between National Governors Association meetings in Washington on Monday to talk about his nascent administration, his primary rival Kris Kobach, and the many teens—and one dog—who are also running to unseat him.
You recently became the longest-serving lieutenant governor in Kansas history. It didn’t seem like you were in much of a rush for the promotion.
Oh, no, we were great. So the transition happened—it’ll be four weeks later this week—so it’s been a busy time: new people, new personnel, some new policy. There some things I really wanted to set forth straight away—sexual-harassment prevention, working on some transparency issues. We’re one of the very few states that has a chief operating officer and the new chief budget officer, so we’re changing how we’re managing these programs so that they can be more responsive. Now that’s not very sexy right now, but I think it pays a lot of dividends for us in the long run.
Where can we expect to see some of the biggest differences and similarities between your administration and that of Sam Brownback?
I’m just going to be who I am. And it’s not really a matter of comparison, but we are in a new day in Kansas. And the first thing that the staff is getting used to is surgeon hours rather than politician hours. We’re working very closely with the legislature. And the very first day after we were in, I met with the Republican leadership and the Democratic leadership. Some of them had not been in the office for a long, long time.
Were those legislative leaders asking for any moderation on previous policies, especially when it comes to fiscal policy?
Everybody has said we want to work together on education [following a state Supreme Court ruling that funding was inadequate]. We’re going to have to. It is a difficult thing. I have outlined a framework on how to deal with this. It’s not an easy task; it hasn’t been over the last 50 years. I want us to get to a place where we can get rid of this litigation and move on.
Do the tax cuts from the previous administration affect your ability to fund education?
There’s a lot of things that affect our ability on how much money we have. But the legislature put in a new tax policy a year ago over the veto of the governor. What has happened has happened. We’re now in an entirely different situation than we were a year ago—not only fiscally, but also the economy is looking different. I’m focusing on where we are going. I’m not interested in relitigating the past.
You just came from a meeting at the White House with a number of other governors. What was your message to President Trump, and what was his message to you?
The message to us—and also to them—was that governors want to work with the White House. It was great to be visiting with several Cabinet officers, and they have been very open in working with us. That is a breath of fresh air for us. A lot of D.C. solutions, they may not work in Kansas or Massachusetts but they may work someplace else.
When you were lieutenant governor, KanCare was big part of your portfolio. Can talk about a little bit about your message to the White House on work requirements?
We were asking for some opportunities to work for a population of roughly 12-15,000 able-bodied adults in a way that makes sense. So for example, if you have a bunch of kids under 6, no, that’s not going to apply to you. Or you are a caregiver for somebody with severe disabilities, that wouldn’t. So having some very common-sense solutions for this is something that we would like.
You’re running for the Republican nomination for a full term against Secretary of State Kris Kobach. What do you bring to the job that he does not?
I bring who I am, and my experience first as a fifth-generation Kansan. My approach is—as a doctor, as a surgeon—that we work with people. We’re going to solve problems, and you’re going to find that I’m absolutely tenacious about doing that. Style may be different. And my style is I work with people. Everything is not a confrontation. The strongest voice in the room is not necessarily the loudest voice.
For starters, the fact that one high schooler actually figured this out [that there was no age requirement to running] after 150 years—I think we gotta give the kid some credit there. Young people are very interested in service, and they’re doing it right now. It’s part of the fabric of who they are, and that’s the fabric of who Kansans are.