Documentary places risky, complex political career of Kathleen Sebelius in focus

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TOPEKA — State Rep. Kathleen Sebelius went against advice of friends by declaring her candidacy in 1994 for Kansas insurance commissioner, a statewide political office controlled exclusively by Republicans for a century.

The electoral challenge for the relatively unknown 46-year-old Democrat went beyond party label to the core of her identity as a woman.

“Women candidates were certainly running for statewide office in various places, but it was a tricky balance,” she said. “You couldn’t be too tough or people hated you. You couldn’t be too weak or people thought you couldn’t do the job. You were a witch or a bitch. It was a very complicated role to play.”

She committed to a campaign-closing ad that brushed against the line in her race against Republican insurance commissioner Ron Todd, who had the advantage of incumbency but the misfortune of following in the footsteps of Fletcher Bell. Bell had the job from 1971 to 1991, but created an opening for a reform-minded Democrat when news spread in 1993 that he had taken $94,000 in compensation for allegedly injuring his back while lifting a briefcase.

“I remember the advertising guy said, ‘You need a killer ad, but you can’t be seen as a killer,’ ” she said.

The result was a devastating commercial that blended lyrics of “Your Cheatin’ Heart” with a collection of newspaper headlines denouncing GOP corruption attributable to Bell and extended to Todd. Sebelius didn’t say a word in the ad, allowing images and text to do her talking. On election night, she prevailed with 58% of the vote to Todd’s 41%.

“Probably the most interesting, challenging and unlikely race I ran was for insurance commissioner,” Sebelius said. “The most terrifying thing was that I won and had to figure out what to do.”

Sebelius, who went on to be elected governor and serve in the Cabinet of President Barack Obama, is the subject of a new documentary, “Red State/Blue Governor: Kansas’ Kathleen Sebelius.” It was written and produced by Washburn University political science professor Bob Beatty and edited by Lyall Ford of public television’s KTWU. It aired Sunday on KTWU, with Sebelius offering commentary in the studio, and is scheduled to be shown again Sept. 4 by KTWU.

Sebelius, 73, grew up in an all-girl Catholic school that taught her women could handle anything. She went on to be part of the only father-daughter combination of state governors. Her dad, John Gilligan, was Ohio’s Democratic governor from 1971 to 1975 after serving one term in the U.S. House.

“My father went into politics when I was 5 years old,” Sebelius said. “I did think that’s what families did in the fall — go door to door and put up yard signs. I didn’t know it was a volunteer activity. In our family, it was mandatory service.”

Sebelius was executive director of the Kansas Trial Lawyers Association when a friend suggested she run for the Kansas Legislature. She served in the Kansas House from 1986 to 1994. She decided to run for insurance commissioner despite warnings it was “totally crazy” to push against the GOP tide. She vowed to reject insurance industry campaign contributions and promised to clean up the corruption. After upsetting Todd, she was re-elected to a second term as insurance commissioner.

She launched a campaign for governor in 2002 in anticipation that division within the Kansas Republican Party would lead to nomination of the most conservative candidate in the field. The GOP selected Tim Shallenburger, a former Kansas House speaker who had tangled with Republican moderate Gov. Bill Graves. In Sebelius’ words, Shallenburger had flexed his power in ways that politically tortured Graves.

Shallenburger met several times with Graves in an attempt to extract an endorsement from the outgoing governor, but Graves held out. His hesitancy signaled to Republican and independent voters that consideration ought to be given to Sebelius, who needed an across-the-board coalition to win.

“That sent a very powerful message,” Sebelius said.

Graves eventually endorsed Shallenburger, but the damage had been done. Sebelius won 52% to 45%. Four years later in her re-election campaign for governor, she widened her margin of victory by defeating state Sen. Jim Barnett 57% to 40%. In both campaigns, Sebelius’ lieutenant governor running mate was a former Republican.

“Being governor, I believe, is the best job in America, because you can do things,” Sebelius said.

Sebelius resigned in 2009 to accept nomination by Obama as secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on a vote of 65-31.

Her journey was made easier by lack of serious opposition by Republicans Bob Dole, Pat Roberts and Sam Brownback. Their approach irritated anti-abortion activists who objected to Sebelius, but their strategy could be interpreted as a way of removing Sebelius from ranks of potential U.S. Senate candidates.

Sebelius was responsible for rollout of the Affordable Care Act, a complex nationwide effort plagued by information technology challenges. Sebelius resigned from the Cabinet in 2014.

She said success in politics had much to do with timing, and she wasn’t convinced it would be possible for her to win in the current electoral climate.

“I find it so toxic and so difficult,” she said. “When I was running in Kansas, Kansas really had two Republican parties. A much more conservative antigovernment party and a more moderate branch of the party. The two branches fought with one another more than they fought with Democrats.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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