This column was published Tuesday, October 23, 2018 in The Manhattan Mercury.
I’ve never been a very good golfer. Goes to time management and priorities, but my game was never sharper than in the late summer and early fall of 1998.
Twenty years ago, I had taken a formal leave of absence from my job as political/policy message-meister for Gov. Bill Graves. He’d enjoyed a very successful first term and it was time to gear up for the re-elect. I moved from the governor’s staff to the campaign.
The reason I had time for all the golf was re-election in the fall was all but assured. The heavy lifting that year was vanquishing a threat from the right in the Kansas GOP primary election.
As the early June candidate filing deadline approached, only one Democrat had filed for governor. Fred Phelps, the homophobic, hate-mongering Topeka Baptist preacher. Organized Democrats needed a credible candidate, and were buttonholing warm bodies in the hopes of finding one willing to fall on their sword, to rescue the party from the damage Phelps would doubtless wreak as their standard-bearer.
Their white knight came in the form of then-House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer of Wichita. In running for governor in what everyone knew would be a lost cause, Sawyer was not only sacrificing his leadership position, but his seat in the Kansas House.
Sawyer also did us a huge favor. His decision put an end to our internal strategy sessions about how to run a campaign against a blatant purveyor of vitriol and hate.
A little history helps here. Kansans have not been shy about electing Democratic governors. In my lifetime, eleven people have been elected Kansas governor. Five of them Democrats. I’m no math whiz, but I think that’s almost half. In the mid-to-late ‘90s, however, Republicans were firmly in charge in Kansas. It was a good time to be governor.
A thunderous economy jet fueled by the tech boom meant massive revenue surpluses, an embarrassment of riches. In his first term, Graves and the state legislature cut car taxes in half, lowered property taxes two or three times and reduced income tax rates. Before it was over, nearly $3 billion in tax relief was returned to Kansans. We couldn’t shovel the money back to taxpayers fast enough.
In addition, Graves was and remains an enormously likeable guy. Naturally humble, he got into politics when he was casting about for a life purpose after his father sold the family trucking business, setting him up for life. A mentor whispered in his ear that to those whom much is given, much is expected. Friends involved in his first campaign, for Secretary of State in 1986, recalled having to peel him off the wall and push him toward the voters.
He and his wife became parents during their first year as governor, so my job was easy. Direct the photog to point the camera at the family and get out of the way. There was simply no reason not to vote for the man.
The national Democratic party and their like-minded deep-pocketed sugar daddies saw all this and invested elsewhere. Sawyer’s was a shoestring and shoe leather campaign. His slogan was “Tom Sawyer. For Kansas. For Governor.” As we honed our short game that Kansas autumn, those of us on his opponent’s campaign staff added some cynical value: “Tom Sawyer. For Kansas. For Governor. Forget it.”
I don’t know if Graves privately encouraged Sawyer to run, but it wouldn’t surprise me. They were friends and as Minority Leader of the Kansas House, Sawyer could deliver the votes of his caucus to join with moderate Republicans, forming an effective governing coalition. Many was the time I’d be walking in to the governor’s office and encounter Sawyer walking out.
In November, no surprises. Graves was re-elected with 73 percent of the vote, the highest percentage of any candidate for Kansas governor since the dawn of man. After the campaign, the golf clubs went back in the garage and I went back to my old job on the governor’s staff, spinning second term tax relief and highway plans.
Tom Sawyer went back home to Wichita, politically shellacked and out of office. He won back his old House seat in 2002 and was re-elected three times. After a stint on the Kansas Parole Board, Sawyer ran again for the House in 2012 where today he continues to serve with distinction. He represents the 95th Kansas House district, working class neighborhoods south and west of downtown Wichita, a district that would not grace the Chamber of Commerce’s tri-fold glossy brochure.
With the gift of time and distance, life experiences like these tend to take on additional qualities of depth and fullness. You approach the memories from a different plane. Tom Sawyer’s decision was borne of decency, self-sacrifice and doing what he knew in his heart and gut was right.
I reflect on today’s politics and wonder whether anyone could ever again be as selfless as Tom Sawyer two decades ago. Twenty years after the fact, I feel honored to have played a small role in his 1998 narrative. In every possible way, it is a story indicative of the Kansas character and deserves to be remembered and re-told.