Few original Brownback cabinet secretaries remain
Topeka Dennis Taylor throws on a headset and begins the call.
The voice on the other end of the phone is having trouble — the individual's landlord wants an eviction. Taylor listens and dispenses his legal wisdom.
Taylor is both contemplative and animated during the conversation, evidenced by both the caffeine-free and regular Diet Cokes on his desk. He appears at ease as the director of the Kansas Bar Association's Lawyer Referral Service.
The Bar Association's headquarters is just a block from the Statehouse, but it is the distance between Taylor's past and present.
Taylor served as secretary of administration when Gov. Sam Brownback first came into office before leaving for the Kansas Lottery and eventually ending up with the Bar Association.
A number of other high-ranking Brownback Cabinet officials have joined Taylor in making the jump from state government over the years. Kansas has 11 Cabinet secretaries. Since Brownback came into office, eight of the 11 positions have turned over — one of them twice, The Topeka Capital-Journal reported.
Secretaries with the Department for Aging and Disability Services, Commerce, Health and Environment, Children and Families, Transportation, Labor and Agriculture have each left, along with the Department of Administration, which has seen both Taylor's departure and the resignation of his replacement, Jim Clark.
Most recently, Corrections Secretary Ray Roberts announced plans to retire at the end of the year. Roberts is one of the last secretaries left from the beginning of Brownback's time as governor. He will be the 10th secretary to leave during the governor's tenure.
While departures take place in all administrations, the turnover leaves only a very small number of Brownback's original crew onboard while the governor still has nearly 3½ years left in office.
No single reason explains all departures, but some former agency heads hinted at frustration with attempting to mold state government the way they wanted.
Brownback came into power after eight years of Democratic control of Cedar Crest. The new administration faced continuing challenges from the Great Recession, as well as fiscal troubles for the state budget.
Taylor, tasked with running the Department of Administration — the agency that basically helps run the rest of state government — wanted to shake things up. Brownback had endorsed plans Taylor called ambitious to consolidate the separate information technology staffs for each department under DOA and do the same for human resources.
Efforts to save money drove many of the ideas. Yet state government as a whole wasn't so responsive, as Taylor recalls.
"One of the things that happen when you start trying to save money on the administrative side is the bureaucracy revolts," Taylor said.
The frustration, however, stemmed not so much from typical state workers as it did from Brownback's own leadership.
"I knew that would happen, that's partially why I took the job. I've known Sam 30 years, and I know he didn't have real executive background, and I knew we were hiring several legislative Cabinet secretaries; there'd be people who'd want their own control," Taylor said.
In the end, Taylor said he wasn't very successful in carrying out some of the consolidation and efficiency measures Brownback had originally wanted. The steps Taylor wanted to take at times put him in conflict with other members of Brownback's team.
Multiple people interviewed, including Taylor, have said Brownback often desires to avoid internal conflict. When Taylor's efficiency goals created friction with other officials, the governor had to choose — and efficiency sometimes lost.
"People don't like the idea of losing their jobs, naturally, or losing their power or losing their control," Taylor said. "So when they objected to me executing on the governor's own policy, he didn't necessarily fully support me."
But Rob Siedlecki, who led what was then the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, now the Department for Children and Families, said he always enjoyed Brownback's support.
"He just told me to be strong," Siedlecki said, "and always do the right thing."
Siedlecki left the administration in December 2011, less than a year into the job.
He drew attention for pursuing controversial marriage and fathering programs. He had also pushed for the closure of SRS offices and other consolidation and a greater emphasis on adoption and welfare work requirements.
Still, despite the rough waters, Siedlecki said he had a spectacular year. He praised the support he received from fellow Brownback agency officials.
"It was a great Cabinet. A lot of camaraderie, a lot of support. We had monthly Cabinet luncheons for the secretaries of different agencies," Siedlecki said.
"I really appreciated it, because I was the only non-Kansan in the Cabinet and I can say the administration, the secretaries were really wonderful to me in terms of giving me support, showing me the ropes."
Siedlecki came from Florida. Before Brownback tapped him for SRS, he worked as chief of staff for the Florida Department of Health. He returned to the state after leaving the Cabinet and has since mounted an unsuccessful run for the Florida Legislature.
Siedlecki said while in Kansas his communication with the sub-Cabinet (secretaries who led similar agencies) was great. Siedlecki singled out for praise Shawn Sullivan, then the secretary of Aging and Disability Services, but who is now the budget director; as well as Robert Moser at Health and Environment and Nick Jordan at Revenue.
"We met several times a week, several conference calls. We traveled around the state for the Medicaid reform conferences. We had spectacular communication," Siedlecki said.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said past internal conflict among administration officials could be explained by Kim Borchers. Borchers is currently the deputy chief of staff but for much of the administration served as appointments director.
In Kansas, Cabinet-level jobs are subject to Senate confirmation. Borchers has helped Brownback select and guide nominees through the process throughout his time as governor. In addition to high-level appointments, Borchers also assists in the placement of numerous individuals on the state's boards and commissions.
Although frequently a behind-the-scenes figure in the administration, she hasn't shied away from the spotlight in the past. For much of the century's first decade, Borchers fought to restrict minors' access to sexually-explicit materials at libraries.
"I took on the issue of pornography at the local library. Whoever thought that could be controversial? I kind of grew up in a day where, wow, we don't want kids to access porn," Borchers said during a recent appearance on a Wichita conservative talk radio show.
Borchers told The Capital-Journal in 2009 her fight had stemmed from a childhood memory of her 8-year-old friend being sexually assaulted by another boy. Explicit material in the wrong child's hands could lead that child to become a sexual predator, she said at the time.
"Kim Borchers runs much of the show down there when it comes to appointments, and she definitely has her own ideology. Much of it centered around her religion," Hensley said.
"She came out of a crusade. I think she's brought a lot of the viewpoints into the office that carried over to the entire appointments process."
The Topeka Capital-Journal requested interviews with Brownback, as well as high-level administration officials, including Borchers. Most of the requests were declined, citing busy schedules. Chief of staff Jon Hummell did speak, however.
"We just try to put a good person in the best position possible to be successful and then you let them run their shop until something comes up that causes you to take a closer look at what they're doing, and we generally let our agency secretaries and people run their own agencies," Hummell said of Cabinet appointments. "Sometimes people don't work out and we have to make a change and we handle those things."
Beyond frustrations from internal struggles, some Cabinet secretaries came from the business world or from outside state government, which presents its own challenges.
Those with nongovernmental experience can find themselves hitting a wall when they make the transition to government, said Chapman Rackaway, a Fort Hays State University political science professor. Civil service protections for many employees can slow fast, large-scale changes and each administration inherits the culture of the past.
"(Brownback) brought in people from private business. And there's probably few better ways to frustrate someone who is used to working in leadership in an agile, market-responsive organization than to put them into a ponderous, slow-moving procedural political administration," Rackaway said.
Moser headed up the Kansas Department of Health and Environment under Brownback until he stepped down in November 2014. He now is the director of the Kansas Heart and Stroke Collaborative at the University of Kansas Hospital.
At a recent health conference in Manhattan, he appeared full of energy as he addressed the attendees. He remarked that it was nice to be at a conference and not to have to constantly step out to take phone calls.
In an interview, he indicated his role at KDHE at times constricted his ability to focus on policy, something he said was a "little frustrating" at times.
"You're not directly developing policy in a broad sense, you're implementing what's being developed across the street (at the Statehouse)," Moser said. "And so sometimes that's OK, as long as you can continue to work within your agency's mission and vision, but sometimes it just gets so busy you really have so little time to work on those other things."
Moser, however, said he didn't see any universal themes running through Brownback's Cabinet departures.
For example, he mentioned former Commerce Secretary Pat George had left the agency to lead Valley Hope Association, a nonprofit substance abuse and treatment provider. George himself overcame addiction more than 20 years ago, and the job made sense for him.
"I'm not surprised at all — pretty intense — that after two to four years you wouldn't have turnover," Moser said.