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It was March 3, 2018, after a candidate forum in Topeka, and some Kansas Democrats were worried about then-state senator and gubernatorial candidate Laura Kelly.
She lacked passion and fire, one longtime party activist told me.
Melinda Henneberger wrote in the Kansas City Star, “Whether Kelly is too measured was a worry for some in the crowd.” One person even sidled up to me and whispered that Kelly was “just too low key,” fretting that Kelly’s demeanor might not stand up to the pressure of a tough campaign against Republican firebrand Kris Kobach.
However, rather than change her personality and who she was, Kelly put together an efficient and focused campaign and presented herself to primary and general election voters as someone who might not be flashy but who had the drive and work ethic to run the state.
In fact, she purposely contrasted herself to her very well-known Republican opponent, and she won the governorship over Kobach, 48% to 43%.
Kelly’s first year in office was marked by some wins, including the passing of a school funding bill she supported and two gubernatorial vetoes of tax cuts she opposed. And there have been defeats. Most notable is the continued failure on perhaps her signature issue, which is to get Medicaid expansion enacted in the state.
However, in her second year, the coronavirus pandemic hit worldwide, devastating many areas, and Kelly’s systematic and measured approach has put Kansas in a position to hopefully avoid the worst.
Most importantly, she seems to have learned important lessons from the Italian experience where authorities waited too long to implement clear policies to isolate the virus and then sent out muddled messages to the public about the seriousness of the situation.
Kelly told The Topeka Capital-Journal she put together a team of experts in early March, saying, “It was clear to me in the role of governor that it was my responsibility to get all over this and take an all-hands-on deck approach. We knew this was serious, and we knew this was going to get more serious.”
The problem for leaders of course is that the key to fighting COVID-19 is to act before things get really bad. Some people either don’t believe that or don’t understand it, but for Kelly it meant closing schools and enacting emergency social distancing rules statewide when many areas of Kansas hadn’t been hit with the virus yet, in order that they might be hit minimally or maybe not at all.
Mark Dworkin, an epidemiology professor, says that moving quickly against coronavirus is critical but also difficult to do “when the public doesn’t sense an imminent threat.” So the governor has met with some opposition — one state legislatorcalled it “asinine” to close all the state schools for the rest of the year — as she confronts this crisis.
Kelly’s answer: “You’re not helping (people) by not being honest about what the situation is.”
At that 2018 primary debate, Kelly said something that lingers now. To paraphrase, she argued that she was “the right woman, at the right time, for the right job.”
Some people doubted her then. Her actions during this crisis are proving she was right all along.
Bob Beatty is a political scientist in Topeka. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.