STAFF PHOTO BY ERIC MEYER
Rosie Hansen and Jim Barnett, who are running for lieutenant governor and governor, dropped in Thursday to introduce themselves to employees in various courthouse offices, including Deputy Register of Deeds Robin Taylor.
Governor hopeful a different kind of Republican
Traversing one of the reddest of red states in one of the reddest of red trucks you’ve ever seen, Jim Barnett isn’t your typical Republican gubernatorial candidate, even though he’s been the Republican nominee once before.
In an era in which politicians are chauffeured in extensively decorated buses and limousines and surrounded by bevies of aides, Barnett appears in a truck, the only sign on which is a standard Ford logo.
No aide at his side, he simply walks up with his running mate and introduces himself.
Not as Dr. Barnett or as Jim Barnett M.D., an appellation he has earned, as has the incumbent he is seeking to unseat.
Not as Sen. Barnett, though he is that, too, having represented this district in the state senate in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Not as President Barnett, though he earned that title, as well, serving as senate president.
Not even as Mr. Barnett.
But as just plain Jim, a farm kid from nearby Americus, who suffered from asthma and hay fever as a child and decided farming might not be the greatest career choice as a result.
Soft-spoken yet laser-focused, he bubbles over with ideas he wants to talk about. But words like “Trump,” “immigration,” “tariffs,” “prayer,” “abortion,” and even “tax cuts” rarely come up unless he is specifically asked about them.
In a campaign in which the biggest difference on issues between incumbent Jeff Colyer, secretary of state Kris Kobach, and predecessor Sam Brownback appears to be the degree to which they dislike each other, Barnett is different.
So different, in fact, he may not have a chance — not if you believe, which he does not, the race’s relatively few leaked polls, which always seem to favor which campaign leaked them.
Barnett admits he has low name-recognition but stresses that among voters familiar with candidates, he has the highest favorable rating and the lowest unfavorable rating.
He thinks a candidate can win the extremely divisive Republican primary by polling in the upper 20 percent or lower 30 percent range.
But, like many candidates seemingly behind in the polls, he prefers to talk about issues.
His No. 1 issue — the reason he’s put 78,000 miles on his bright red Ford pickup — is economic development.
And the main plank of his economic development platform isn’t taxes. It’s education.
“I’d like to see every second grader start to learn computer coding,” he said during a stop last week in Marion. “We need to get business and education at the table together. We need education that emphasizes careers not credits.”
The 78,000 miles he has driven, talking to all manner of Kansans while still on his first set of tires, have convinced him that what’s holding economic development back isn’t taxes. It’s lack of a skilled work force. And to get that, he says, Kansas needs to stress education, health care, and quality of life.
In his survey of business leaders, taxes finished in seventh place — not something many of today’s Republicans might agree with but a clarion call that more moderately conservative Republicans of years gone by might appreciate.
“We’ve been fighting in court about education, and we need to be out of the courtroom and into the classroom,” he said.
He disputes claims that KanCare, the state’s Medicaid replacement, has saved the state 20 percent of its projected health care costs and points to how switching to KanCare cost the state 10 percent of the money it used to get from the federal government for Medicaid.
“Local property taxes in Kansas are higher because Colyer and Brownback refused to expand Medicaid,” he said, offering charts to support his conclusion.
Health care, which consumes 17 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product, is “the tapeworm of business in America,” he said, advocating instead a system of managed care that emphasizes prevention not intervention.
His platform, he says, has been developed in his truck, in talking with his lieutenant governor running mate, Rosie Hansen, as they travel from city to city.
A KU graduate with a master’s in public administration and a former security affairs fellow at Stanford, she’s not a politician but a career administrator within the U.S. foreign service, who helped set up and run U.S. embassies in Kuwait, Bosnia, and Afghanistan.
She’s also not just his running mate but also his life mate — his wife — something that pundits think lessen the seriousness with which his campaign should be taken but something that he defends strongly.
For her part, Hansen contends Barnett had to talk her into running.
“I said, no, you’re crazy; I’m not a politician,” she recounted.
But that, he said, plus the fact that he could trust her implicitly is why he wanted her on his ticket.
Barnett admits that many of his ideas are outside the ideological lockstep to which many Republicans have marched in recent years, and he concedes they wouldn’t have been possible to propose a few years ago, when the radical right controlled the state legislature.
Fearful of reprisals from power interests like the billionaire Koch brothers, the legislature until recently has been overly divisive, Barnett said, and created a financial mess that “wasn’t just month-to-month, paycheck-to-paycheck; we were living on credit-card debt.”
By resorting to 20-year bonds, on which only interest is paid, to finance such temporary projects as road resurfacing, “Kansas ate its seed corn,” he said.
“We have a functional legislature now, and we can be one Kansas, working together,” Barnett said. “But we’ve got to pivot. Otherwise we will never know the Kansas we used to love.”