You think the Republican Party is dead?
Not so fast. Few people know the insides of the party better than conservative Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback. He knows his own so well that some people are whispering about him as a surprise candidate for the 2016 elections (he told us he’s focused on his own gubernatorial re-election this year). We went to talk to Gov. Brownback expecting to find a firebrand provocateur in his party. What we got was a bleeding-heart conservative, a would-be farmer, a guy who’s as obsessive about Sudan as he is about low taxes.
The 57-year-old’s childhood hometown was about 280 people deep. So, naturally, this son of two farmers wanted to become a farmer. The closest he got was the Kansas Secretary of Agriculture. Since the Eisenhower days of his youth, he’s done pretty well for himself in his career of second choice. He’s served as a representative and senator for his state (the latter in Bob Dole’s old shoes) and put in his run for president (back in 2008). Issues that hit close to home for him? What he calls the protection of human dignity — from North Korea to Darfur to the prison system. Low taxes and growth. And of course, the “family” — the definition of which we dug in on. Now he finds himself back home in Kansas (hold the Wizard of Oz jokes), where this year he’s up for re-election. And while some might call it a retreat from the national stage to the regional one, well — this is one good state to practice politics in. By the end of 2014, we’re bound to see a new crop of conservative faces on the horizon. Sam Brownback may just be one who makes a comeback.
A bleeding heart on prisons
Tell us about one of the most important policy initiatives that you hope to be known for.
Gov. Sam Brownback:
I’ve worked a lot on prison issues, and still do. And that’s a human dignity issue in my book. It’s ”look, you did the crime; you’re going to do your time.” But at the same time we’re going to work with you to try to make sure that once you get out, you’re not coming back into the system — because you’ve got a skill. You’ve got mentors and you’ve got some community that surrounds you, so that you’re not right back [facing] the same problem that you’ve been in before.
Our poverty programs now … to me are just a great lament. We’re spending a lot of money and doing things good-heartedly. But it is not working. Poverty levels haven’t gone down. Our recidivism rate wasn’t going down. And so you get in it and you say, “OK, we need law and order. And then we need to make sure, once we catch these guys and they’re locked up, that we do something with them so they don’t come right back in and commit another crime.”
The other topic I think is just critical to work on is the mental health system because right now our corrections system is our biggest mental health — probably inpatient — provider now. I’m saying that inaccurately but to emphasize a point — which is [that] 60-plus percent of our inmates now have a mental illness, substance-abuse problem or both. And I just think we’ve really [got] key problems here that can be attacked. But do we need to attack from a conservative angle?
I’ve spent a couple of nights in prison at different institutions, and you get a little feel for it. Not a lot of it, but there are just a lot of people [for whom] there’s a mental issue, and then, on top of that, they blow through all their family and community structure, and then they don’t have anybody really to help them, and it just gets worse.
A Texas lover, a California skeptic
What are some of the most important things to you about serving in public office so close to home? You have your national track record, but what matters most to you about serving in office in Kansas?
We are attempting to be the best place in America to do two things: raise a family and grow a small business.
We’re trying to create a small business atmosphere where you can grow a small or a large business. However we’re dominated by small business, and 75 percent of Kansans work for themselves, or for somebody with 10 or fewer employees. And I think overall we’ve done a pretty good job of it because we’ve taken all income taxes off of small business, off of LLCs.
Tell us a little bit about your models for growth: What does good growth look like to you, globally and domestically?
Before they merged into China, I thought Hong Kong had an interesting model flat tax and the setup that they had. I found some of the countries that came out of the Soviet Union, dropping their tax rates and upping the revenue that they received as a government, was an interesting model. A bunch of them started off with very high tax rates and figured out quickly: We’re not collecting very much tax out of this.… When they dropped their rates down to much more reasonable levels, they saw their revenues go up, and they saw growth happening.
Most models that I focus on are pretty pragmatic models of what I’ve seen in the United States when I travel the country.… You can go to Sioux Falls, S.D., which is right across the lines from Sioux City, Iowa. And you see a bunch of new building construction in Sioux Falls, S.D., that you’re not seeing in Sioux City, Iowa. Well, they’re the same place; it’s just a river. You’ve got zero income taxes in South Dakota, and you’ve got a personal income tax in Iowa. Or New Hampshire and Vermont: Look at the two of those places side by side and compare how they’re doing. And I just think the one that yells at you is Texas versus California, because you’ve got one with no income taxes and the other with, I think, the highest state income tax in America. Or one of the highest, anyway. And one’s got out-migration, and the other one’s got large in-migration. I think those models are pretty instructive about the role, particularly of income taxes, on growth. Not so much about the issues of property taxes or sales taxes but income taxes and their impact on growth.
We’ve got to look a lot more like Texas and a lot less like California. We were a high-tax state in the region. We were second-highest tax; we’re now the second-lowest tax state in our region. We were having out-migration to every neighboring state but Nebraska; we now have in-migration from every neighboring state but Colorado. And Colorado is the one state that has lower taxes than us. To me, that’s growth.
A guy gave me a T-shirt in Wichita at the Urban League, and it said, “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.” And I’ve told people that quote; that’s really it for a lot of issues.
Family is a complicated thing
You’ve also talked a lot about the idea of the family, as a kind of demographic destiny and as a part of your value system.
I think we have hugely undervalued family structure and its importance for economic growth and activity in a strong country. I got that out of Senator Moynihan. He was still in the Senate when I was first in. He would say, “The most important thing a policymaker should focus on is how your next generation is being raised. Because that’s everything for you — it’s where your country’s going to be going. And we pay far too little attention to it.”
People age, and countries can, too, if you don’t have young people coming up in it, young demographics with it. You look at the demographic problems of a China or Japan or Europe, and you look at our demographic challenges, which are not near as much. But you just don’t want to get in a position where you don’t have new people coming up.
What is your thinking on the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender people? Has your thinking on this changed at all in the last 30 years?
Well, I’m opposed to any discrimination. The state of Kansas, people of Kansas, have voted — put it in their constitution — nearly 70 percent supporting marriage as a union of a man and a woman, and I agree with that. I think that’s appropriate. I do think it’s a very difficult social issue of our day. The issue of religious liberty — which generally is where you get the conflict points taking place on this — is going to be a big issue you’re going to continue to see come forward. It’s working its way through the courts now, and I think it’s where you’re going to see a good portion of this continue to go.
You clearly care about the dignity of human life; you clearly care about family. What do you say to those who’d tell you that gays and lesbians don’t really get to choose who they are, that that is who they are, and so, to the extent that they want to form families, they should have that opportunity and that right. Does that move you?
Pretty much what I just said is how I think about it. You’ve had this issue come up, clearly in this society; now it’s working its way through the courts. People of Kansas voted about it, and I think there shouldn’t be discrimination, but it’s the definition of marriage. There’s been a clear expression about that, certainly by individuals here. I think that’s the way the people of this state have voted and expressed. Just it’s going to be a difficult one to work with and work through.
That presidential hunger
Governor, you ran for president a while back. How’d you think about that campaign then and now?
I felt a real calling to do it. I was term-limited in the Senate. Bill Lieberman once told me, “Every self-respecting senator ought to run for president sometime.”
He looked at it as just one of the great things of society that somebody like him or me could come out of the backgrounds that we did, and we could legitimately run for president of the United States. And I did. I didn’t get very far. It was fascinating. It was wonderful to see America as a political tourist. You do learn your country a lot better. You learn the nuances of why different states are the way they are.
I remember my wife and I, at the first presidential debate, were at the Reagan Library. Nancy Reagan’s in the crowd; I really loved the Reagan presidency. Just before the debate, they clear the room, and they leave you and your spouse there to kind of get your thoughts together, the final few minutes. This is the first one of the debates, and we’re just sitting there, looking at each other, going, “How on earth did we get here?” Just one of those moments where, “Wow. This is some country, huh?”
Would you consider a run in 2016?
I’m fully occupied here. I’m up for re-election in the state of Kansas. We’ve done a lot of things here. I’ve got to take it out across the public to stay in Kansas and ask for people’s support for another term.… That’s what I’m totally focused on and occupied doing right now.
And lastly, If you hadn’t ended up in politics, what would you have done?
When I graduated from law school, I wanted to go back and practice law close by and farm on the side, so I could support my farming habit by being a lawyer. But when I met my wife, she just was … not enamored with the rural lifestyle. That wasn’t going to work out, or if it was, I was going to have to commute from Kansas City to a farm, which I might have done. I’m not sure; I think I probably would have ended up practicing law, maybe somewhere around Kansas or with an organization, a not-for-profit organization. I really have a heart to serve, and I’ve worked with a lot of different nonprofit groups. I might have ended up at one of those.
Why you should care
Because this is one guy who’s well-loved by his party — and you need to know why.