Kathleen Sebelius

Governor of Kansas

Kathleen Sebelius, Governor of Kansas


This Knol written by Jon Hopwood
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Kathleen Sebelius will be 60 years old when the Democratic vice presidential nominee is picked at the Denver convention. The gray-haired governor has a distinguished look that befits a seasoned statesman that will balance Barack Obama's youthfulness. Frankly, her age and appearance also would obviate the possible backlash among white voters rooted in that most ancient of American taboos, a black man paired with a white woman. Running a ticket of the African American Obama and a younger white woman, such as Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, might engender a great deal of negativity among less-tolerant sectors of American society. One of these sectors is the white working-class male voting demographic, the "Joe Six-Pack" bloc known as "Reagan Democrats" as they voted for Reagan in the 1980s as part of a backlash against the Democratic Party's record of civil rights and affirmative action. So far, these Reagan Democrats, heavily courted by Hillary Clinton, have failed to warm to Barack Obama.

In addition to her age and gender, Sebelius balances the ticket by being a Roman Catholic. Her education was in parochial schools and she attended a Catholic University, Trinity Washington in Washington, D.C. (Her graduate degree, a Masters of Public Administration, comes from the University of Kansas.) Despite being a Catholic, she is pro-choice on the issue of abortion. On the issue of capital punishment, she hews to the moral line of her church: she opposes it.

Born Kathleen Gilligan on May 15, 1948 in Ohio, the governor of Kansas is the daughter of John J. Gilligan, the former governor of the Buckeye State from 1971-75. (She and her father are the only father and daughter to be electged governors.) She is married to K. Gary Sebelius, a federal magistrate judge, and is the mother of two sons, Ned and John.

Twelve years after moving to the Jayhawk State in 1974, she was elected to the Kansas Legislature, where she served for eight years. In 1994, Sebelius ran for the office of state Insurance Commissioner and won, becoming the first Democrat to hold the office. After two terms as the Insurance Commissioner, she won the 2002 Democratic nomination for governor. Facing Republican Tim Shallenburger, she was elected by a margin of 53% to 45%, aided by infighting between conservatives and moderates within the state's Republican Party. She proved to be very popular, and was reelected in 2006, polling 58% of the vote against Republican challenger Jim Barnett, a state senator, who won 41% of the vote. Her two victories are remarkable in that half of all voters in the state of Kansas are registered Republicans, whereas only 27% are registered as Democrats.

TIME Magazine ranked Sebelius as one of the five best governors in November 2005, citing her for eliminating the $1.1 billion public debt her administration inherited from the previous governor. She was also praised for boosting funding for education and reducing waste while not raising taxes. TIME also cited her for her reaching out to the Republicans who controlled the Kansas Legislature.

Her religion might give Obama and the Democratic ticket some traction among a once-faithful portion of the Democratic electorates that has frequently strayed to the GOP in the recent past. In 2004, a majority of Catholics voted for George W. Bush, a Methodist, rather than for John Kerry, only the third Catholic in U.S. history to be the Presidential nominee of a major political party. (The others were New York Governor Al Smith, who lost to Herbert Hoover in 1928, and Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy in 1960, who beat Vice President Richard Nixon. So far, of the 42 men who have been president and the 49 men who have been vice president, J.F.K. is the sole Catholic to have served in national office.)

Kathleen Sebelius doesn't balance the ticket geographically, as both she and Obama are from the Midwest. Furthermore, Kansas is as rock-ribbed Republican as a Red state can be being the home of Republican presidential standard-bearers Alf Landon (1936) and Bob Dole (1996). Kansas went for Methodist George W. Bush over Catholic John Kerry by a landslide, 62% to 37%. While Sebelius might offer some regional appeal, the problem is, other than Missouri, the states in the vicinity of Kansas all went for Bush over Kerry by the same whopping margins as did the Sunflower State. She likely wouldn't even help win the state for the Democratic ticket.

Yet, she is the premier woman candidate for the vice presidential slot not surnamed Clinton. She has shown she can successfully govern a state with a Republican legislature, and she likely would appeal to moderates, independents and swing voters, as well as not alienating liberals. One of Barack Obama's mantras on the campaign trail is a revival of bipartisanship in Washington, and Kathleen Sebelius has proved herself capable of working with Republicans. In fact, in many respects, she could be Obama's ideal running mate in that the two likely would work very well together if elected.

Her one role as Vice President, as defined by the Constitution, is to oversee the U.S. Senate as President of that body. More importantly, Kathleen Sebelius has proven that she has the executive ability to step into the Presidency if the need arose, should the President die or become disabled. Her one stumbling block is a lack of foreign policy experience, a field that Barack Obama also is considered weak in, but as she was a governor, that really can't be held against her. Governors are executives focused on domestic programs and are interested in international affairs only in so much as that entails attracting foreign investment to their states.

Kathleen Sibelius' record in Kansas of promoting economic growth after a period of stagnation and of boosting educational funding without resorting to raising taxes makes her attractive to a broad range of voters. She also has the practical experience in day-to-day governance that Barack Obama is criticized as lacking. She is an excellent choice for Vice President.

Kansas has term-limits, so Sebelius cannot run for third term as governor. Should she not be picked for vice president, or if she does get the second spot and her ticket loses during the 2008 election, she may be a candidate for San Brownback's Senate seat in 2010. A Republican, Brownback said he will not seek reelection. That, or the vice presidential spot on a losing ticket, could be the jumping off point for her own race for the White House in 2012.


Official State of Kansas Gubernatorial Biography