TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly urged Kansans to embrace the spirit of service and cooperation as she turns the page on Republican predecessors and an era tarnished by disdain and political failings.
The Democrat delivered her inaugural speech shortly after being sworn on the south steps of the Capitol, flanked by high court judges, past governors and elected officials, before a crowd gathered in the morning chill to watch her become the state’s 48th governor.
She told them the story of Kansas is about equality, opportunity and honest people working hard for their families.
“Somewhere along the way, that spirit of neighbor-helping-neighbor that runs so strong in our communities failed to extend into this building,” Kelly said. “Public service began to give way to partisanship, and the voices of Kansas families were not heard. Kansas lost its sense of self, its sense of community.
“We can’t let that happen again. We must be bigger than that. We must be guided by the values we share. We must forge a new chapter in our story, starting today.”
Kelly defeated Republican Kris Kobach in the November election with a campaign built to repudiate former Gov. Sam Brownback and his supply-side tax cuts. After years of acrimony over revenue shortages, agency leadership, borrowing and tax hikes, the embattled Brownback left in early 2018 to take a position in the administration of President Donald Trump.
She replaces Brownback’s lieutenant, Gov. Jeff Colyer, who restored civility in state government and brokered a deal to add more than $500 million in annual public school funding.
In a signal to GOP leaders who want a do-over on the school finance package, Kelly touted the work of teachers and the value of a good education. She also highlighted the importance of health care and a livable wage, references to her support for Medicaid expansion and raising the minimum hourly pay.
Vertical banners hanging behind Kelly underscored themes of education, opportunity and equality, recalling the same banners that were displayed for the 2004 celebration of the Brown v. Board school segregation case.
“We must work together in the spirit of putting the collective good ahead of any individual ambition or agenda,” Kelly said. “We must seek to lift up all Kansans regardless of whether they look like us, think like us, worship like us, love like us or vote like us.”
At times, Kelly drew from personal experience, including her background working with children at mental health facilities and her upbringing as the daughter of a career military officer. She talked about living on an Army post for most of her childhood, surrounded by soldiers whose sacrifices were always evident, and twice referenced President Dwight Eisenhower, the Kansas native who led Allied forces in World War II. She praised those who serve in the military today.
“When my dad went to Korea and left us safe in America, I saw the worry and anxiety on my mother’s face,” Kelly said. “I felt the tension in our home every day until he returned. I want you to know we recognize your sacrifices, and we are eternally grateful. Your families will always be in my thoughts and actions.”
Kelly said top-notch schools and the sense of community in Kansas attracted her to the state when she and her husband decided to raise her family here 32 years ago.
When Kansans sign up to volunteer for school events or shovel snow for an elderly neighbor, she said, they aren’t doing it as Democrats or Republicans. They are working to make life better for people around them.
“We need to bring that same spirit of service and cooperation back to this building,” Kelly said, “and let the insults and finger-pointing give way to compromise and a handshake — by putting down the partisan swords and lifting up the values that unite us as Kansans, because in a day and age when our politics can seem so small, we must be as big as the people who sent us here.”
Other elected officials and judges also were sworn in Monday, and the Kansas National Guard punctuated the ceremony with cannon fire. Sarah Smarsh, who wrote about growing up in Kansas in her book “Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth,” acted as emcee.
Kelly said she was awestruck to share a stage with Smarsh, a bestselling author and National Book Award finalist.
"What Sarah has demonstrated," Kelly said, "is that hard work and grit makes a difference, and that all children, no matter who they are or where they come from, are precious. And they can do great things if given the opportunity."