TOPEKA, Kan. — Gov. Sam Brownback on Friday defended his involvement in the Kansas Legislature's redistricting debate, saying he's trying to protect communities with major state and federal institutions and not pursuing political goals as he tries to influence how senators redraw their districts.
The Republican said he favors creating a Senate district for Leavenworth County in northeast Kansas because it is home to Fort Leavenworth, along with state and federal prisons, and would benefit from having a resident-senator representing its interests. The county is currently split between two districts — both represented by Democrats who were on the ticket opposing Brownback in the 2010 governor's race.
Brownback's chief of staff, David Kensinger, created a stir at the Statehouse this week by submitting public testimony to the Senate committee drafting a plan for redrawing senators' districts. Kensinger, who's been monitoring the committee's meetings, said Leavenworth County should have its own Senate district.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat who's served in the Legislature more than 35 years, called Kensinger's actions unprecedented and said Brownback is attacking Sen. Tom Holland, of Baldwin City, the last Democratic nominee for governor, and Sen. Kelly Kultala, of Kansas City, the party's last nominee for lieutenant governor.
The governor noted that he would have to sign any redistricting legislation for it to become law. He said he had Kensinger testify this week because he wants lawmakers to know Leavenworth County's status is important in drawing new Senate districts.
"I thought it important to say that now as the process is forming rather than wait until the end of the process and say, 'Well, OK, I don't like this map or that map,'" Brownback said. "It's their map build, but it's ultimately one I have to address as well."
Brownback also has jumped into the debate over redrawing the state's four congressional districts. He said earlier this month that he'd reached an agreement with the Legislature's top Republicans to keep Manhattan, home to Kansas State University, in an eastern Kansas district, rather than move it into a district with western and central Kansas. The move would force lawmakers to consider splitting the Topeka or Kansas City areas among two districts.
Legislators must redraw their districts and congressional districts to reflect shifts in population over the past decade. The debate over a state Senate plan is likely to be contentious because areas that lost population are trying to avoid losing clout.
Many Republicans would like to draw the new lines to lock in their dominance in the Senate, where the GOP has a 32-8 majority. Also, eight moderate Republican incumbents, including Senate President Steve Morris, of Hugoton, have been targeted by conservatives aligned with Brownback, though he has said he's staying out of GOP primary races.
Hensley and House Minority Leader Paul Davis, of Lawrence, said Brownback's involvement in the redistricting debate represents an attempt by the Republican governor to shift power from lawmakers.
"There is no more inherently legislative function than legislative redistricting," Davis said. "Whether or not the intent is there, the fact that this affects Senator Holland and Senator Kultala, I think, makes the governor look a little petty."
Senate Republican leaders, including Morris, said they weren't upset that Brownback had become involved in the Legislature's redistricting debates.
Leavenworth County has a population of almost 77,000, exceeding the ideal population of 71,328 for a state Senate district, and Brownback noted that it's the most populous county in Kansas without its own district. Kultala's district covers part of Wyandotte County and Holland's, all of Jefferson County and part of Douglas County.
Leavenworth County has been split between two Senate districts for the past 20 years, but Brownback said his desire for the county to have a resident-senator is driven partly by discussions in Washington about cutting the federal budget. He called suggestions that he has political motives mere "spin."
"Anything that's associated with the federal government now, I'm watching carefully," he said. "Craft whatever you want to around it, but I think this is significant."
Kansas Legislature's redistricting site: http://redistricting.ks.gov/
Kansas governor: https://governor.ks.gov/