Former Kansas Gov. Parkinson claims to have ‘Forrest Gumped’ his way to state’s top political job

Journal publishes 10-year retrospective of Republican-turned-Democrat’s career

By: - May 9, 2022 8:47 am
Gov. Mark Parkinson, a Republican-turned-Democrat, lower left in the photo, was sworn into office as governor in 2009, but declined to seek election to the post in 2010. His career is documented in a lengthy article in the journal Kansas History. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Gov. Mark Parkinson, a Republican-turned-Democrat, lower left in the photo, was sworn into office as governor in 2009, but declined to seek election to the post in 2010. His career is documented in a lengthy article in the journal Kansas History. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kansas Republican Party chairman Mark Parkinson dutifully hit the campaign trail to offer partisan criticism of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Sebelius.

Sebelius nevertheless prevailed to earn her first term as governor in 2002. She shocked Kansans four years later by convincing Parkinson to leave the GOP to join her on the Democratic ticket. Before her next term as governor expired, President Barack Obama called Sebelius to serve in his Cabinet. Against all odds, the Republican-turned-Democrat became governor of Kansas.

Bob Beatty, a professor at Washburn University who helped edit a 10-year retrospective journal article on Parkinson, said the former governor joked he “Forrest Gumped” his way to the job. One poll before Sebelius’ departure showed more than 60% of Kansans had no idea who Parkinson was — quite the ego buster.

Parkinson, Beatty said, demonstrated preparation for that work was about more than building name recognition. Parkinson had embarked on a political career at age 20, graduated first in his law school class at University of Kansas, worked for a congressman in Washington, D.C., started a Johnson County law firm, served in the state House and Senate, created a successful company that developed assisted living centers, led the Kansas GOP and worked as lieutenant governor.

“He hits at the absolute worst possible time to be to become governor,” said Beatty, who helped with the article in the “Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains” on Parkinson.

Parkinson was sworn into office as governor in April 2009 during a brutal economic recession. He plowed ahead knowing it would be folly to run for election as governor in 2010, a reality allowing him to absorb the inevitable political thumping without concern for the next campaign.

“He accomplishes, you could argue, more than some governors have in two full terms. His impact on Kansas policy was incredibly large for the amount of time he was in there,” Beatty said.

He said on the Kansas Reflector podcast Parkinson would never be a household name for his work from 2009 to 2011, but he balanced the budget with deep spending cuts and a sales tax hike. The minimum wage was elevated. A statewide indoor smoking ban was adopted. A new transportation bill was approved. He shocked environmentalists by allowing Sunflower Electric to apply for a permit to build a new coal-fired plant. It muted opposition to passage of wind and solar power initiatives. He theorized the coal plant wouldn’t be built. And, it hasn’t.

“I’m the kind of person who, if we want a policy initiative, we figure what the policy initiative is, then we figure out if it’s possible. There is not enough time to waste on things that aren’t possible,” Parkinson said in the article presented mostly in first-person and edited with assistance from Amber Dickinson and Grant Armstrong.

After completing Sebelius’ second term as governor, Parkinson became chief executive officer of the American Health Care Association and the the ​National Center for Assisted Living in Washington, D.C. It’s the largest association in the United States representing long term and post-acute care providers, with more than 14,000 member facilities.

 

Washburn University professor Bob Beatty, who helped edit a journal article on the career of former Gov. Mark Parkinson, said Parkinson's policy accomplishments were impressive given economic problems and political conflict among lawmakers at the Capitol. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Washburn University professor Bob Beatty, who helped edit a journal article on the career of former Gov. Mark Parkinson, said Parkinson’s policy accomplishments were impressive given economic problems and political conflict among lawmakers at the Capitol. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Sweating in three-piece suit

In 1978, while a junior at Wichita State University, Parkinson challenged incumbent Republican Ben Foster for a seat in the Kansas House. Parkinson mounted a rigorous door-to-door campaign. He hit the streets 12 hours a day, seven days a week. He wore the same business suit for four months.

He said during interviews for the journal article his decision to run wasn’t ideologically based. It was “stupidity based,” he said, because the contest was probably unwinnable.

Beatty said Parkinson lost that primary by 36 votes, but confided it was a relief to lose. Serving in the Legislature at that time would have interfered with his classes at WSU and law school at KU. After starting a law practice, Parkinson had no plans to get back into politics. He did help Johnson County District Attorney Paul Morrison with his campaign for attorney general. Morrison was elected, but resigned amid a personal scandal.

Parkinson went on to win a newly created Johnson County seat in the Kansas House in 1990, serving one term. Parkinson, a pro-choice moderate, was convinced to run for the Kansas Senate in 1992. He defeated a social conservative Republican in a district centered in Olathe.

He was chief sponsor and primary author of a bill establishing the death penalty in Kansas. He was motivated to put capital punishment in statute so murder defendants would be persuaded to plead to a 40-year sentence rather than take a 20-year term that was on the books. Skeptics asserted Parkinson crafted a law the he knew would not be used. Indeed, no one has been put to death in Kansas since the law passed in 1994.

“It’s a really difficult subject and, if I had to do it over again, I would not have pursued it,” Parkinson said in the “Kansas History” journal. “I now know more about the history of the death penalty and it’s unfair utilization against people of color.”

In 1996, Parkinson considered running for the U.S. House but decided to start a business with his wife, Stacy. They created a company that built elder-care facilities. He subsequently was elected chairman of the Kansas Republican Party. His intent was to smooth over friction between conservative and moderate Republicans. During a tour of the state’s 105 counties, however, Beatty said Parkinson was surprised by evidence the conservative movement in Kansas was here to stay.

In 2002, Sebelius defeated GOP gubernatorial nominee Tim Shallenburger, who said he didn’t believe Parkinson worked as hard as a GOP chairman should have to help him get elected.

“Completely untrue,” Parkinson said in the journal article. “We raised more money for Republican candidates in the four years that I was there than ha ever been done before.”

 

Sam Brownback, who served in the U.S. Senate, as Kansas governor and religious freedom ambassador in the Trump administration, was disappointed Mark Parkinson left the GOP to run as a Democrat for lieutenant governor. (Kansas Reflector screen capture)
Sam Brownback, who served in the U.S. Senate, as Kansas governor and religious freedom ambassador in the Trump administration, was disappointed Mark Parkinson left the GOP to run as a Democrat for lieutenant governor. (Kansas Reflector screen capture)

‘Personally betrayed’

Parkinson said he’d always viewed himself as a person who advocated for public K-12 education and higher education, opposed conceal-and-carry gun laws and was pro-choice on abortion. He didn’t imagine a day would come in 2006 when he would leave the Republican Party to run for statewide office. He said he didn’t regret changing his affiliation to Democrat and campaigning for lieutenant governor  on the ticket with Sebelius.

Backlash to that decision was fierce. Shallenburger said “good riddance” to Parkinson. U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, who later was elected governor, said he was “personally betrayed” by Parkinson’s flip.

Parkinson wasn’t Sebelius’ first choice. That went to Kansas State University football coach Bill Snyder, who had retired in 2005. Apparently, Snyder was intrigued enough to speak with Tom Osborne, the former University of Nebraska football coach who later served three terms in the U.S. House. Osborne sounded an alarm.

“Osborne tells him, ‘You’re nuts. Do not go into politics,'” Beatty said. “Then she went after Parkinson.”

Parkinson said he didn’t take a salary as lieutenant governor, a job with no constitutional responsibilities in Kansas. He did meet weekly with Sebelius and took on responsibility for advising the governor on energy policy.

In 2007, Sebelius denied Sunflower Electric a permit for construction of a coal-fueled power plant in southwest Kansas. Parkinson, after becoming governor, leveraged that permit to enact policies supportive of wind and solar projects.

Parkinson said in the journal article that conventional wisdom was Hillary Clinton would win the Democratic Party’s nomination for president in 2008. When Obama gained momentum, he said, the possibility of Sebelius going to Washington became a real possibility. He devoted three months that summer to studying the state’s budget in anticipation he would become governor.

Sebelius resigned in 2009 to become the Obama administration’s secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Parkinson stepped in as governor. The move required Parkinson appoint a lieutenant governor to replace himself. He selected his chief of staff, former state Rep. Troy Findley.

Inquiries were made to Democratic state Sen. Laura Kelly, who didn’t bite. She was elected governor in 2018 following two terms covered by Gov. Brownback and Gov. Jeff Colyer, both Republicans.

“The number of things that had to have occurred for me to have become lieutenant governor and governor is just astonishing,” Parkinson told the “Kansas History” editors. “It’s literally like winning the lottery two days in a row.”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.

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