Kansas House Democrats pick Vic Miller for minority leader
Rep. Vic Miller addresses fellow Democrats after they narrowly voted Monday to make him their minority leader for the upcoming session. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Vic Miller told fellow House Democrats on Monday they can overcome their “numbers problem” by sticking together and being smarter than their Republican rivals.
The caucus narrowly selected Miller, a Topeka Democrat, as the minority leader for the upcoming session. Miller beat out Lenexa Democrat Brandon Woodard in a 21-19 vote.
In his victory speech, Miller said it is difficult to overlook being outnumbered by Republicans 85-40 in the House. He called for participation, cohesiveness and camaraderie from Democrats.
“We’re much smarter than them, OK. That’s kind of a given,” Miller said. “And we make up for the fact that they have billionaires backing them with the fact that we are much smarter. And because we’re right.”
Democrats favor Medicaid expansion, access to reproductive health care, legalization of marijuana, and gun reforms — all of which are supported by a majority of Kansans but have faced opposition from Republicans in past sessions.
But the party failed to pick up enough seats during the November general election to break the GOP supermajority, which means Republicans have the votes to override a veto by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.
Miller said the primary responsibility for House Democrats is to support the governor. But he referenced the governor’s “middle of the road” campaign ads as a potential problem.
“She needs to understand that it’s very dangerous to stand in the middle of the road, particularly when Republicans are driving the wrong way on the right side,” Miller said. “So I hope to urge her to move a little bit to the left, where it’s safer.”
House Republicans and Democrats vote on leadership after each two-year election cycle. Democrats also selected Rep. Valdenia Winn of Kansas City to be the assistant minority leader and Rep. Stephanie Clayton of Overland Park to be the minority whip. Rep. Jerry Stogsdill of Prairie Village will be the agenda chair, Rep. Barbara Ballard of Lawrence will be the caucus chair, and Rep. Christina Haswood of Lawrence will be the policy chair.
Miller served in the House from 1979 to 1984, and again from 2017-2018. He filled Kelly’s open Senate seat for two years, then returned to the House. He also has held public office as a Topeka city councilman, Shawnee County commissioner and Topeka Municipal Court judge.
Wichita Democrat Tom Sawyer served as minority leader the past four sessions and choose not to seek the position again. Woodard, representing a younger generation of Democrats, challenged Miller for the top leadership post.
Woodard became the first openly gay man to serve in the Legislature after he won his first term in 2018. This past session, he was the ranking minority member on the Higher Education Budget Committee.
In his pitch for minority leader, Woodard said he has lived through the various struggles that Kansans are facing, including the cost of higher education.
“I’ve also seen firsthand what can be achieved when we fight against the odds to create change,” Woodard said.
Democrats opted against nominating a candidate for speaker of the House after weighing a threat from across the aisle.
Rep. Boog Highberger, a Lawrence Democrat, said he planned to seek the chamber’s top position, even though the Republican choice would obviously win. His goal, he said, was to use the platform to talk about how rules and processes could be more transparent.
“Just between you and me, I didn’t really want to be speaker,” Highberger told his colleagues.
Democrats chose not to submit a candidate because Wichita Republican Dan Hawkins, the frontrunner for House speaker, told them he wouldn’t let Democrats choose their own committee members. Hawkins said he would revoke a 50-year-old “gentleman’s agreement” that allows the minority party to choose which members serve on which committees if Highberger didn’t withdraw.
Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat, said there were discussions about whether to force Hawkins’ hand. The plan was for Democrats to force all 125 members of the House to meet every day as a committee of the whole to discuss legislation — until Republicans gave back their committee powers.
Instead, the Democrats decided it was “probably the better part of valor,” as Carmichael put it, to avoid the fight.
“We need to think hard about how long we’re going to let the majority party ride roughshod over the rights of members, the rights of the public, to free and transparent debate over elections in the House,” Carmichael said.
Democrats also honored the late Rep. Gail Finney, of Wichita, with a public service award.
Sawyer said she was an “ideal representative.”
“She was the embodiment of what we expect out of public servants,” Sawyer said. “She was somebody who cared very deeply about her constituents, about her community, about the state. She worked hard. She was one of those people who was in it for all the right reasons. She worked on a lot of issues. She helped her constituents. She didn’t care about accolades or awards.”
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