Sebelius, Kathleen

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Sebelius, Kathleen


Governor of Kansas

B orn Kathleen Gilligan, May 15, 1948, in Cincinnati, OH; daughter of John J. and Mary K.(Dixon) Gilligan; married Keith Gary Sebelius (an attorney and judge), 1974; children: Edward Keith, John McCall. Education: Trinity Washington University, B.A., 1970; University of Kansas, M.P.A., 1977.

Addresses: Office—Office of the Governor, State Capitol, 300 SW 10th Ave., Ste. 212S, Topeka, KS 66612-1590.


D irector of planning, Center for Community Justice, Washington, DC, 1971-74; special assistant, Kansas Department of Corrections, 1975-78; executive director, Kansas Trial Lawyers Association, 1978-86; elected to the Kansas State House of Representatives, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1992; elected insurance commissioner, State of Kansas, 1994, 1998; elected governor of Kansas, 2002, reelected, 2006. Also elected president of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, 2001, and chair of the Democratic Governors Association, 2007.

Awards: Public Official of the Year, Governing Magazine, 2001.


I n 2002, Kansas Democrat Kathleen Sebelius wonelection as governor of Kansas, marking a majorshift in the politics of what had been an unassail-ably Republican state. She was reelected by a landslide four years later, and, in the interim, advanced to a position of national prominence in the Democratic Party. During the 2008 campaign season, she was often asked what her party needed to do to win over undecided voters, especially in the race for the White House. “There is clearly a pathway to putting together a coalition in each of our states where people will vote for a Democrat,” Sebelius told John Powers and Rebecca Johnson, both of whom profiled her for the February 2008 issue of Vogue. “But it has to get beyond party identification. It has to do with leadership and vision and values identification. You don’t get up and say, ‘I’m a Democrat, and I support X, Y, and Z.’ You say, ‘I’m an American.’”

Sebelius was born on May 15, 1948, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her father, John J. Gilligan, served as governor of Ohio in the 1970s, making them the only father-daughter set of governors in U.S. history. She was one of four children in a Roman Catholic family, all of whom were schooled in national and local affairs at an early age. “My father had a habit of reading the paper to us in the morning, which frankly drove all of us stark raving mad,” Sebelius recalled in an interview with Cincinnati Post writer Michael Collins. “But he was very interested in issues and current events and felt that it was important for us to follow and know something about them.”

For much of her childhood, Sebelius’ father served on the Cincinnati City Council, and in 1964, when she was 16 and a junior at the all-female, Roman Catholic Summit Country Day School in the city, he was elected to Congress. He served two years in Washington, and in 1970, was elected governor of Ohio. That same year, Sebelius graduated from Trin-ity Washington University in Washington, D.C., another single-sex Roman Catholic institution. Located in one of the city’s less prestigious neighborhoods, the school helped shape Sebelius’ future political career as much as her father’s achievements had. She played on the basketball team and held several internships as part of her political science degree work, including one “at a school on North Capitol Street and we used to do basketball clinics with the kids,” she told Elizabeth Palmer, a writer for the school’s alumni magazine. “I think there was a sense at Trinity, living in northeast Washington, that you were very much a part of that community and to open your eyes and get involved was a message that a lot of people gave us.”

Sebelius’ father lost his 1974 gubernatorial reelec-tion bid, but not before the Ohio governor’s mansion in Columbus hosted her wedding to Keith Gary Sebelius, whom she had met during her years at Trinity. Known by his middle name to distinguish him from his prominent father, Gary Sebelius was a Georgetown University law student who hailed from western Kansas, which his father Keith Sebe-lius represented in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1969 to 1981. The elder Sebelius took over the seat vacated by another prominent Kansas Republican, U.S. Senator Bob Dole.

Prior to her 1974 marriage, Sebelius worked in Washington for three years as the director of planning for the Center for Community Justice, and following her wedding, moved to Kansas where her husband began his law practice. She enrolled at the University of Kansas to earn a master’s degree in public administration while also working for the state department of corrections. In 1978, she became executive director of the Kansas Trial Lawyers Association, a lobbying group, and her involvement in the state’s Democratic Party organization eventually led to a concerted effort to draft her as a candidate for office. She had the qualifications and the commitment to do so, but as she noted in the CincinnatiPost interview, she also possessed an extraordinarily valuable asset. “For Kansas Democrats, having a Democrat show up on the scene whose last name was Sebelius was sort of delicious,” she told Collins.

In 1986, Sebelius won election to the Kansas State House of Representatives from the district that included her historic Potwin neighborhood of Topeka, the state capital. She had two small sons at the time, ages two and five, and the three-month legislative sessions offered her the opportunity to have a meaningful job that did not intrude too seriously on her family’s schedule. She was reelected three times, and in 1994, decided to make her first bid for statewide office as insurance commissioner. This could be considered a risky move for someone with future political aspirations, because once Sebelius took office she had to please two constituencies: the powerful insurance industry and consumers. Despite that, Sebelius overhauled the state regulatory agency that oversaw the industry, ridding it of some of its long-entrenched rules and making it a more consumer-oriented entity.

Sebelius won election as the state’s newest insurance commissioner, an office established in 1871. She was the first Democrat to hold the office in more than 100 years, a reflection of Kansas’ long history as a staunchly Republican state. In addition to producing a number of notable Republicans who moved to the national political stage, such as Dole— who made an unsuccessful run for the White House in 1996—and President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Kansas was also the subject of a 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, in which journalist Thomas Frank examined the shift in Republican Party politics over the past 20 years. A state like Kansas, Frank argued, had suffered greatly under Republican economic policies in the last two decades of the twentieth century, yet continued to be an overwhelmingly “red” state, the informal political tag given to Republican states to distinguish them from the more socially liberal—and often more prosperous—“blue” states of the East and West coasts. GOP strategists, Frank argues, won over formerly Democratic voters by fomenting a cultural war over social issues like women’s reproductive rights and school prayer.

Kansas statehood dated back to 1861, just a few months before the start of the U.S. Civil War. That conflict’s prevailing issue, slavery, had played out in the state in the prior decade to such a degree that it was known as “Bleeding Kansas,” as pro-slavery and abolitionist settlers rushed there to establish it as either a free state or a slave state and engaged in violent clashes with one another. In the end, the abolitionists won out, and the party founded on the abolition of slavery, the Republican Party, would dominate state politics for the next 140 years. By the 1990s, however, the cultural wars fomented by national GOP strategists had effectively divided the state’s Republican Party into moderates and their more extremist counterparts.

This division played a crucial role in Sebelius’ victory in the 2002 Kansas governor’s race. Republicans of a more conservative Christian outlook objected to Sebelius’ pro-choice views on abortion, while moderates distanced themselves from their fellow GOP lawmakers and in a few cases even switched party allegiance. This was the case with Sebelius’ running mate for lieutenant governor, John Moore, a former aviation executive. Their ticket won with 53 percent of the vote, though the Republican challenger and the more conservative wing of the party “would have liked it to be issue-by-issue— you know, let’s make this a divisive conversation,” she told Powers in the Vogue interview. “There were attempts to say I was soft on crime, I was too liberal, I was this, I was that.”

Sebelius was not the first female Democrat to be elected governor of Kansas—that honor went to Joan Finney, who served from 1991 to 1995. Sebelius did, however, earn a unique place in U.S. history thanks to her father, when they became the first father-daughter pair of governors in the annals of American politics. John Gilligan was 81 years old at the time of her electoral victory and told Collins in the Cincinnati Post article that he was “enormously impressed by the way she did it. I’m really glad I never had to run against her.”

Sebelius’ main challenge was a looming fiscal crisis tied to two separate issues: the first was an estimated of budget deficit of $1.1 billion, which was already problematic before the Kansas Supreme Court ordered that the state needed to provide more public-school funding to the tune of $150 million a year. To find the funds, Sebelius created BEST, or budget efficiency savings teams, in the spring of 2003, which went to work over the next several months looking for ways to cut costs. Under Sebelius’ orders, they renegotiated contracts for scores of products that the state purchased on a regular basis, from paper-towel dispensers to printer toner cartridges, sold unused vehicles, and ordered thermostats adjusted in all government buildings to save on energy costs.

Sebelius also tried to build bridges and win support from a Republican-dominated state legislature by appointing Republicans to her cabinet. Her success after barely a year on the job was so impressive that her name even began to come up as a potential running mate for John Kerry, the Democratic hopeful for the White House in 2004. In 2005, Time magazine named her of the nation’s top five governors, and she was reelected to a second term a year later with a stunning 58 percent of the vote. Statistics for that same year showed that among Kansas’s 1.6 million voters, 46 percent were registered Republicans and just 27 percent were registered as Democrats. Sebelius’s second win even prompted a New York Times editorial that bore the headline “What’s Right with Kansas,” a nod to Frank’s book title. Citing her victory and other electoral wins in the state by either moderate Republican candidates or those who had switched party allegiance to Democrat, the newspaper’s editorial writers termed it a “major shift in the nation’s heartland. Kansas—lately considered the reddest of red states—emerged from the election as a bastion of moderation.”

Fellow Democratic state executives elected Sebelius to chair the Democratic Governors Association (DGA) for 2007. During her tenure she led the DGA on an impressive fundraising campaign that proved vital to the 2008 national elections. That year’s race for the Democratic Party presidential nomination was bitterly fought between Illinois senator Barack Obama and New York senator Hillary Clinton, and political analysts dismissed the idea that either would select a female running mate. Sebelius’ name, however, was often mentioned as a potential cabinet nominee should a Democrat return to the White House in 2009. Limited to two terms as Kansas governor, she was also rumored to have an eye on one of Kansas’ two seats in the U.S. Senate in 2010.

Sebelius’ two sons are adults and have actively participated in her campaigns, making them the third generation of political activists on both sides of their family tree. Her husband, a federal judge, preferred the term “First Dude” as opposed to “First Gentleman,” used in reference to the husbands of female governors, and good-naturedly fulfills official duties that include supervising the annual Easter egg hunt at the governor’s mansion. Her father finally retired from public office in 2007 at the age of 86 after serving two terms on the Cincinnati Board of Education. “My father took huge political risks,” she told Vogue late in 2007. “He won some elections and he lost some elections. But I learned that losing is not the end of the world. You have to be willing to fight for something and risk taking the loss.”



American Prospect, March 2008, p. 18.

Cincinnati Post, December 14, 2002, p. A1; January 30, 2007, p. A1. New York Times, November 15, 2006; May 9, 2007.

Time, November 21, 2005, p. 36.

USA Today, June 6, 2006. p. 11A.

Vogue, February 2008, p. 244.

Wichita Eagle (Wichita, KS), October 22, 2006.


“Profile: Kathleen Sebelius ’70, Governor of Kansas,” Trinity Washington University Web site, (May 11, 2008).

—Carol Brennan