New guard in Senate, status quo in House as state lawmakers pick new leaders

Andrew Bahl and Titus Wu
The Topeka Capital-Journal
The Kansas Senate held its elections for leadership positions Monday at the Statehouse.

There will be a new guard in the Kansas Senate next session.

With a collective 54 years of experience leaving, by choice or by force, in the state’s upper chamber, members picked a fresh crop of leaders Monday at the Statehouse.

Out go Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, and Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, who both opted to retire.

In walks a conservative leadership team set to square off with Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly on a wide range of issues.

That will include the COVID-19 pandemic response, a likely push for tax cuts and Medicaid expansion in Kansas, a policy proposal likely on life support with the new Republican caucus.

Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, was tapped unanimously as Senate president, while Sen. Gene Suellentrop, R-Wichita, will replace Denning as majority leader.

“I was honored to get unanimous support and I hope it brings unity to our caucus,” Masterson told reporters after the vote.

Democrats will also have new leadership in the chamber, after longtime Minority Leader Anthony Hensley lost in November after a tenure stretching over four decades, the longest in Kansas political history.

Instead, taking on the role of floor leader will be Sen. Dinah Sykes, D-Lenexa, who was a Republican as recently as two years ago before changing parties in 2018. She will be the first woman to serve in the role.

Sykes joked that Hensley would remain on “speed dial” and she noted that replacing the Topeka lawmaker would be a tall task.

“We are ending a historic year with COVID and there is a lot of opportunity,” Sykes said after the vote. “I look forward to working with the caucus and building on the foundation that Anthony started.”

On the Republican side, the leadership votes signal a caucus that remains conservative, with the Senate likely to be shaped by a crop of new lawmakers, many of whom are replacing more moderate Republicans in Topeka.

Sen. Rick Wilborn, R-McPherson, will replace Sen. Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia, as Senate vice president.

Assistant majority leader will be Sen. Larry Alley, R-Winfield, while Sen. Richard Hildebrand, R-Galena, will serve as majority whip.

Masterson acknowledged that the leadership team underscored a more conservative group of lawmakers but said it was a sign the caucus was moving to better reflect where the state was at politically.

“Candidly, I think it better represents the people of Kansas,” he said.

But Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, said after the vote that she wished the leadership slate was more representative of the state, both in terms of ideology and geography.

McGinn, who lost the majority leader race to Suellentrop, expressed concern that rural districts like hers would be left behind.

“I hope that everybody comes together to see what the fairness factor is across the state, to make sure we represent our constituents,” she said.

Masterson said the agenda in January will likely include extending federal tax cuts pushed by President Donald Trump to the state level, changing how judges are selected and taking a long-term look at the governor’s executive powers in an emergency.

There were “tough odds,” Masterson continued, for Medicaid expansion, a top priority for Kelly.

While he said he hoped “nothing much” would change from the prior two years in terms of the working relationship with Kelly and her team, Masterson said he wanted the Legislature to continue to hold the Kelly administration in check.

“I think fundamentally that is the purpose of this body, to be a check on the executive branch and the governor,” Masterson said.

In a statement, Kelly expressed congratulations to the new team.

“I look forward to working together on the issues that matter to Kansans: funding schools, keeping Kansans healthy and increasing access to affordable health care, building a stronger infrastructure, and continuing down the path to economic recovery,” the governor said.

Sykes maintained that Democrats would again push for Medicaid expansion and expressed optimism that the new leaders on the other side of the aisle would be amenable to compromise.

“We have a fine relationship and we may not agree on policy but we can sit down and have conversations,” she said.

House Republicans make history with leadership vote

For House Republicans, there wasn’t much change in leadership with the exception of the caucus chair, Rep. Ken Rahjes, R-Agra.

Rep. Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, was elected House speaker again without opposition, making history as the first speaker in Kansas history to serve a third term.

“He has shown us the ability to be a good negotiator even with our governor, who for some reason still acts as a minority member of the Senate, rather than a leader of Kansas,“ said Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, who nominated him.

"I’m humbled and honored by this opportunity to lead during these remarkable times. We have a lot of work to do,“ Ryckman said in a text message.

Rep. Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, will stay on as House majority leader without opposition, as colleagues praised him for being good leader.

“I’m incredibly honored our Republican caucus has elected me to serve a second term as House Majority Leader, and I commit to providing conservative leadership as we rebuild the Kansas economy, address a massive budget deficit, defend life, and protect our Kansas way of life,” Hawkins said in a statement.

House Democrats, who will have little power in a GOP supermajority, saw changes as well, except at the top level.

Rep. Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, maintains his role as minority leader. Meanwhile, Rep. Jason Probst, D-Hutchinson, was elected assistant minority leader and Rep. Stephanie Clayton, D-Overland Park, became the minority whip.

“I think that he is somebody is truly a leader in this building and ... somebody who I’m very proud to call my leader,” Rep. Mike Amyx, D-Lawrence, said of Sawyer.

Ty Masterson, R-Andover, was elected the Senate president Monday at the Statehouse.