Most agree that Sam Brownback will be elected governor on November 2, but what kind of governor he will be is less than clear. Even after nearly a quarter century in Kansas politics and government, his divergent political lives prompt voters to ask:  Will the real Sam Brownback please stand up?

Most agree that Sam Brownback will be elected governor on November 2, but what kind of governor he will be is less than clear. Even after nearly a quarter century in Kansas politics and government, his divergent political lives prompt voters to ask:  Will the real Sam Brownback please stand up?

Brownback began his political life as a progressive state agency head, appointed at age thirty as Kansas secretary of agriculture.  In this role he worked on rejuvenating a tradition-bound agency and served former Governor Mike Hayden loyally as a cabinet member. In one key assignment Brownback helped Hayden formulate a plan for hunting access to private farm lands, a potentially controversial program that has become a model for the nation and now enrolls well over a million acres of Kansas farm lands.

In this early period Brownback demonstrated a belief that government could be a positive force in the lives of Kansans.  He helped farm leaders explore options for increasing farm income, coauthored a practical handbook on agricultural law, served as a White House Fellow on international trade, and fostered the creation of Kansas Dialogue, a nonpartisan assembly of active Kansans who confer annually on the future of Kansas.

Brownback’s politics began to shift with his successful runs for congress in 1994 and senate in 1996.  Pro-lifer organizers had marked him as pro-choice, but he campaigned in opposition to abortion. His focus, however, was on a federal government that he described as “too big and too intrusive,” asserting: “I want to cut the federal beast back.”  He advocated shifting authority and funding for domestic programs to state and local levels.

Once in congress Brownback aligned with Republicans who wanted to eliminate the departments of education, energy, commerce, and housing and urban development and phase out funding for public broadcasting and the arts, among other programs.  In time, however, he grew frustrated with the inability of congress to tame the “beast,” conceding: “the system is built to spend.”  Even conservative Kansans came asking him for more, not less, federal spending.

Brownback then began a political chapter for which he became nationally known — his full display of faith in the public square. He became associated with fundamentalist and evangelical Christian leaders, and his religious affiliation shifted from mainline Protestant to evangelical, and eventually to Catholicism. He dedicated himself to “renewing the culture” through legal action, for example, by removing constitutional protections for abortion, banning same-sex marriage through constitutional amendment, curtailing federal courts from ruling on official expressions of religious beliefs, and encouraging the teaching of evolution controversy in public schools.

The political expression of his spiritual journey also exhibited compassion for the oppressed as he acted to aid incarcerated felons who he felt deserved a second chance, victims of human trafficking, casualties of genocide in Darfur, starving children of the Congo, and Native Americans who had suffered from past mistreatment.

So, will the real Sam Brownback as Kansas governor please stand up?

Will he continue as a spiritual activist, a path no Kansas governor has tread?  Issues of faith in the public square have not appeared in gubernatorial bid, and the campaign has distanced itself from earlier religious association. This void leaves both supporters and detractors wondering about its reappearance on a gubernatorial agenda.

Will he return as fiscal hawk?  His campaign ads say he will freeze spending and cut taxes, but his experience raises questions.  Will he replicate federal taxing, spending, and borrowing practices on Kansas, further compounding state government’s distressed fiscal condition? Or, has he learned what to avoid and how to steer the state onto a sustainable financial course?

Or, will he reemerge as a progressive, in the lineage of most Kansas governors?  His campaign “road map” focuses on the substantive issues facing Kansas — the economy, education, and poverty — and portends a pragmatic, forward looking agenda for Kansas, reflective of his earliest political period.

Flentje is a professor at Wichita State University and coauthor of a new book on Kansas politics.