Kathleen Gilligan Sebelius ’70, Secretary of the US Department of Health & Human Services

by Elizabeth Palmer ’92

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Trinity Magazine in Fall 2002 prior her being elected governor of Kansas. She was re-elected to a second term in 2006.  In spring 2009, she was nominated by President Barack Obama to be the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

“I am running for governor because I am committed to the people and the state of Kansas.”

For Kansas Insurance Commissioner Kathleen Gilligan Sebelius ’70, it is a campaign promise practiced not so much in front of the mirror as in her long and distinguished career in public service.

She was first tapped for elected office when the Kansas House of Representatives seat in her district opened up. Her reputation as a community advocate already secure, she leveraged her service on such distinguished and bipartisan efforts as chair of the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Prison Overcrowding and member of the Governmental Ethics Commission, the Governor’s Task Force on Professional Negotiations, the Kansas Children’s Commission and the Kansas Natural Resources Council, among other positions, and secured a seat she held for seven years until her election to the Office of Insurance Commissioner in 1994.

Sebelius’ presence in the state House ushered in a new commitment to children and families.

“Our sons and daughters and their friends will inherit this state,” reads a 1987 campaign brochure. “It is important to me that they have the opportunity to enjoy the special spirit of Kansas.”

Sebelius was a founding member and first chair of a new legislative committee dedicated to children and families, and her leadership and ability to build coalitions across party lines proved invaluable when the legislature undertook the task of overhauling the state’s public education system, an issue that remains at the top of her list of priorities as the state’s Democratic nominee for governor.

Her own family was quite young when she first took office. She and husband Gary, an attorney, had two sons, Ned and John, who were five and two, respectively. The annual 90-day legislative sessions provided an opportunity to work on the issues close to her heart without sacrificing family time and commitments.

“We’ve really tried hard to balance family issues and political issues,” Sebelius said. “I am not interested in working in Washington, I have always wanted to be at home and be available to the kids, and I’ve been very lucky to have had jobs where I could work on issues that I thought were important and yet not have to give up time with the kids and family.

“Both Gary and I felt that it was very important that their lives were as normal as possible, that they participate only when they wanted to, and that this was my job, not their job,” she continued. “They have opted in and out as their interests have changed.”

This remains true in her current campaign as son Ned has taken a leave of absence from Georgetown this semester to hit the campaign trail with Mom. Sebelius’ tenure as insurance commissioner has seen a remarkable turnaround in the administration of the entire industry in Kansas.

“I found myself in 1994 running for insurance commissioner because I had been on the insurance committee and I thought it was an office that really needed an overhaul,” explained Sebelius.

Refusing campaign contributions from companies or individuals involved in the insurance industry, Sebelius set about the work of transforming a long entrenched “good-’ol boy network” of insurance bureaucracy into the consumer oriented agency that it is today. Under her leadership, the budget was trimmed of wasteful excess and outdated regulatory practices, while the number and variety of services, citizens served and accessibility were dramatically increased.

She has advocated better coverage for childbirth issues, including mandated coverage for 48-hour hospital stays following childbirth, cleared bureaucratic roadblocks and red tape for seniors navigating the Medicare and prescription drug coverage systems, and cracked down on gender discrimination in insurance coverage.

“I don’t mind standing up to the big powerful lobbies, I think that is the role you play in public office,” she said. “A lot of the consumers don’t have an organized lobby to advocate on their behalf. Those of us who are elected need to have that voice, and that is really what I have tried to do as insurance commissioner.

“There will always be well paid, very articulate lobbyists for industries that make money,” she continued. “What needs to happen is that the other side needs to be brought in, we need to bring that viewpoint to the table.”

In addition, Sebelius has continued to lead by example on family issues in the workplace, instituting a successful “Babies to Work” program for new moms and dads in her own agency, a program which has served as a model for other Kansas agencies and organizations which have since adopted such programs. She advocates flex-time, job sharing programs and other initiatives to help families balance the often competing interests of work and family.

While recognizing that gender can be a hindrance to women candidates in many places, Sebelius does not feel that it poses a liability for her own prospects.
“Kansas has a long and rich history of electing women to political office. In fact, before suffrage, we had all women governments in this state. We are one of the few states in the country where women have served in every elected office. It is also a state founded by abolitionists, so there is a long strain of equality issues and suffrage issues that have been a real part of Kansas history.”

Sebelius’ own political career may well be said to have begun as far back as early childhood. The daughter of former Ohio Governor and U.S. Congressman John Gilligan, she was introduced to the campaign trail, as well as the responsibility of public officials, to observe a high standard of service to their constituencies.

“My father was involved in politics for about 25 years from the time I was 5,” she said. “In spite of the fact that I have been exposed to politics for most of my life, it really was more about community service. My Dad was always committed to that as a way to give something back, make a difference, and work on issues you cared about, but never really suggested to me the notion that I would be a candidate.”

Her marriage to Gary Sebelius, the son of the late Keith Sebelius, a member of the Kansas Legislature and later U.S. Congressman from western Kansas, and a Republican, created a bipartisan family network of seasoned campaigners which has helped propel her race for the governor’s office.

“My Dad is constantly involved as an advisor, and my brother was just here and is coming back with one of my nephews to do some campaigning in October,” she said.

“My sister and my older brother are also coming in October. Gary’s brother, who is a Republican and the elected county attorney, is heading up the Republicans for Sebelius effort in Western Kansas, but he is also very much a part of the “kitchen cabinet” and comes in on a regular basis to meet with us, so there is a lot of support from both sides. It is great to have political junkies for relatives, because they are very handy; you can drop them down and they know how to do a phone bank, they know how to organize, they are very useful.”

Her Trinity experience has also played a part in her political career. The political science major, who also holds a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Kansas, credits her Trinity experience with reinforcing the messages about public service that she had been raised on.

“I had several internships while at Trinity. I worked at a school on North Capitol Street and we used to do basketball clinics with the kids; I played basketball at Trinity, and that was an ongoing project. 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.”

Trinity Board of Trustees Chair Peggy O’Brien ’69, a close friend at Trinity and ever since, has similar recollections of their time at Trinity in the tumultuous era of the late 1960s.

“What the charge was, was to save the world, and everywhere you looked, the world needed saving,” said O’Brien. “There was never any sense that anything after Trinity could hold you back.”

Is she surprised to see her old friend running poised to join a company of only 12 women in American history to be elected to a governorship?

“No one who knows her is at all surprised that she is doing this,” O’Brien said. “She doesn’t want to be the boss, she just likes to get in there and get things done, and she just flat knows how to do it.

“She is that rare combination of a strong leader with deep convictions and an open-minded person with a gift for being a good listener. It is a rare and wonderful trait, especially in politics.”

Fellow Kansan Kathleen Prochaska ’56, a resident of Sebelius’ former state legislative district, agrees.

“She can talk to anyone, and she listens like she is hearing the most important thing in the world. She understands the things that everyday people care about, and she knows how to motivate politicians to do the right things about them.”
So when did Sebelius begin to see herself as a candidate?

“Really just shortly before I ran for the legislature,” she said. “When I came to Kansas, I quickly got involved in political activities. I worked on people’s campaigns; I worked on the campaign of the woman who was in my legislative seat. When she decided in 1986 to run statewide for secretary of state she said to me why don’t you run?”

And she is still running.

Editor’s Note: This publication went to press prior to election day. Kathleen Sebelius was subsequently elected Governor of Kansas.

Elizabeth Palmer is a freelance writer and president of Palmer Fitzgerald Communications, a Democratic political consulting firm. She is a 1992 graduate of Trinity College with a degree in international studies. Currently, she lives in Colorado Springs, Colo., and serves on the Alumnae Association Board of Directors.


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