Rebuilding trust in government

By Gov. Laura Kelly

The Democratic governor of Kansas on how to govern for all your constituents – no matter who they voted for. 

Gov. Kelly, Topeka, Kansas on November 7, 2022. (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)

In early 2019, I found myself in a series of crowded auditoriums, gymnasiums, and coffee shops across Kansas, sometimes holding a microphone, but more often letting others do the talking. One of the primary reasons the people of Kansas – who in 2016 had voted for Donald Trump by a 20-point margin – had just elected a Democratic governor was that politicians around here had stopped listening to them. So after I took office, I spent part of that spring in listening sessions with my new constituents, trying to start reestablishing their trust. 

A lot of what I heard was anger. Then, just like now, faith in government was at an all-time low. National politics were dominated by whoever spoke loudest on cable news, and local politics in Kansas had been overrun by ideologues – politicians who put their own agendas and ambitions ahead of what was best for their constituents.  

The state had just endured nearly eight years under my predecessor, who had implemented an experimental tax scheme that he claimed would bring about a “Midwest Renaissance.” Instead, his plan wreaked havoc on our economy and budget, leaving schools in such a desperate state that many switched to a four-day week to save money. In 2017, the Republican-controlled state legislature finally put an end to the mess. But it confirmed everything cynics believe about politicians: They promise the moon but deliver far less.  

I knew I’d only be successful if Kansans believed that I had their best interests at heart – even if they didn’t agree with me on every issue.

When I took office two years later, I set about to regain the trust that had been so badly lost. It may have seemed like a small goal, but it had high stakes. As a Democrat, I knew I’d only be successful if Kansans believed that I had their best interests at heart – even if they didn’t agree with me on every issue. 

That 2019 statewide listening tour was the first step to regaining Kansans’ confidence, but it didn’t end there. In fact, it has determined my entire roadmap as governor, which can be described as follows. 

Stay laser focused on my constituents. Voters can tell when you see your job as yet one more rung on the ladder to the top – or when you’re more focused on wading into the national culture wars than on the job at hand. Too often, American politicians are willing to politicize issues in an effort to endear themselves to national party leaders, but in a way that causes half their constituents to lose trust in them. I’ve found success by keeping my head down and focusing instead on what others may deride as boring issues: repairing streets, defending public schools, expanding affordable health care, and supporting middle-class families. Those are things that, as governor, I actually have control over, and they’re what almost all my constituents care about most.  

Deliver hard truths. Too often, politicians act with only the next news cycle in mind. But voters have a much longer memory than they’re given credit for. In Kansas, I’ve found that people appreciate when their leaders speak frankly about the long-term realities facing our state. For instance, it’s easy and popular to cut taxes, but that doesn’t mean it’s always responsible. While I’ve cut the state’s grocery and other taxes, last legislative session I had to level with Kansans when vetoing a pricey flat tax bill that reached my desk, explaining that in doing so, I was protecting our schools from the devastating funding shortfalls they had experienced a few years before. Opponents criticized the veto as a fatal political mistake, but my approval ratings rose: proof that voters appreciate honesty and recognize responsibility. 

Show up, listen, and then act. Two years ago, I repeated a version of my listening tour in western Kansas, setting up meetings with farmers, ranchers, and business owners about how to strengthen economic development efforts. But I was caught by surprise: Instead of focusing on export markets and tax incentives, all our conversations ended on the topic of water, on declining aquifer levels and ongoing droughts. One person after another shared their fears that, without a sustainable solution, their local communities would literally dry up.  

My office has heard from people across the state that they appreciate being listened to – despite the fact that many are, and will always be, Republicans.

I returned to Topeka determined not to let their worries go unheard. In the following months, I worked with both parties in the state legislature to make record investments in water infrastructure, to incentivize farmers to incorporate water-saving technology, and to hire someone to lead our administration’s water efforts. My office has heard from people across the state that they appreciate being listened to – despite the fact that many are, and will always be, Republicans. 

Focus less on party politics and more on good governance. These days, it can seem impossible for a Democrat to make progress in a red state or for a Republican to do the same in a blue one. But in my experience, success depends less on political party and more on trust. Do voters believe that you represent them? That you tell the truth? That you listen when they speak? If the answers are yes, voters will give you the benefit of the doubt, overlooking smaller ideological differences in favor of better schools, repaired roads, and a stronger economy. Here in Kansas, I’ve found that gaining voters’ trust is everything – and perhaps more surprising, that it’s possible, regardless of whether you have an R or D next to your name.  

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