‘It doesn't have to be so polarized’: Documentary tracks political career of Kathleen Sebelius

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius greets lawmakers as she enters the House chamber to deliver her State of the State address in 2009. A new documentary focuses on Sebelius' political career.

There was a point in Kathleen Sebelius' childhood where her hijinks in school began to frustrate her teachers and her parents, including future Ohio Gov. John Gilligan, whose footsteps she would later follow in.

Growing up outside Cincinnati, Sebelius brushed aside her parents' chiding about her grades and instead embraced her self-proclaimed status as a "jock." As she tells it, her antics weren't about hurting anyone or causing too much trouble — but were a harbinger of things to come for her political career.

"I never wanted to hurt anybody else. I just wanted to create a bit of chaos," she said with a wry smile.

The moment, captured in the new documentary "Red State, Blue Governor," sets the stage for a review of Sebelius' political life, starting with her first forays into elected office, through her two terms as governor and culminating with her time in President Barack Obama's cabinet.

Bob Beatty, professor of political science at Washburn University, spearheaded the project alongside Josh Cannon and Lyall Ford, a former Washburn professor and current producer at KTWU. The movie will air Sept. 4 on KTWU from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. and is also available on YouTube.

The film leverages a series of interviews Beatty has conducted with past governors over the years, as well as over six hours of conversations with Sebelius herself. It also mines television ads dating back to Sebelius' earliest political campaigns, including her run for state insurance commissioner in 1994 and both gubernatorial campaigns.

Beatty noted the difficulty of sifting the wealth of material and distilling it down into a one-hour documentary — he said his first edit of the film was over twice as long as the final product.

But it was also a passion project, he said, with Beatty becoming fascinated with Sebelius' story, background and career trajectory during a 2005 documentary on the history of Kansas governors.

More:Washburn professor interviews Sebelius for historical journal

"She was, in many ways, a trailblazer," he said. "And I wanted to do more on her and delve into her story."

The realities of political life as a woman in the 1980s and 1990s were clear from the documentary. Sebelius at one point recalls enlisting a cadre of babysitters to free up time to campaign for Kansas House after returning home from work.

Kathleen Sebelius as a representative in the Kansas House on March 6, 1992. She served four terms in the body from 1987-1995.

While she at times wondered if the run was a mistake, it ultimately launched her political career, paving the way for a shocking challenge to incumbent Republican Insurance Commissioner Ron Todd. While many thought Sebelius was "crazy" for making such a move, a savvy campaign saw her best Todd and become the first Democrat to hold the office since the 1880s.

"She took a real risk in that insurance commissioner race," Beatty said. "I know there were scandals and controversy involving the incumbent but still, taking on an incumbent Republican in Kansas as a Democrat for a statewide office. You and I know nowadays that seems impossible."

Her work as insurance commissioner, including the high-profile move to reject a proposed merger of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas gave her a platform to successfully run for governor.

Breaking the partisan mold was a theme of both of Sebelius' gubernatorial campaigns, the documentary argues, as well as her work in office, particularly on school funding. 

"If you believed you were on their side, if you believed they would vote for them, they would cross party lines and vote for you," she said in a 2004 interview with Beatty.

Former Kansas State head football coach Bill Snyder, right, jokes about retirement after Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and Kansas Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh signed a proclamation in 2006 at the Statehouse.

The film also traces her role on the national stage, including her consideration for the vice president nomination by Obama in 2008 and Sebelius' eventual work as U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, both of which were born out of a close relationship with Obama.

But the thrust of the movie was on Sebelius' work in Kansas — and it comes at a time when the "red state, blue governor" mantra has a very different feel.

Gov. Laura Kelly, herself interviewed for the documentary, is set to face a stiff re-election bid, with an electoral environment in 2024 that is likely to be difficult terrain for a Democrat to win statewide in Kansas. That terrain is also noticeably different than the one Sebelius encountered in 2006, when she coasted to re-election in a 17-point victory.

But even the title of the documentary, Beatty said, shows that polarization isn't the norm in Kansas history. He said he hopes viewers — including elected officials — take note of this precedent and consider it instructive in building towards a less divided future.

"The takeaway for Gov. Kelly is the takeaway for citizens: it doesn't have to be so polarized," Beatty said. "I mean, Sebelius could say it better herself. But ... the takeaway is that what it was once like in Kansas, it doesn't mean it can't be that way again."