In the midst of the hotly contested 2014 Kansas Governor’s race, who would leand a group titled Democrats for Brownback? Meet Jim Echols. He’s probably not what you would expect.
A retired Army Veteran and an active volunteer, Echols donated numerous hours to help deliver Wyandotte County for Obama in his 2008 presidential bid. Based on his success as a political organizer, in 2012, Echols was recruited and worked as an Obama staffer in Iowa. His campaign experience, plus his level of influence and connection in Kansas City, was enough to get Brownback’s attention.
Brownback sought out and asked for Echols’ help. As a volunteer, Echols worked to help convert heavily Democratic Wyandotte voters into Brownback supporters. Echols did his job. He found numerous opportunities to get both the Governor and his wife before Kansas City voters.
Days before the election, pollsters were predicting a narrow Paul Davis victory and a major loss for Brownback in the Kansas City market. In the end, both predictions were wrong. Brownback squeaked out a victory and Kansas City played a large part in it. Instead of losing Kansas City by 40,000, Brownback’s lost the area by just 10,000 votes.
Political pundits congratulated Echols for the outcome, he humbly refused the credit. Instead, he says the outcome was more a result of what Paul Davis did not do.
“Davis never came to Kansas City,” say Echols. Davis took the county for granted and it proved to be a terrible miscalculation. After Brownback’s victory, he offered Echols a job.
Securing a full-time job wasn’t on his radar, he was “busy” enjoying retirement. Besides, he’d done government work before. In Oklahoma, Echols was an aide to a former Oklahoma Lieutenant Governor and Governor, served as a Oklahoma State Equal Opportunity Office, and worked as the Executive Director of the Oklahoma Human Rights Commission.
He was reluctant to give up his retiree lifestyle for a return to public service, however, based on the experience and access he’d gained to the governor during the election, Echols says he felt he could contribute a lot from the inside.
The new Hope Mentoring Program is an example of Echols working from the inside. He helped design the program to give low-income Kansans a boost off State assistance. Lanched in January, Hope Mentoring is patterned after Mentoring 4 Success, a program that matches prisoners with mentors to help them successfully transition form prison back into the community.
Echols has served as a mentor in that program since it was founded in 2011. During those five years, he’s helped three mentees successfully transition from prison.
Although Echols’ official title is HOPE Mentoring Program Director – the program is under the Kansas Department for Children and Families (DCF) — his influence in the administration extends much further than his official position. For example, he is the immediate- Past Chair of the Kansas Advisory Group on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. That group successfully completed an overhaul of the state’s juvenile justice system. Their reforms reduces the Department of Juvenile Justice’s focus on youth prisons and invests in community-based rehabilitation programs.
This session, the legislature passed and the governor signed a bill making the advisory group’s recommendation a new state law.
Echols admits, he and the governor don’t see eye-to-eye on every issue. A registered Democrat, Echols says he supports about half of the Democrat’s ideas and about half of the Republican’s platform.
“I’m Independent, but I’m a registered Democrat,” Echols observed. ••