When you first see Laura Kelly, you can’t help but be surprised at how small – almost downright tiny – she is. She stands probably 5 feet tall at best, and maybe 110 pounds soaking wet. She often has to use a lift to be seen from behind a podium. But if you’re in the room with Kelly for only a few minutes, you realize quickly she’s no pushover.

Like bullies on the playground, anyone who thinks they can push around this small and diminutive woman is in for a big surprise. Just spend a few minutes with her and you’ll see, she’s straight forward, clear and precise on her agenda, and won’t be intimidated.

It’s a formula that’s obviously gotten her to the top of Kansas government and an approach she’ll have to stick with if she expects to accomplish anything during her four-year term as Kansas governor. With both the Kansas Senate and House controlled by Republicans, she’ll have to pick wisely her political battles and rely heavily on her role as the state’s top administrator to get things done.

It’s an approach we already see her taking, with the Department of Children and Families. She immediately replaced the department head and put on hold a massive overhaul planned for the department. More than legislation, the improvements in DCF will come from administrative changes in how programs are administered and that’s where Gov. Kelly can shine.

Kelly says she’s “passionate” about DCF and the families and children they serve. As a state senator, Kelly served on the child welfare task force that dug deep into the state’s system to make recommendations for change.

“As governor, I’m going to be looking at those (task force recommendations) and selecting staffing and a leader for that agency who can implement the relevant recommendations from the task force,” said Kelly. “I will be very involved as governor with that particular issue…. I will not disengage.”

Where else will you see Kelly focus her attention? Beyond foster care, she points to education, the budget, Medicaid expansion, Investment in Kansas’ infrastructure as her top issues. Although her concerns may go beyond those issues, she says that’s where her attention will be focused.

“I can’t do everything,” said Kelly. “I don’t want to raise people’s expectations so that they are sort of disappointed when we don’t get it done.”

She asks her supporters, as well as those who opposed her, to be patient.

“It’s going to take years, to fix the problems in this state,” suggested Kelly. Plus, she says bringing up her political position again, “Anything I’m going to do, I’m going to have to get it through the legislature.”

Exactly where does Kelly stand on the issues in the Kansas Black Leadership Council Agenda?

Expand Medicaid: She supports it.

Same Day Voter Registration: The concept is something Kelly says she can support. “If the legislature sends me a bill, I’ll sign it,” said Kelly. A little later on she stepped back on that statement. “I’m not going to tell you that I’m going to support a bill that I haven’t seen yet.” Kelly pointed out that often bills have things added on to a measure, i.e, a “poison pill.” “I have to make sure the bill comes to me clean.”

Cap Payday Loan Rates: Although she’s aware of the problem with individuals getting stuck in the cycle of payday loans and that the interest rates are onerous, this isn’t an issue that Kelly says she’ll be personally working on this year. “Here’s the deal,” she continued, “there will be others who are leading the charge on that.”

Criminal Justice Reform: While KBLC’s focus was on de-felonizing drug-possession, expanding the use of diversion and reforming civil asset forfeiture laws, Kelly’s focus seemed to lean heavily on “back-end” reforms, improving the situation for those who are in prison.

Kelly says she’d like to move away from a punitive approach to incarceration into a more rehabilitative approach. By providing training for individuals while they’re in prison, she says, “When they get out, they have access to a job, so they can provide for themselves and their family.”

She referenced a successful similar model being used in South Dakota.

“I’m going to study that model, and as soon as we get our corrections folks on board, look at how they did and what we can do to model that here in Kansas,” Kelly said.

Another criminal justice measure she supports is redirecting non-violent first-time drug offenders into treatment rather than incarceration, a process that is already being used in many of the state’s more progressive cities.

Backing up to before sentencing guidelines are even needed, Kelly says the focus should be on quality early childhood education opportunities as a way to keep individuals out of prison later in life. She pointed to The Opportunity Project, a private preschool program in Wichita that’s having good results. The program is known for making high quality early learning experiences available to children from low-income households.

“The first three years are critical in a child’s development,” pointed out Kelly, who admits funding these kinds of quality programs could prove to be an obstacle.

Increasing the State’s Minimum Wage: “I believe that the minimum wage is too low, but I’m not ready to say what it should be.”

Eliminate Sales Tax on Groceries: We didn’t cover this.

Designate Some State Contracts and Purchases for Small Kansas-based Businesses: KBLC’s position is that if you help small businesses, you help Black businesses because most of them are small businesses. While Kelly seemed concerned about how programs for women and minorities might be implemented in the state, once she realized this proposal wasn’t sex or race-based, she committed to building the Kansas commerce through growing businesses. “Job creating, it’s the only way our community will grow,” she said.

Finally, Kelly said she would work hard to build a diverse leadership team.

“I’m taking applications from a very diverse group of folks from across the state and beyond and will be reviewing them and selecting the very best and very brightest,” said Kelly. “I want my administration to look like Kansas and be as diverse as Kansas, and I continue to feel that way.”

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