Ed O’Malley is getting to know the drive between Wichita and Johnson County very, very well these days.
The former Republican member of the state legislature, who represented Roeland Park and surrounding areas in the House from 2003 to 2006, has been making the trip frequently as he pushes forward on his campaign to become the state’s next governor.
The path won’t be easy. O’Malley is one of seven adults officially seeking the Republican party’s nomination (you can count four high school students among the Republican field as well). And he’s a devout moderate operating in a primary system that has historically favored red-to-the-core conservatives.
But ask O’Malley how a mild-mannered, no-drama persona like his can compete in the primary against a conservative firebrand like Kris Kobach, and he fairly shrugs off the question.
“Kansans are craving a candidate who can bring people together. They know Kris Kobach is not that candidate.” he said. “I want this job because of what this job is — I want nothing else. I don’t want to go on to Washington. Kris Kobach clearly has ambitions for other things.”
He also points to moderates’ ouster of several conservatives in last year’s primaries as evidence that voters are looking for lawmakers focused on getting the state back on track, and that his experience makes his the best positioned to do so.
“The last primary election, August 2016, I think what we saw was that every time there was a choice between a pragmatic, problem- solving Republican against somebody who was maybe further to the right, Kansas chose the pragmatic, problem-solving Republican,” he said. “Here’s how I win: No one knows the state like I do.”
Among the candidates in the Republican field, that may very well be true. Raised in Johnson County (he and his wife Joanna graduated from Shawnee Mission South), he started his career working in the office of Gov. Bill Graves before starting his own political career. He resigned his seat in the House a month after being elected to a third term to take a position as the first-ever president and chief executive officer of the Wichita-based Kansas Leadership Center.
In that role over the past decade, O’Malley says he’s gained a unique understanding of the forces that shape the diverse communities across the state, as well as a skill for helping disparate parties understand where others are coming from. In his work with people from across the state through the KLC and during his listening tour prior to making his bid for governor official, O’Malley said he heard time and again from people in western Kansas that low agriculture and oil prices have decimated the economies of places like Pratt.
“The divide between Johnson County and the rest of the state is significant. And not healthy,” he said. “There really is a different economy going on that needs help. In Johnson County, and elsewhere in the state, we need the whole economy to thrive.”
He said that while no one expects state government to solve all their problems, Kansas could be taking steps to support industry in both its rural and more urban parts. Agricultural areas need a “great network of roads to help the crops get to market. They’re worried about roads right now because of the cutbacks.”
He also said rural areas need to have great public schools. While he wouldn’t take some consolidation of rural districts off the table, he stressed that keeping K-12 schools out west strong would be key to the sustainability of those communities.
“Maybe some consolidation is inevitable. But if the schools start to suffer from a quality standpoint, it makes it even harder to retain the young professional families who might choose to live in Hill City or in Ashland,” he said.
O’Malley has set an ambitious goal for Kansas’s K-12 system, saying that the state should look to distinguish itself by having the best public education system “in the world.” He acknowledges that such a goal will require more money — and he’s hesitant to offer details on where the legislature should be looking to find the funds required by the latest Supreme Court ruling — but he says the key to that initiative’s success would be in reframing what schools are doing to prepare students for the modern working world.
“I think it will take more resources, as the court has said, but I also don’t think that creating the best schools in the world necessarily means we have to double our funding on schools,” he said. “It will also mean we have to rethink the way we contemplate education.”
You can hear our full 12 minute interview with O’Malley below: