Kelly Looks for Pathways to Compromise
By Krista Rinehart, CSG Toll Fellows Program Director
Kansas Sen. Laura Kelly came of age in a very tumultuous time in U.S. history. Her experiences as a camp counselor and young adult listening to the refrains of Joan Baez shaped her worldview and leadership style and may well have helped prepare her to serve in today’s equally contentious times.
Kelly remembers her first position of leadership as a village leader at a New York summer camp fondly. It was a position she had to fight for—an experience that would teach her valuable lessons in humanity and leadership.
“It was the summer of ’68,” said Kelly. “The unrest with the Vietnam War was coming to a head. Martin Luther King had been assassinated, inciting riots in our cities. The campers’ behavior reflected what was going on in the streets.”
The summer before, Kelly had worked as a counselor for 12 girls at the same camp. After a rocky two weeks—including runaways and an attack by an ax-wielding camper—she and her co-counselor changed their approach.
“We realized these kids were coming from chaos and needed structure and security,” she said.
Camp leaders praised the changes after Kelly was able to channel her campers’ energy more effectively and productively.
But when she sought the position of village leader, her youth stood in the way. She would not be swayed. She went to the director’s home in Washington, D.C., for a face-to-face meeting and came away the youngest village leader on the staff.
While her first attempt to gain a position of leadership ended well, that would not always be the case. In fact, Kelly says a failed attempt at a promotion had the most profound impact on her leadership style and abilities. After several years of successfully building the Recreation Therapy and Physical Education Department, Kelly applied for a leadership position within the same hospital and felt confident she would get it. She didn’t.
“Craig (Melin, her boss and close friend) said that while I was effective getting the job done, I could also be insensitive to others,” said Kelly.
She admits he was right. So she worked on it. In her application for The Council of State Governments’ Toll Fellows 2010 class, Kelly wrote, “There is nothing more important to leadership than knowing who you are trying to lead and to where. You must listen, you must understand, you must cultivate consensus and you must champion the compromise.”
Kelly ran for the Kansas legislature in 2005 at the urging of then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. It wasn’t the first time Sebelius had encouraged her to seek the office. Earlier, however, Kelly’s children were still young. That had changed the second time around.
“My daughters were grown, the current incumbent did not provide the quality of representation our district needed and deserved, and it was very difficult to say no to Kathleen Sebelius once, much less twice,” she said.
While Sebelius urged her to seek office, Kelly credits her father and the popular culture influences of her youth with influencing her worldview and instilling a desire to serve.
“My commitment to social and public service was first instilled by my father, who was a career military officer,” said Kelly. “Every day, he trained, and trained others, to protect and defend our country. I saw public service as a way of life and knew no other.”
She also was profoundly affected by folk artists.
“I would spend countless hours listening to artists like Joan Baez whose songs told the stories of the poor, of wars, of injustice,” she said. “I wanted to make a difference in the lives of those around me.”
Kelly began making a difference in the lives of summer campers and continues to make her mark by quietly working with others to reach a consensus on the issues. She has found the ability to govern often requires a willingness to step out of the limelight.
“I have no problem with others getting the credit,” said Kelly. “In fact, I will often push others to the forefront, knowing they will be more enthusiastic about working with me on the next issue.”
Such political capital can prove invaluable when seeking to build consensus in today’s divisive political environment. As a child of the ’60s, Kelly is all too familiar with discord and is equally aware that rhetoric does not solve problems.
“I try to avoid heated political debate,” said Kelly. “I tend to take a relatively low profile until I understand the issues and others’ concerns and positions. Then I look for areas of agreement and pathways to compromise.”
While she has been able to build support on partisan issues such as campaign finance and ethics, Kelly worries that the political discourse on a whole is growing too contentious.
“If the electorate continues to support legislators who participate in heated rhetoric and refuse to compromise,” she said, “it will be nearly impossible to ensure that enacted policy is in the best interests of the vast majority of citizens.”