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Name: Sebelius, Kathleen
Current Position: Former Secretary

Kathleen Sebelius, President Barack Obama’s second choice for Secretary of Health and Human Services, was sworn in on April 28, 2009. As governor of Kansas, she earned a reputation as a political moderate who worked well with Republicans and possessed wonkish understanding of health policy. But she did little during her time as governor to bring about substantial change in the state’s health coverage or costs—which might explain Obama’s decision not to give Sebelius the dual assignment of running the new White House Office of Health Care Reform, which the previous nominee, Tom Daschle, would have had, had he not pulled out.

Born May 15, 1948, into a Roman Catholic family in Cincinnati, OH, Sebelius was exposed to politics from an early age. Her father, Democrat John Gilligan, served as governor of Ohio from 1971-1975. She attended the Summit Country Day School in Cincinnati, followed by Trinity Washington University in Washington, DC, where she met her future husband, Gary Sebelius, whose father, Keith, was a Republican congressman from Kansas.
After graduating with a BA in political science in 1970, Kathleen married Gary in 1974, and the two settled in Topeka, Kansas, where she worked as a special assistant to the state’s secretary of corrections from 1975 to 1977. She later attended graduate school at the University of Kansas, earning her Master of Public Administration in 1977, before becoming executive director of the Kansas Trial Lawyers Association (1977-1987).
In 1984, Sebelius served as Gary Hart’s campaign coordinator in Kansas during the Democratic primary for president. Her own political career began in 1986, with her election to the Kansas House of Representatives. She served eight years in the state legislature.
In 1994 Sebelius ran for state insurance commissioner and won a surprising victory, becoming the first Democrat to hold the post. She was credited with bringing the agency out from under the influence of the insurance industry. She refused to take campaign contributions from insurers and blocked the proposed buyout of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas, the state’s largest health insurer, by Indiana-based Anthem Insurance. Her decision marked the first time the corporation had been rebuffed in its acquisition attempts. Her work as insurance commissioner resulted in being named one of Governing magazine’s Public Officials of the Year in 2001.
In 2002, Sebelius ran for governor of Kansas and defeated Republican Tim Shallenburger, 53%-45%. In doing so, she became the first daughter of a governor in U.S. history to also be elected governor.
Her gubernatorial victory—in a state where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats 2-to-1—elevated Sebelius to national prominence among Democrats in Washington.
In November 2005, Time named Sebelius as one of the five best governors in America, praising her for eliminating the $1.1 billion debt she inherited, ferreting out waste in state government, and strongly supporting public education – all without raising taxes, although she did proposed raising sales, property, and income taxes. She was also credited for her bipartisan approach to governing, which was critical since Republicans dominate the Kansas State Legislature.
Sebelius was easily re-elected governor in 2006, beating GOP State Senator Jim Barnett by 17 percentage points. During her two terms as governor, Sebelius enjoyed some victories on the issue of health care reform. She got Kansas to join a multi-state consortium that allowed Kansans to order prescription drugs from Canada, Great Britain and Ireland, often at a lower price than they cost in the United States. She also pushed through changes that added tens of thousands of children from low-income households to state health programs.
But more substantial health care reforms did not materialize under her watch, including two attempts to raise Kansas’ cigarette tax to expand medical coverage. Both times she was thwarted by Republican legislators, who objected to the tax increases and wanted a more market-based solution. In her 2007 State of the State address, she called for universal health care for Kansans, but declined to detail how she would pay for it. Republicans dubbed the idea “Hillarycare” in reference to former First Lady Hillary Clinton’s failed 1993 reform effort. Sebelius later condemned President George W. Bush for vetoing an expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, and called offering health care to children a “moral obligation.”
She vetoed anti-abortion legislation in Kansas in 2003, 2005, 2006, and in 2008, including a bill in April 2008 that sought to strengthen the state’s late-term abortion law. Kansas City Archbishop Joseph Naumann asked that Sebelius no longer receive Holy Communion because of her position on abortion. He also criticized her for vetoing the late-term abortion bill. Meanwhile, the governor’s office claimed that abortions declined 8.5% while Sebelius was in office, thanks to health care reforms she initiated, including adoption incentives, extended health services for pregnant women, and sex education. Planned Parenthood has been a strong supporter of Sebelius.
On other policy issues, Sebelius pushed for more widespread recycling efforts across the state, and she vetoed bills authorizing the construction of coal-fired power plants on three separate occasions. She also vetoed a concealed weapons law that would have allowed citizens to carry handguns after obtaining a state permit and passing an FBI background check. She vetoed a similar bill in 2006, but this time her veto was overturned by both the House and Senate.
Sebelius did not support an April 2005 amendment to the Kansas Constitution that outlawed same-sex marriage, saying she supported existing state law banning such unions. The constitutional amendment passed with 70% voter approval.
In 2008 Sebelius endorsed Barack Obama early in his primary battle against Hilary Clinton, and campaigned fiercely on his behalf, often acting as a surrogate to women’s groups.
After the November 2008 election, Sebelius was considered a prime candidate for a post in Obama’s cabinet. But she officially withdrew her name from consideration on December 6. Shortly thereafter, US Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) announced his retirement from the Senate and his plan to run for governor. Some analysts speculated that Sebelius (who was prevented from running for a third time as governor due to term limits) would, in turn, run for Brownback’s Senate seat.
Sebelius has served on the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Prison Overcrowding, the Kansas Children’s Commission, and the Kansas Natural Resource Council. She also has served as chair of the National Governors Association (NGA), the NGA’s Executive Committee, and its initiative, “Securing a Clean Energy Future.” She also has been chair of the Education Commission of the States.
Sebelius’s husband, Gary, has been a federal judge for 34 years. The couple has two sons. One is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design and the other is a law student.
Sebelius's Political Skills, Experience Win Plaudits (by Michael Fletcher, Washington Post)
Kathleen Sebelius: Two decades in politics (Lawrence Journal-World & News)
Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius (by Alex Altman, Time)
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