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Kansas Speaker Hawkins Draws on Military Experience to Lead House

Let people know what the standards are and reward them when they perform well, he says.

By Taylor Huhn  |  July 13, 2023

Daniel Hawkins had no expectation of serving in leadership when he was first elected to the Kansas House of Representatives in 2013. That changed with time.

After three years he was made a committee chair and then was encouraged to run for majority leader, a position he held for four years.

“That period of time was perfect, because it gave me the experience and the knowledge to be able to eventually serve as speaker,” Hawkins says. “I watched and learned how the speaker at that time worked through things in the chamber, and we worked very well together. That experience led to there being very few surprises for me once I became speaker.”

Now that he’s finished his first session as speaker, NCSL asked him about his approach to leadership and legislating.

What inspired you to run for the Legislature?

Back in 2006, then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius was trying to bring universal health care to Kansas. I’m an employee benefits insurance agent, so group health insurance is a big deal in my business. None of my clients—mostly small businesses—wanted universal health care. I started getting involved with the state representative from my district to share my thoughts on the proposal, which ultimately did not pass. After that experience, I said to my wife one day, “You know, if the representative ever decides to retire, I think I might take a shot at it.” Well, that’s not quite what happened. Instead, redistricting happened, and he got drawn out of the district, leaving an empty seat in my district. So, I decided to run for it.

What motivated you to eventually pursue a leadership role?

My first year in the Legislature was especially difficult, because it wasn’t anything like I expected it to be. I had to really buckle in and try to learn the system, and I did that by immersing myself in the health and human services arena. That paid off, because I was made the health chair in my third year, which was like jumping from the frying pan right into the fire, but I really enjoyed it. It’s a position that few people really want, but I enjoyed serving there for four years.

I never had an aspiration to be a majority leader or speaker. I was pretty happy being the health chair. But here in Kansas, while we don’t have term limits on legislators, we do have limits on leadership positions. It’s expected that you don’t stay in a leadership position more than two terms. When these positions opened up because of the term limits, people pushed me to go for it.

Are those leadership term limits set by tradition, or are they formally written into the chamber rules?

Previously, it was only based on tradition. However, the last speaker served three terms, which was unusual, but it was an unusual time. We were in the throes of COVID, and there was a new Democratic governor, and it seemed like if there was ever a time for a three-term speaker, this might be it. From my standpoint, knowing what we know now, that was really a good decision. But when we put together our rules for the current biennium, we did adopt an amendment to formalize the traditional two-term limit on speakers into the rules.

Having just completed your first session as speaker, what aspects of the new role did you enjoy?

I really enjoyed putting together a comprehensive plan for the session, which we called “A Better Way.” In the past, our caucus reacted to whatever was thrown at us. So, when it became apparent that I would run unopposed to become the next speaker, I started going around the state, meeting with all our members. I think I put 6,000 miles on my car during that process. But there was a purpose for all those miles. I wanted to get our members to participate in creating this plan, so that we could be ready for the session.

The plan had eight buckets of ideas, based on what was important to our members. We rolled it out to our caucus the second day of session, and it gave each of our members a road map of things that they could talk to their constituents about as the days went along during the session.

As bills were introduced, we could match them to a bucket, and then we could use those buckets as a scorecard to show to our constituents. Watching that materialize and watching the effects of it was the most enjoyable part of the session for me. For the first time, the Legislature wasn't just reacting, it was moving toward something, and that’s really important to me.

What were the challenges in your first session as speaker?

We have a supermajority of Republicans in the House and a supermajority in the Senate, but we have a Democratic governor. There are times when we can work together on things, but there’s a lot of times when it doesn’t go so well. This year, we experienced 37 vetoes, which was the most vetoes in the past 50 or 60 years. That caused us a lot of work to try to override as many as we could. We actually ended up overriding 11 vetoes, which might be the most overrides there have ever been in the history of Kansas. It’s not only a challenge; it’s also just frustrating. We tried to put together legislation that would pass muster. I really think that we put together a great tax plan, which included some things we wanted and some things she wanted, but she vetoed it anyway. We just didn’t have the votes to override her veto. But that’s not going to stop us. We’re going to come back and do it again next year.

How did your background prepare you for a leadership role?

My military experience probably prepared me more than anything. In the military, you don’t get to choose who works for you. You have to figure out how you can get the best out of who they send you. That’s kind of the way we are in the Legislature. We don’t get to choose who’s going to come and work with us. The voters send that person, and it’s up to us to try to assimilate them and get them to perform at the best level that we possibly can. I think we’ve done a very good job of it.

Some of the best leaders that I worked for were in the Army. I served under (a captain) for several years in the artillery (who) was an awesome leader. He wasn’t a strong-arm type of guy, but he let you know exactly what the standards were. And when you performed well, he rewarded you. We try to do the same thing when our members do well. We publish an email newsletter every single week on Friday, even during the off-season. We try to call out our members who have done something really special. Whether it’s legislation, or even something on a personal level, we always try to make sure that people get recognized for what they do. Because they’re the ones that are doing the work.

Taylor Huhn is a program manager with NCSL’s Leaders and International Program.

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