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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Sebelius To HHS

Today’s official announcement that Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius would replace Tom Daschle as the designee for Secretary of Health and Human Services was no surprise, but as someone who’s watched her career pretty closely since well before she was elected governor, I certainly think she’s a very good choice. She’s smart, focused, fully in control of her ego, and has a wealth of relevant experience. Like any governor, she knows public health care programs quite well, and as a former state insurance commissioner, she understands the perilous intersections of public policy and private markets in health care as well.
Anyone considering her too much of a “centrist” should be aware of how effectively she’s made herself anathema to hard-core anti-abortionists in a state that used to be one of their playgrounds. And she’s a very good politician, as her success in hyper-Republican Kansas attests. No, she hasn’t been able to get the GOP-controlled Kansas legislature to go along with her efforts to expand public health care coverage, but she now joins an administration that’s in a stronger position to overcome Republican resistance, and can probably help pull a few GOPers across the line (it’s interesting that both Bob Dole and Pat Roberts chose to appear at her White House announcement ceremony).
Some of you may know this from the speculation over Sebelius as a possible Obama Veep back during the summer, but she’s also from a pretty notable political family. She’s the daughter of John J. “Jack” Gilligan, who was governor of Ohio back in the 1970s, and a much revered figure in Buckeye Democratic circles before and after that. They are, in fact, the first father-daughter combo who have both served as governors.
My favorite moment with Kathleen Sebelius was the time I had the opportunity to tell her an anecdote about her father she had never heard before, told to me by a friend who was his press secretary during a failed U.S. Senate run in 1968. Gilligan is famously a cerebral sort, and his campaign staff was trying to make him more of a regular guy for the benefit of blue-collar swing voters. So they arranged a photo op wherein he would go to a serious working-class bar in some seriously working-class community like Parma and consume a shot-and-a-beer.
Gilligan wasn’t that happy with the idea, but gamely went to the bar, trailing cameras and reporters, on the appointed night, when the joint was full of sweaty, beefy factory workers. On cue, the bartender asked him to name his poison, and looking right at my friend the press secretary, he said: “I’ll have a glass of sherry.”
Let’s hope Secretary Sebelius fully inherited that sense of humor. With health care reform on tap, she’ll need it.

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