‘You've got the largest target on your back‘: Senate President Ty Masterson reflects on first session in charge

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, makes his way to a republican caucus meeting Friday at the Statehouse.

Ty Masterson thought he knew what he was signing up for when he became Kansas Senate president.

When the Andover Republican was formally elected to the post in December, it culminated a trajectory that took Masterson and his trademark three-piece suits and silky smooth drawl from conservative firebrand all the way to one of the most powerful positions in Topeka.

A natural successor to his predecessor, Sen. Susan Wagle, Masterson appeared set to partner with a similarly conservative majority leader and a caucus that drifted noticeably further to the right during the 2020 elections — while still maintaining a supermajority, allowing them to effectively do battle with Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.

But Masterson's best laid plans quickly were flipped on their head.

The now infamous arrest of former Senate Majority Leader Gene Suellentrop, R-Wichita, for allegedly eluding law enforcement and drinking under the influence was, suffice to say, an unexpected bump in the road for Masterson's start at the helm.

"It was certainly way more than I bargained for," Masterson said.

The saga culminated in Suellentrop's ouster after weeks of swirling rumors and tense intra-caucus conversations, with Masterson publicly admitting he was disappointed his former leadership counterpart didn't step down himself.

More:Gene Suellentrop ousted from Senate leadership post after DUI charges as caucus support erodes

Masterson's Salvador Dali-esque tie for that fateful day was perhaps a metaphor for how quickly the chamber had drifted from the rigmarole of policymaking to a bizarre sideshow, which made national headlines.

But despite the turmoil, Masterson said he was confident in how he steered the caucus and the chamber through both the Suellentrop saga and the session as a whole.

"I'd like to say that I handled it with calmness, trying to have a steady hand on the wheel as we went through it all," he said. "You know, it's tough when you're in that position, because you've got the largest target on your back inside and outside of the dome."  

‘I do not believe in the cancel culture‘

Dispensing with the elephant in the room, Masterson said there is no expectation as to whether Suellentrop resigns his seat in the Legislature.

While the vote to remove him from his leadership position was overwhelming, Masterson has maintained the decision for Suellentrop to keep his seat rests with the lawmaker and his constituents.

The legal process for Suellentrop remains ongoing, with a court hearing set for early July on the matter. 

Sen. Gene Suellentrop, R-Wichita

Despite the controversy, Masterson praised Suellentrop as a "very capable and effective" legislator, who still had valuable expertise despite his "bad mistake."

"I do not believe in the cancel culture," Masterson said. "I think redemption is necessary and even wise, and I would like others to forgive and restore with me anytime I make a mistake. And I feel like I that's what I try to accomplish with other members of the body. And so I certainly hold that to be true with my relationship with Gene."

More:Kansas Senate Republicans elect new majority leader Larry Alley after a tumultuous session

Masterson noted that "everyone had a different opinion" as to how to handle the situation, with the arrest coming firmly in the thick of the body's legislative work.

"Managing through some of that, that just created a lot of unnecessary tension," Masterson said.

But Masterson drew praise for the ultimate resolution of the situation. 

"Yes, there are hiccups that go along — we're human beings, it's (Masterson's) first year," said Sen. Rick Wilborn, R-McPherson. "But, in general, it was a marvelous year for him."

Despite controversies, some bipartisan success in Kansas Senate

Masterson has long been a lightening rod for controversy, dating to his appointment as chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee after he declared personal bankruptcy. 

And there was no shortage of controversy in 2021, particularly focusing a slate of tax cuts enacted over the veto of Gov. Laura Kelly, as well as legislation barring transgender athletes from girls' and women's sports.

More:Kansas legislators fail to overcome veto on transgender athlete ban, as supporters look to future

While LGBT activists assailed the transgender athletes effort as targeting a vulnerable population, Masterson predicted it would return in 2022.

"There may be a new thing, because the culture is constantly shifting," he said. "But that doesn't change the this particular fact. And I think that was a very distorted issue."

Masterson also won some bipartisan kudos for his work. That included a compromise deal to fund schools, while also allowing conservatives to save face with an expansion of Kansas' school choice offerings.

He also pointed to the success of efforts to help businesses and local governments affected by sky-high utility costs stemming from winter storms, as well as legislation aimed at increasing transparency for property tax bills.

Overall, the Legislature's efforts saw 112 bills signed into law, the most since 2018 and more than some years during the administrations of Govs. Sam Brownback and Jeff Colyer, when Republicans had unified control of government in Kansas.

"I thought this session was maybe the most collegial session I've ever seen," Wilborn said, "even though we're deeply divided by ideology." 

Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, and Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, D-Lenexa, talk before the first day of the 2021 legislative session.

Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, D-Lenexa, has the unique experience of serving alongside Masterson and Wagle — she was a member of the Republican caucus until 2018, when she opted to change parties.

And while Sykes predictably didn't endorse Masterson's policy agenda, she noted they had a more productive working relationship.

"It has been easier for me to work with Ty than even to work with Susan (Wagle) when I was in her own caucus," Sykes said.

Redistricting, medical marijuana loom for Kansas Senate next year

With the 2021 session in the review mirror, the focus for lawmakers will slowly begin to shift to next year, made all the more important by the fact that an election beckons.

While no members of the Kansas Senate will be on the ballot, it will still mark an important year as the state GOP aims to take back the governor's mansion and consolidate control of statewide offices. That will likely shape the rhetoric in Topeka and ratchet up tensions under the Statehouse dome.

Perhaps the biggest agenda item will be the once-in-a-decade redistricting process. As the population of eastern Kansas grows, it is expected the focus for map-drawers will shift eastward as well. And Republicans are likely to focus their attention on outflanking U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, Kansas' lone Democrat in Congress.

They also will attempt to avoid a repeat of the messy 2012 redistricting battle, which resulted in a three-member panel of federal judges drawing the maps. Either way, Masterson said he anticipated "an attempt" to go to court by activists over the end product.

"They're gonna sue us no matter what the map comes out," he said.

For now, however, the process is in a holding pattern, as members wait from data from the U.S. Census Bureau, with the actual map drawing set to begin in 2022, in accordance the Kansas Constitution. The goal was to get the Senate redistricting committee stood up in the next 30 days, Masterson said, with an eye towards "a map that gets bipartisan votes."

Also on deck for the Senate will be medical marijuana, an issue which gained historic progress in 2021 by passing out of the House. That puts it squarely in front of the Senate to consider when members return to Topeka in January, with the body never before considering a medical cannabis proposal.

More:Kansas House signs off on medical marijuana bill, giving supporters hope for next session

Masterson acknowledged it had "become a mature issue" and has previously indicated he would be supportive of the idea if proper regulatory safeguards were in place to limit how sweeping a potential medical marijuana program will be.

"The subject matter will be dealt with next year," he said.

From the Democratic perspective, Sykes said her caucus was focused on remaining engaged with constituents in the months to come. While their path forward will remain limited as a minority party, she said they would be ready to pounce if Masterson and his colleagues get too aggressive in an election year.

"The other side may overplay their hand in dealing with their base, but we're going to be fighting for policies that impact the lives of Kansans and make them better," Sykes said.

But Masterson said he didn't believe that would be the case, arguing his caucus is a fitting representation of the range of political views in Kansas — something which made them more effective than in the past.

"I think the caucus for one of the first times accurately reflects the broader population of Kansas," he said. "I was pleased to see that we were able to accomplish a lot from a conservative agenda standpoint, and that's with a Democrat governor ... We accomplished (in 2021) a whole lot more than I ever even anticipated on day one."