When he retires in January, Kansas Senate President Dick Bond will leave his state capitol in much better shape than he found it — literally as well as figuratively. With the fiscal skill and precision characteristic of his long political career, Bond jiggered the interest between the state’s unclaimed funds and pension accounts to come up with $40 million for the first renovation of Topeka’s capitol building since World War I.
Bond has called the project “the only thing I’ve done that will have lasting value and importance,” a legacy that will be remembered after most of the bills that have dominated his time in Topeka are rewritten. The renovation is symbolic of Bond’s 14-year service as a senator, which has been marked both by his love of the legislature as an institution and his desire to look beyond short-term budget disputes to invest in his state’s future.
During his final term, Bond has been especially aggressive in pursuit of policy changes, pushing for higher legislative salaries and releasing an ambitious plan to reshape K-12 education. “Government is reactionary,” Bond says. “It just sort of reacts to crisis, and we never really lay out any kind of plans or direction.”
Kansas has, in effect, a three-party system: conservative Republicans, moderate Republicans and Democrats. The three were roughly equal in the Senate during Bond’s four years as president, and early in his reign, conservatives made common cause with Democrats to thwart him.
The Republican Right was especially infuriated with Bond for watering down a death penalty bill and a ban on “partial birth” abortions. He added fuel to the opposition by not only squelching English-only legislation but also proposing that all students in the state be required to have proficiency in Spanish. Although these stances and his iron control of the Senate agenda earned him plenty of enemies, the enemies never managed to coalesce behind a single leader. So Bond won the loyalty of enough fellow Republicans to maintain effective control of the chamber for most votes.
He did that in large part by using his favorite tactic: wearing opponents down by listening to them. He has always believed that the essence of the process is letting each player act out his role. In 1999, his patience helped him persuade even senators who had signed no-tax pledges to support a boost in gas taxes to pay for a $12.6 billion highway bill.
Bond does not shy away from political hardball. Although he is not the sort of leader who punishes malcontents by assigning them dingy office space, he has kept his intraparty rivals from holding committee chairs, and he has never been above doling out favors for votes. One Democratic senator remembers telling Bond that the price of seven crucial votes on the highway bill was $50 million in local road improvements. Bond simply walked into the office of Governor Bill Graves — a close ally — and got the money. Bond always knew how many votes he controlled but, to increase his leverage, generally kept his own desires close to his vest. One longtime colleague, former House Speaker Tim Shallenburger, says that for the past decade, the first major item of business for House leaders each year has been to puzzle out what Bond might want.
Earlier in his career, Bond served 25 years as top aide to three members of Congress from eastern Kansas. Turning down opportunities to run for Congress himself, he came home and became a banker instead. But when his state Senate seat was vacated, he finally opted to seek office, and, given his political connections and fundraising skills, quickly emerged as a power in Topeka.
There are those in Topeka who wonder how the legislature will function next year without Bond, but he himself remains sanguine about the newcomers who will be running the soon-to-be spiffy capitol. “No one’s indispensable,” he says. “They just think they are.”
— Alan Greenblatt
Photos by Drake Sorey