Kansas commerce chief confirmed despite vocal opposition

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly will keep her top business development official after some Republicans in the Kansas Senate broke with the GOP majority and defied the state’s most influential anti-abortion group to confirm his appointment Monday.

The vote for Commerce Secretary David Toland was 23-14. Toland has been acting secretary since Kelly took office in January and would have been forced to step down if the Senate had rejected his appointment.

Toland served last year as the unpaid treasurer for Kelly’s successful campaign for governor, but Republican critics questioned his business development and recruiting credentials. He served for 11 years as executive director of Thrive Allen County, a nonprofit economic development and public health group based in his hometown of Iola, in southeast Kansas.

The anti-abortion group Kansans for Life, a power in Republican politics, announced its opposition to Toland’s appointment last week. Thrive Allen County received grants in 2015 and 2018, totaling less than $20,000, to promote women’s health from a fund named for the late Dr. George Tiller, who performed late-term abortions in Wichita.

“I can’t support him because of that,” said Sen. Rob Olson, a conservative Kansas City-area Republican who previously backed Toland but voted against his confirmation.

Tiller was among a handful of physicians in the U.S. known to terminate pregnancies in their final weeks. His clinic was the site of repeated anti-abortion protests, including the weekslong “Summer of Mercy” in 1991. He was shot to death in 2009 in his church by an anti-abortion zealot who is serving a 25 years-to-life prison sentence.

Eleven of the Senate’s 28 Republicans voted to confirm Toland, along with the chamber’s 11 Democrats and one independent member. Supporters said Toland already has re-energized the state Department of Commerce.

“I think he will put us back on the map,” said Sen. Dinah Sykes, a Kansas City-area Democrat.

Toland has received credit for helping to lure a new grocery store to Iola and helping to persuade voters to build a new community hospital. Business leaders and local chambers of commerce from across the state endorsed his appointment.

“His energy, expertise and collaborative style will ensure that businesses have the partner they deserve and that the Kansas economy continues to grow,” Kelly said in a statement after the vote.

Some opposition to Toland’s confirmation had its roots in the local politics surrounding his work with Thrive Allen County. It intensified when GOP critics began questioning his credentials and Kansans for Life weighed in.

Mary Kay Culp, the anti-abortion group’s executive director, said it will monitor the Department of Commerce closely for signs that it is using its programs and economic incentives to encourage new abortion clinics to open in Kansas.

“It doesn’t take much to see how this appointment could go horribly wrong,” said Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, another conservative Kansas City-area Republican and strong abortion opponent.