The Power of Coalition Building
A Profile of Will Lawrence, Chief of Staff to the Governor of Kansas
Will Lawrence was destined for a career in politics and public service. Will’s father was a career public servant, working in the legislature as a Republican while he was in elementary school. He had the unique experience of being introduced to politics at a very young age.
Will grew up in Burlington, a small town in east-central Kansas of around 2500 people. He attended college at Washburn University and studied law, but had an acumen for politics, running for President in the Student Senate. While his bid was unsuccessful, it was here that Will was first introduced to the role of chief of staff. Although he admits he didn’t think much about the role until he began working in the Kansas legislature years later.
While at college Will completed several internships. His first opportunity came as an intern in the Constituent Services Office for Kansas’ Democratic Governor, Kathleen Sebellius. It was rare for Kansas, historically a Republican stronghold, to have multiple Democratic statewide officeholders. Will continued to gain experience, interning for the Attorney-General and the State Treasurer in various divisions before receiving an opportunity in the office of Senator Laura Kelly. It was here that he “first got [his] foot in the door”.
Will went on to receive an offer to work for Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley as his Legislative Director. Senator Hensley has spent his whole career dedicated to Kansas politics. Elected to the House at just twenty-three years old, Hensley has now spent a total of forty-four years working in the legislature, twenty-four of those as Senate Minority Leader. Will formed a close relationship with the Senator, and after five years he moved into the role of his chief of staff.
Navigating Party Politics
After seven years working for Senator Hensley, Will accepted an offer to work as chief of staff to the office of the now Democratic Governor of Kansas, Laura Kelly. At just thirty-four years old, Will remains one of the youngest gubernatorial chiefs of staff in the country.
Governor Kelly had the difficult job of trying to govern a ‘red state’ as a Democrat with minority representation in both the House and the Senate. Will garnered a reputation for successfully building coalitions with Democratic and Republican leaders, overcoming the limitations of minority representation. Growing up in a Republican household, Will says he has gained a unique perspective on the state’s largely conservative interests. While he represents the interests of the Democratic party, he respects and can relate to the concerns of those from across the aisle.
During his time working for Senate Minority Leader Hensley, Will quickly learned that to be effective he would have to build relationships with those within, and outside of his party. His first experience with bi-partisanship was necessitated by issues relating to redistricting. To have any success in legislating mapping changes, he and the senator would have to work with a cross-section of moderate Republicans and Democrats. It was here that he learned that you cannot afford to have enemies in the role. While you may have adversaries on certain issues, he said, it is critically important that you can build productive relationships and find common ground.
With Governor Kelly, Will has faced even greater challenges that have tested his capability for coalition building and bipartisanship. In Governor Kelly’s first session, Will worked with her to successfully pass school financing measures that would end a period of damaging litigation. It was a significant achievement, particularly given Governor Kelly had built her reputation as the “education governor”.
But the real test came in the battle for Medicaid expansion. If the governor and Will were to succeed in passing Medicaid expansion relief they would have to work closely with the Republican Senate Majority Leader, who had previously blocked their efforts in the Senate.
Over the course of winter and into fall, Will worked closely with a cross-section of stakeholders, Republican and Democrat, to create a favourable environment that could facilitate negotiations between the governor and the Senate Majority leader. Will often worked with counterpart chiefs of staff from across the aisle, highlighting it as a particularly effective way to cut through party tension.
When the time came for the governor and Senate Majority Leader to meet, Will remained uncertain about how fruitful it would be, given Medicaid’s politicisation. Setting sixty minutes for the meeting, Will admitted he was nervous that all their hard work would culminate into a five-minute meeting that only served to reinforce party divisions. Instead, the meeting went on for two and a half hours. At its conclusion, the governor and Senate Majority Leader had agreed conceptually to a fully compromised bill. The ensuing public announcement was described as “historic”. While the bill has yet to formally pass, made more complicated by the restraints of the COVID-19 pandemic, the negotiations remain a historic achievement, and Will hopes they will be able to successfully have the bill passed in the coming months.
Advice for Aspiring Chiefs of Staff
When Will first came into the role of chief of staff he understood that it would require significant sacrifice. Managing a demanding schedule, long-hours and mitigating risk during a global pandemic have become realities of his job.
Will admitted he did not fully appreciate the amount of emergency management that would be required in his role. In his first year, he was tasked with managing historic flooding and frequent tornadoes. He believes that the ability to remain composed during times of crisis is a key skill for a chief of staff.
Will has learnt that to be a successful chief of staff in politics, it is important that you can balance competing demands and interests. In the face of tumultuous and fractured politics, he continues to have conversations. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this has proven to be a particularly difficult task. Mask mandates have been unpopular in Kansas and led to calls for the executive authority of the governor to be taken away.
Despite these divisions, Will emphasised the importance of retaining lines of communication with other chiefs of staff, the cabinet, federal delegations and the legislative body. Building these relationships remains central to his effectiveness in the role. He has built a reputation of “speaking truth to power” and being an honest broker. This means telling your principal if you think something is not a good idea, not being afraid to push back and being honest and truthful in your dealings with stakeholders.
Finally, Will articulated the importance of occasionally taking a step back. The chief of staff role is demanding. It is easy to get caught up in its face-paced nature, but this risks getting lost in the turmoil of what is happening around you. Find the time to block out the noise.
Will continues to enjoy his role as chief of staff to the governor. He hasn’t given much thought to what might come next, but at thirty-four years of age, he still has many years of service. A chief of staff’s skill set is by design transferable to roles across a variety of sectors. But politics is in his blood, and for now, Will remains determined and committed to being the most effective chief of staff that he can be.
The Chief of Staff Association sincerely thanks Will for taking the time to tell us his story and share his experiences. We are sure that there are many among our readership who will find Will’s story inspiring and his insights extremely valuable for their future aspirations in the role.