Grievances generated by policy and personality clashes in a southeast Kansas community have spilled onto the statewide stage in the battle over Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s nominee to head the state Department of Commerce.
David Toland often found himself at odds with Virginia Crossland-Macha when he was the CEO of Thrive Allen County, a community health-improvement and economic development organization based in Iola.
Crossland-Macha is the daughter of the late Ivan Crossland, founder of Crossland Construction, one of the nation’s largest general contractors. She is also the newly elected vice-chair of the Kansas Republican Party.
“Mr. Toland’s version of economic development has displaced local small businesses and jobs in Iola,” she said in an interview.
Crossland-Macha and various companies under the Crossland Construction umbrella contributed $52,000 to the political action committee of the Kansas Chamber shortly after Kelly was elected governor. The Chamber mostly backs Republican candidates.
On Monday, Kansans for Life, the state’s most powerful pro-life organization, charged in a letter to senators that Toland was unfit for the commerce post because of his ties to the late Wichita abortion provider George Tiller.
“It is unconscionable that anyone wishing to sit in the governor’s Cabinet would be part of honoring the legacy of an individual who took so many innocent lives,” KFL said in the letter.
The connection consists of two grants Thrive Allen County obtained from a memorial fund established after Tiller’s murder in 2009.
A few GOP lawmakers noted that the commerce secretary controls programs and incentives for luring businesses to Kansas.
“The next logical question is: Is he going to try to increase the number of abortion clinics in the state of Kansas?” said state Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, a conservative Kansas City-area Republican. “I think that we can’t rule that out.”
“The last thing we want to see happen is a commerce secretary who is dialed in to how to get money from the Tiller foundation,” said Mary Kay Culp, Kansans for Life’s executive director.
“We are asking concerned Kansans to call the legislative hotline, 1-785-296-0111, and ask your senator to vote against Toland’s confirmation,” Culp said. “Hotline operators will know your senator from your address and will deliver the message for you, or once you know your senator’s name, ask for legislative services who will provide their office number.“
Kansans for Life and other abortion opponents are put off because Thrive Allen County’s website lists the Tiller fund as one of its “partners.”
Sen. Gene Suellentrop, a conservative Wichita Republican, said the Toland and Thrive Allen County tie with the Tiller fund “does trouble me.”
Some of Toland’s problems with Republicans also come down to political missteps. In a 2018 social media post intended to draw attention to a sleep study, Toland joked that former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and sitting GOP Sen. Caryn Tyson kept him up at night.
“He said I’m one of his biggest nightmares,” Tyson said in an interview, “so it was a personal attack.”
Even so, Tyson said, other factors will determine her vote on whether to confirm Toland to Kelly’s cabinet.
“It would be nice to have some representation from southeast Kansas,” she said, emphasizing that she hasn’t yet made a decision.
Sen. Dennis Pyle, a Republican from Hiawatha, said if the vote had occurred Monday, he would have voted for Toland’s confirmation. Then came objections from anti-abortion activists.
“Now,” Pyle said, “I don’t think I can.”
Republicans also point to Toland’s connections with Iola Industries, where he owned $100 worth of shares and served on the board. Toland was involved in the development of apartments adjacent to a grocery store that Toland lured to town.
Toland told county lawmakers no public funds would be needed for the G&W Foods project. The development ended up receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax incentives. The apartments next-door owned by Iola Industries are now valued at over $1 million.
Toland also had shares in Iola Square LLC, which owned office space on Iola’s main street, shortly before Thrive moved into the space.
Sen. Julia Lynn, an Olathe Republican and chairwoman of the Senate committee, is concerned.
“We need to look at those a little bit further before we feel comfortable confirming him,” she said.
“We understand Gov. Kelly won the election and needs to put a team in place to run the state,” Mike Kuckelman, chairman of the Kansas Republican Party, said. “Republicans will work with Gov. Kelly to ensure she is able to get her team in place. However, Republicans will do our due diligence during the confirmation process to vet her choices in the public interest.”
By all accounts, the vote on his confirmation, expected next Monday, will be close.
“Very close,” Tyson said.
Earlier in the week, Kelly’s appointment for an appeals court position fell apart over district judge Jeffry Jack’s profane and political tweets.
–ksnewsservice.org contributed to this report