The Kansas Senate voted Monday to confirm Gov. Laura Kelly's nominee to lead the Kansas Department of Commerce amid skepticism about his economic development resume, personal attacks leveled by conservatives and criticism of health grants tied to an abortion doctor.
David Toland, who prevailed 23-14 after a Senate committee rejected the nomination, survived an effort by the Kansas Republican Party, Kansans for Life, Americans for Prosperity and others to derail nomination of the former chief executive officer of an Allen County nonprofit organization that worked on economic and quality-of-life projects in Iola.
Kelly said Toland represented the "best and brightest this state has to offer. His energy, expertise and collaborative style will ensure that businesses have the partner they deserve."
Toland said he was relieved to be confirmed and would turn attention to "putting this agency back together."
Sen. Gene Suellentrop, R-Wichita, said he was concerned with Toland's lack of experience running a business. Toland didnn't have a background in the state's core industries of agriculture, aviation and manufacturing, said Sen. Larry Alley, R-Winfield.
Sen. Vic Miller, D-Topeka, said 43 chambers of commerce and economic development organizations in Kansas endorsed Toland's confirmation. The list included Dodge City, Lawrence, Wichita, Topeka, Council Grove, Fort Scott, Overland Park, Lenexa, Leavenworth, Manhattan, Atchison, Greeley, Ottawa, Pittsburg, Coffeyville and a bundle of counties.
"That sounds like every corner of the state," Miller said. "I find that impossible that a man who has been championed thus far in this discussion as having no economic development experience could round up the length, the breadth and the size of that list."
Toland's nomination cleared the 40-member Senate with backing by 11 Democrats, 11 Republicans and lone independent Sen. John Doll, of Garden City.
Some opposition to Toland was tied to personal conflicts and small-town political disputes emerging from Iola, a southeast Kansas community of about 5,500 people.
His nomination was denounced by Shawnee GOP Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook on grounds Toland had an "extremely poor" record of private-sector job growth in Allen County. She said his nomination was tainted by connection to grants from a fund honoring the late physician George Tiller, who ran a Wichita abortion clinic and was murdered a decade ago while attending church.
"Taking any money from this fund for any reason, when that fund was created to carry on Tiller's legacy of unrestricted late-term abortion, sends a message in direct contrast to the resolution we passed against a New York abortion law," Pilcher-Cook said.
Sen. Rob Olson, an Olathe Republican, changed his mind on Toland after supporting his nomination when it was considered by the Senate committee. He voted against Toland because Kansans for Life objected to Thrive Allen County's acceptance of grants in 2015 for an anti-smoking initiative and in 2018 for long-term contraception services for a total of $19,000.
In addition to Toland's economic development work in Kansas with Thrive Allen County, he was on the staff of Washington, D.C., Mayor Anthony Williams. He served in planning and economic development in the District of Columbia.
Prior to coming to the nation's capital, Toland assisted city managers in Reno, Nev., and in Bonner Springs.
Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichta, said comments of senators during hearings of the Senate Commerce Committee were raw enough to horrify the nominee's children sitting in the committee room. She voted for Toland.
"It was heartbreaking to see their little faces and the confusion that they had on their faces," she said.
Sen. Julia Lynn, the Olathe Republican who chaired the committee, urged colleagues to vote against Toland. She defended the two days of hearings on Toland and said the vetting process of the nominee was unmatched.
"I hope he will be able to improve his track record throughout the state," Lynn said after the vote. "I certainly hope he is successful."
The Senate also confirmed Laura Howard as secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families and as secretary of the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services.
"Laura Howard has a strong history of working with both Republican and Democrat governors. She has a wealth of institutional knowledge," said Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick.