By Dave Ranney
KHI News Service
Editor’s Note: A planned visit by Rob Siedlecki, SRS secretary, to the Larned State Hospital Monday was postponed until Aug. 22.
TOPEKA — When his friends in sunny Florida ask what prompted him to take a job in faraway Kansas, Rob Siedlecki has a quick response: “The weather.”
He answered Gov. Sam Brownback’s call to lead the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, because he believes in Brownback.
“I’m excited to work for a governor who has ideas, who’s committed to those ideas and who is willing to champion those ideas both in the Legislature and out in the public,” Siedlecki told KHI News Service.
“He (Brownback) really lives what he preaches,” Siedlecki said. “He and his wife have adopted two children. He’s a humble man, he’s a real leader.”
He’s also the state’s first conservative Republican governor and Siedlecki has let it be known that in coming months, SRS will be launching initiatives often touted by conservatives: strengthening marriage, encouraging adoption, and promoting fatherhood.
Siedlecki said SRS will be reaching out to faith-based groups that in the past may have been reluctant to interact with state government.
Siedlecki, 42, graduated from Harvard University in 1991, earning a bachelor’s degree in Slavic languages and literature.
“I’m Polish and I’ve always been interested in the culture,” he said. “I studied in Poland for a summer in 1990; I’d traveled the Czech Republic and Eastern Europe the summer before, right after the wall came down.”
“I’d thought for a while about being a diplomat to Eastern Europe,” Siedlecki said.
Instead, Siedlecki earned a law degree from Cornell University in 1995.
“I’m the first person on my side of the family to graduate from college,” he said. “My dad rode the subway to CCNY (City College of New York) for a couple years and dropped out. My mother was a beautician. Both of them pushed me, encouraged me to do well.”
“They have my original diplomas from Harvard and Cornell because they earned them just as much as I did,” Siedlecki said.
During President George W. Bush’s first year in office, Siedlecki accepted a “political appointment” to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, serving as a special assistant to the assistant secretary over programs for children and families.
That’s where he met Brownback, who, at the time, was in the U.S. Senate.
“He carried a lot of our initiatives in the Senate,” Siedlecki said.
Brownback, he said, was seen as a leading proponent for legislation meant to promote healthy marriages.
Siedlecki rarely raises the topic of marriage without also pointing that he is a divorced father of two daughters who live with their mother.
In January, Siedlecki told members of the Mental Health Coalition of Kansas that his divorce was due to his wife tiring of the uncertainty and frequent moves that accompanied public service.
“It’s not like I’m ‘holier than thou; I’m on the other side,’” he told coalition members. “I’ve seen the suffering. I have two daughters. It bothers me every day. I hope that someday I can talk to God and ask ‘Why?’”
In 2005, Siedlecki returned to Florida to run for a seat in the Florida House of Representatives. He lost.
“It was a difficult year for Republicans in 2006,” he said.
A year later, Siedlecki, who is Catholic, returned to Washington, D.C., accepting a position as senior counsel with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Task Force on Faith-based Initiatives.
“I was there until (Barack) Obama,” Siedlecki said.
He returned to Florida, becoming chief of staff at the Florida Department of Health, helping manage 17,000 employees and a $3 billion budget.
Florida’s population is almost seven times larger than Kansas.’
SRS has a $1.7 billion budget and roughly 6,000 employees.
“I want to work with everyone,” Siedlecki said. “I want to say to people, ‘This is what we have to work with; show me how we can do better.’ I want to see what other states are doing. I don’t want to reinvent the wheel.”