Destiny's Child

Her ascension to the Governor's office coincided with my start as a television news reporter covering Kansas politics and government. I'd covered her successful '90 campaign for a statewide radio network and was switching over to TV.

Covering Joan Finney's campaign, I got to know her as a person. At one point she shared, "It's my destiny to become Governor of Kansas."

She really believed that.

Joan Finney came of age as a staff hanger-on to longtime Kansas GOP stalwart Frank Carlson, during a time when the expectations of women in those roles didn't get much beyond running the mimeograph machine or making the coffee.

She ran for the U.S. House in '72 as a Republican and lost. When her former GOP mentors tried to block her from running again, she quit the party, turned Democrat, carried a chip on her shoulder and never looked back.

Finney was an old school pol, who thought if she just operated like Frank Carlson did in the '50s and '60s, she would succeed. Back then, Statehouse reporters were drinkin' buddies.

Once, after a live shot in the Rotunda, during which I'd report on the debacle du jour, she cornered me on her way out of the Statehouse.

"Oh, Mike, why do you have to be so mean?"

Mustering up my best Cosell-esque call 'em like I see 'em, I tried to engage her. "Governor, it's not mean, it's journalism. It's my job."

The Governor would have us out to her houseboat on Lake Perry. After knocking back a few cocktails she'd expound on her vision to fulfill her destiny. Joan Finney was a good Catholic girl who enjoyed her libations, her gambling and believed in predestination. She had a special place in her heart for the downtrodden. She felt Native Americans had gotten a raw deal and became the best friend of the four tribes in Kansas.

Once, she moved the Kickapoo pow-wow off the reservation to the south steps of the Statehouse, dressed in full tribal regalia and joined in the dancing.

For all her macro-communications challenges, Joan Finney had the most effective one-on-one connection with voters I've ever seen in a politician.

We'd be in Baxter Springs or Osborne or Randolph or Spearville. Invariably, she'd connect with those she liked to call "her people."

"Oh, Myrtle, bless your heart. How's Frank and the children?"

The first couple of times, you'd chalk it up to coincidence. But it happened all the time. Without fail. Everywhere we went. Remember, she'd campaigned successfully statewide for Treasurer four times before running for Governor. She got to know a lot of people.

That was her gift.