This column was published Sunday, February 24, 2019, in The Manhattan Mercury.
Her ascension to the governor’s office coincided with my start as a television news reporter covering Kansas politics and government. I had covered her successful 1990 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.
She struggled as governor. She had difficulty connecting with legislators of both parties, who scoffed at her claims of destiny. The result was finger-pointing, name calling and not getting much public policy enacted.
Once, after a live shot in the Rotunda, during which I wouId 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.”
On occasion, Finney would invite reporters 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 devout Catholic who enjoyed her libations, her gambling and believed in predestination.
For all her macro-communications challenges, Joan Finney had the most effective one-on-one connection with voters I have ever seen in a politician.
We would be in Baxter Springs or Osborne or Randolph or Spearville. Invariably, she would connect with those she liked to call “her people.”
“Oh, Myrtle, bless your heart. How are Frank and the children?”
The first couple of times, you would chalk it up to coincidence. But it happened all the time. Without fail. Everywhere we went. She had campaigned successfully statewide for state treasurer four times before running for governor. She got to know a lot of people. It also made her the poster child for political name ID. Clearly, Kansas voters recognized the name on the ballot.
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 with reservation land within the borders of Kansas. Her staff also lent a hand to the tribes as they maneuvered the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which paved the way for tribal casinos.
One year, 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.
After her inaugural address, I recall she made it a point to purposefully walk down the southwest Statehouse sidewalk to the statue of the Pioneer Woman, bow her head, whisper a prayer and then offer a salute. Three decades later, I remember those symbolic gestures, each meant to convey a message. What was I saying about macro-communications challenges?
It takes a little ego to believe you can be elected governor. At what point does ego transform into destiny? Is one person’s destiny, the next person’s ambition? Seems to me that’s an equilibrium each individual has to find between themselves and their Creator.
Joan Finney found hers. So, I guess in that sense, she fulfilled her destiny.