Archive for Sunday, July 29, 2001

Finney shakes her last hand

July 29, 2001


Mrs. Finney's daughter, Mary Holladay, said the former governor died about 4:30 p.m. Saturday at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Topeka. She was taken there Friday because of complications from liver cancer.

Mrs. Finney, a Democrat, served a single term as the state's chief executive in 1991-95 after 16 years as state treasurer. She did not seek re-election in 1994 and lost a U.S. Senate primary two years later.

During her four years as governor, the state rewrote its formula for distributing money to public schools, revised its abortion law, overhauled its workers' compensation system, re-enacted a capital punishment law and signed four compacts that allowed Indian tribes in northeast Kansas to open casinos.

But Mrs. Finney was remembered more for her populism and her ability to reach individual voters.

"She really enjoyed being a public servant," Gov. Bill Graves, a Republican, said earlier. "You could just see how she lit up when she was around people."

"Joan Finney was a great lady. She loved this state," said Sen. Sandy Praeger, R-Lawrence. "I don't think anybody would ever question her loyalty to the citizens of Kansas. She was the rare politician who always appeared to have time for everybody."

Dave Heinemann, a former state representative from Garden City, recalled the time an elementary school choir came to Topeka for a performance at the Statehouse.

"While they were here, somebody asked if I could get them in to see the governor," Heinemann said. "So I went to the governor's office and was told, 'No, she's too busy.' And then I asked a senior staffer and she said the same thing, so I figured it was a lost cause."

Minutes later, Heinemann encountered Mrs. Finney coming up the stairway near her office. "I said, 'Governor, I've got a group of kids up here who'd like to meet you. Could you spare a minute?' She said sure, and we set it up right there.

"Later that afternoon, she had everybody gather in the outer office, and she had a ball. That was her thing, she was always accessible to the little people," Heinemann said. "But, oh, if the looks from her staff could kill, I would have been dead on the spot. I threw their whole afternoon off, but the governor had an absolute ball."

The personal touch

Even political opponents were impressed with Mrs. Finney's ability to remember personal details -- including, they said, pets' names -- about people she'd met before. At appearances, she sometimes greeted people with warm hugs.

"This sounds corny, but she was the most people-person who served in state government," said former Senate Majority Leader Tim Emert, an Independence attorney. "She loved people, and people loved her."

Bob Harder, a former secretary of Social and Rehabilitation Services, who had that job and another briefly in Mrs. Finney's cabinet, said Mrs. Finney connected with voters because she gave individuals her undivided attention during private conversations.

"She wasn't looking over her shoulder to see who the next person was that she had to talk to," Harder said.

Former House majority leader Donna Whiteman succeeded Harder at SRS in 1991.

"Gov. Finney was a great boss," Whiteman said. "I was always amazed that I could call her to go over whatever the problems were at the time, and every time, she'd say, 'Well, Donna, what's the right thing to do?' That was her basic approach. She always wanted to do the right thing for children and the less fortunate people of Kansas."

By the people

Mrs. Finney vigorously supported allowing voters to put proposed laws and constitutional amendments on the ballot without going through the Legislature. Legislators rejected her proposals to amend the constitution to allow for initiatives and referendums.

She fought efforts during the 1970s and 1980s to make the state treasurer appointed by the governor. Last year, she publicly supported an unsuccessful initiative to have district judges in Shawnee County elected rather than appointed.

"If you communicate with the people, then they'll get the picture, and you'll accomplish what you want to accomplish," she said in a 1994 radio interview.

Unlikely beginnings

Mrs. Finney was born Feb. 12, 1925, in Topeka. Her father abandoned her pregnant mother and two older sisters in 1924, and her mother raised the three girls by teaching piano, voice and harp.

Mrs. Finney studied at the College of St. Teresa in Kansas City, then at the Kansas City Conservatory of Music, before graduating from Washburn University of Topeka with a degree in economic history. She played the harp and even performed on CBS-TV's "Good Morning" in 1991.

She worked for the Santa Fe railway offices after her graduation, then on the staff of U.S. Sen. Frank Carlson, a Republican, from 1953 to 1969.

She married Spencer Finney Jr. after Carlson's 1956 re-election campaign. They have three children: Sally Finney, Dick Finney and Mary Holladay.

In 1972, after serving as the Shawnee County election commissioner, she ran for Congress as a Republican and lost the primary. Two years later, she won the state treasurer's race -- as a Democrat.

Hal Keltz, chairman of the Douglas County Democratic Party from 1974 to 1978, remembers Mrs. Finney's entering the treasurer's race.

"Back then it was considered good protocol to let the county chairmen know if you were planning on running for a state office," said Keltz, who lives in Lawrence.

"So one day, I was having lunch with three or four other fellows at the Lawrence Country Club and this lady walks right up to me and says, 'Are you Hal Keltz?' And I said yes, and she said, 'I'm Joan Finney. I'm going to run for state treasurer, and I wanted to make myself known to you while I'm in Lawrence.'

"I'll always remember that -- what a wonderful way to introduce yourself," Keltz said. "I always thought she did a fine job. That wasn't a universal opinion, I know, but it was definitely mine."

'A remarkable upset'

When Mrs. Finney began her run for governor in 1990, most observers didn't see her low-budget campaign as a serious threat to the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, former Gov. John Carlin.

Mrs. Finney prevailed by 1,844 votes out of more than 172,000 cast. She then unseated Republican Gov. Mike Hayden in the general election, becoming not only Kansas' first woman governor, but its oldest at age 65..

"For me, the most amazing thing about Joan Finney was the fact that she got elected (governor)," said Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at Kansas University. "It was truly a remarkable upset. She defeated two incumbent governors -- one past, Carlin; one sitting, Hayden. In that sense, she achieved the acme of her political career on the day she was elected or sworn in, take your pick."

Mrs. Finney's people skills, though admirable, did not make her an effective governor, Loomis said.

"The job tested her administrative capacities; that's about as nice I can put it," Loomis said, noting that while some of Mrs. Finney's appointments were "good, others were downright embarrassing." Many issues, it seemed, left her confused and distrustful of legislative leaders.

Mrs. Finney championed women's rights, but she opposed abortion, even in cases of rape or incest. She promoted American Indian concerns but angered many of the state lawmakers she needed to address those concerns.

An opponent of capital punishment, Mrs. Finney allowed a death penalty bill to become law in April 1994, although she refused to sign the legislation.

In recent history, no other governor vetoed as many bills -- and had as many vetoes overridden -- as Mrs. Finney.

Though many said Mrs. Finney ran at the right time -- Hayden was unpopular because of high property taxes -- Mrs. Finney said she won because she didn't break faith with the voters.

"I knew I would be the next governor, just by second sense," she said during an interview on the 10th anniversary of her victory. "Legislators talk to each other and forget the people. The press, they talk to legislators."

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