(Long before distress and malice became a Republican manifesto, Kansas had a most viable and vibrant government, led by people who helped the state to ascend, to ensure that citizens had better lives. This is the fifth of six articles about that system, and those who made it work. ‒ JM)
At Kansas Day ceremonies in Topeka in January 2008, The Native Sons and Daughters of Kansas awarded John Carlin the state’s Distinguished Service Citation. The event celebrated his many accomplishments as a legislator, as the state’s 40th governor, as the United States
Archivist appointed by President Clinton, and as a distinguished professor at Kansas State University, where he is executive in residence at the Staley School of Leadership Studies.
From the day that Carlin, a dairy farmer from Smolan, filed to represent the now-buried 92nd district in the Kansas House of Representatives (1971-79) to the moment he left office ce after eight years as governor (1979-1987), the “Carlin years” are a remarkable era in the history of Kansas politics and government. Carlin, a Democrat, first for the Statehouse in 1970, mid-term in the powerful and popular career of Democratic Gov. Robert Docking.
Carlin in six years became House minority whip, then minority leader. In 1977, when Democrats were a majority for the first time in 64 years, he was elected Speaker of the House.
By the end of Gov. Robert Bennett’s first term, in early 1978, the Republican incumbent’s appeal as a scholarly and talented administrator had begun to fade. Carlin had refined his own style, congenial contrariness, to an art. He was able to say clearly what people knew to be their own private sentiments and to convert them into basic issues:
The cost of utilities, property values, the death penalty, sales taxes, a severance tax on oil and gas, income taxes and more.
Time and again, Carlin had watched legislators talk a language that only other legislators understood. The ringer came when he refined those complicated issues into ideas, and defined them in a way that ordinary people understood.
Carlin and other Democrats campaigned by challenging an erosion of purpose in the legislature and the governor’s office. They offered progressive platforms that sought change in an era of conformity, advocating an aggressive stewardship of resources, investment in new programs while maintaining services for those in need. It was dangerous, they said, to stand pat, to avoid change.
The voters agreed, selecting candidates who stood for new ideas, insisting on more than the status quo ‒ and regardless of party affiliation. They chose Carlin, a Democrat, for governor and sent Dan Glickman, another Democrat, to Congress. At the same time they chose Republican Nancy Kassebaum over the popular Bill Roy, the Democratic congressman from Topeka, to succeed retiring U.S. Senator James Pearson.
Carlin understood the danger when priorities become those more suitable to the flow of government than to the purpose of government. Legislators promote one agenda when their mission is to seek or retain office, and embrace quite another at Topeka, when their purpose is to caress the political network, to satisfy the needs of the system rather than the desires of the people.
No episode more clearly illustrates Carlin’s approach to politics and people than his early stand against capital punishment.
Carlin vetoed a death penalty bill his first year in office and caught political hell for it from the Legislature. Carlin indeed had said while campaigning for governor that he would sign capital punishment legislation if it were sent to his desk. He changed his mind when, confronted with that bill, the weight of what he would do came down on his conscience.
Observers said this blatant switch would ruin Carlin politically.
But the governor believed that the people – never mind the legislators – would support him if he told them the truth; he explained that he could not have truly known what it was to sign a bill legalizing capital punishment until the measure was on his desk and he had to confront it. When it was delivered to him, he simply couldn’t sign.
It was a matter of conscience.
Admission. A matter of conscience. The truth. An issue defined in the simple terms that people understood. It mattered most to Carlin that people knew why he couldn’t sign the bill, not whether they agreed with his decision.
Many detractors promised revenge, that the voters would remember his “broken promise.” Voters did remember – that Carlin had explained a dilemma in terms they understood and values they respected. Meanwhile, trouble. The state and the nation were heading into recession and a wild inflation, and Carlin prepared to advance one of his many significant reforms – a severance tax on oil, gas and coal, with the added revenues planned for education and highways.
(Next: A willingness to change)