(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 first of several articles about that system, and those who made it work. ‒ JM)
A half-century ago this coming November, Robert B. Docking, a 41 year-old Arkansas City banker and a Democrat, would be elected the 38th governor of Kansas. His election, on Nov. 8, 1966 and inauguration two months later on Jan. 9, prompted a period of humility for Republicans, grace for Democrats and irony for Kansas.
Docking revealed himself as a firm champion of civic goodwill and of commitment to a citizen’s state that sought the greater welfare of all. He was elected during a period of relative prosperity in Kansas, when the state’s leaders sought new ways to advance the state through prudent investments ‒ among them a hotly contested but much-needed sales tax increase. Although approved, the tax became a campaign liability for incumbent Gov. Bill Avery, the moderate Republican whom Docking replaced.
As we approach this year’s state and local elections, it may help to look back, see where we were and where we’ve come ‒ in a way, fix our bearings. What masquerades as state government these days is not even a seedy imitation of its forebear, but a kind of mutant virus, a virulent infection of the process that once brought us to new ideas and great achievement.
Among the ways it worked: DOCKING was a Democrat who convinced the state’s majority of Republicans to vote for him, and they did so eagerly.
He was the first Democrat since 1882 to unseat a Republican incumbent; his father, George, had been the state’s only two-term Democratic governor beginning a decade earlier (1957-61). Robert Docking was young, mildly progressive, as much of the middle road as Dwight Eisenhower; he was as eager to shape the destiny of Kansas as his political godfather, President Lyndon Johnson, was committed to a “Great Society” for the nation at large.
Johnson’s cause, and its effect, pressed the government’s reach into countless corners of American life where federal dollars, agencies and bureaucrats had never been before ‒ shaped by vision and propelled by virtue. The Kansas chapter lay in a script of plans and promises from Robert Docking, who showed an unprecedented feel for politics, one that combined a commitment to morality with a recognition of reality.
On the one hand he embraced purpose for “the next generation, not the next election … political partisanship ends where the public interest begins.”
On the other, his proposals avoided the party label, stirring calls for conscience and compassion, and they contained the appeal of practical objectives. Among the very first were a 20 percent tax cut on the first $2,000 of all personal incomes, a $1,000 homestead property tax exemption for senior citizens who were poor, higher interest payments for state and local reserve funds, home rule for counties, 100 percent financing for the school foundation formula, precursor to state school finance. (Note: To gauge dollars then with buying power today, multiply by 8)
Docking knew that the Republican-dominated legislature worried about reaction to substantial but necessary tax increases it had approved two years earlier. This, combined with a record $600 million operating budget swollen with new and expanded federal programs, implementation of two constitutional amendments (education and income taxes), and countless other tasks, such as a new reapportionment, were heavy on their minds.
But Docking’s approach to the legislature was so conciliatory and the bulk of his proposals so in keeping with the spirit of that body that they would eventually act favorably on most of them. In later years, Docking would be known as a champion of the industrial revenue bond and higher corporate income taxes, the Equal Rights Amendment, medical care for the poor and fair housing laws, and completion of the Interstate highway program in Kansas..
Docking became the state’s most popular governor, reelected to three more two-year terms. He had an uncanny ability to move voters and maneuver legislators year after year. It helped that President Johnson had convinced the Congress to bless his vision of America as a new Great Society, one that declared war on poverty, stronger rights for minorities and for voters and vast new urban and rural aid programs, their infusions passed through state and local government.
External forces were at work in Kansas during the Docking years, heat sources that would incubate new challenges ‒ a great inflation fueled by escalating foreign and irreversible domestic commitments; a crop failure in the Soviet Union; and the Arabs’ belief that America ached for their supplies of oil. These energies were especially fierce, with such impact that in overcoming them, Kansas leaders set examples that provided great lessons in governing ‒ if only they had been learned.
(Next: Kansas challenges)