Joseph P. Teasdale: 'Walkin’ Joe' Teasdale, Missouri’s 48th Governor
When Joseph Teasdale ran for governor in the mid-70s, he walked a thousand miles en route to winning the tightest gubernatorial race in the nation, handing a popular incumbent governor a stunning defeat. His margin of victory over Missouri Republican Gov. Christopher S. “Kit” Bond, by whom he had been defeated in the previous election, was a mere 12,000 votes out of more than 1.9 million cast. Even members of the Teasdale campaign cabinet were stunned.
“Joe was running against a sitting governor, so I didn’t think we had a chance,” said Franklin Jacobs, who served as Gov. Teasdale’s campaign finance chair. “At the beginning, we were behind in the polls 20 percentage points.
“I must say, when he won, he was almost as surprised as I was,” Jacobs laughed as he remembered the upset.
Gov. Teasdale, whose treks across the state earned him the nickname “Walkin’ Joe" Teasdale during his earlier run for governor, died Thursday (May 8, 2014) of complications of pneumonia at a Kansas City, Mo., hospice, said his son, Bill Teasdale. He was 78 and had lived in Kansas City since leaving the governor’s office in 1980.
Gov. Teasdale credited shoe-leather, name recognition and a promise to reign in utility rates for his win over Bond. He was elected Missouri’s 48th governor on Nov. 2, 1976.
"My victory in '76 was pretty heady stuff," Gov. Teasdale said in an interview with the Kansas City Star in 1993. "On election night, I was watching the returns and I heard Dan Rather say, `Walter, the story in the Midwest is not Jimmy Carter, it's Walkin' Joe Teasdale'.”
Carter narrowly defeated Gerald Ford in the 1976 presidential race.
Gov. Teasdale first met President Carter when he was still governor of Georgia and was making a presidential campaign swing through St. Louis. Gov. Carter participated in the south St. Louis rite of passage, Bevo Day, the German heritage street festival where all prospective Democratic candidates were accorded a soapbox. There was a pouring rain on that Bevo Day, but everyone, including Gov. Teasdale, took the stage.
“As each (candidate) was introduced, they would receive polite applause,” Jacobs recalled. “When Joe was introduced, everybody yelled and cheered and stomped.”
Gov. Carter turned to St. Louis businessman S. Lee Kling, his campaign committee treasurer, and said, “My God, who is that? That man’s going to win.
Kling said: “That’s our gubernatorial candidate and, Governor, he doesn’t have a chance.”
“After they were both elected, President Carter told that story about Joe many times,” Jacobs said.
Gov. Teasdale had laid the groundwork for his successful gubernatorial run during his first statewide race in 1972. He lost that gubernatorial primary but his campaign tactics made him famous. Zigzagging across Missouri in Florsheim boots.
“He was a marvelous campaigner,” Jacobs said. “People just liked Joe.”
Gov. Teasdale ran with great name recognition and a populist message: He painted Bond as a millionaire who was too cozy with big business, citing the utility rate increases Bond permitted.
The election of Gov. Teasdale, a Kansas City native, was something of an aberration. While the state has elected more Democratic governors, most governors hail from outstate. But Gov. Teasdale’s style of governing was soon to be seen as the greatest anomaly. Some called it “casual.”
Gov. Teasdale admitted he got off to a rocky start.
“I don’t think my image ever recovered,” he told the Star after he was out of office.
“People would see him as kind of bumbling,” Jacobs said. “He was a big guy, tall and good looking, affable; for some people that’s a synonym for bumbling. But it wasn’t true in the slightest. He was bright, professional and on top of everything.
“When he became governor, he was just the same guy he was before: a great family man, kind with a great love for the state of Missouri and with a respect for everything. And unlike many governors, he was very much involved with the city of St. Louis.”
In office, Gov. Teasdale kept his campaign promise and went after the utility companies.
He told the Star: “I declared war on them. I was anti-establishment, and I wasn't in anyone's pocket. I was Walkin' Joe.”
He let it be known he planned to make the most of whatever time he had in office.
“’I want you to assume I’m going to be a one-term governor and that we have only four years to do what we are going to do,’” his then-chief of staff Brendan Ryan recalled him saying. “He wasn’t making a prediction; he was just saying we needed to work to get what we needed done.”
But he considered his greatest accomplishments to be his focus on the needs of elderly people and people with mental problems. During his administration, the state’s first Division of Aging was established, numerous health laws were rewritten and funds to the Department of Mental Health were boosted.
Gov. Teasdale sometimes made controversial or surprising moves.
He endorsed the Hancock Amendment, named for Mel Hancock who would go on to become a Republican member of the U.S. House. The 1980 amendment to the Missouri Constitutional restricts the percentage of personal income that can be used to fund state government and limits the amount of taxes and fees can be increased without voter approval.
He opposed plans for the Meramec Dam, proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers to for flood control. The dam would have affected the flow of the Upper Meramec, Huzzah and Courtois rivers. It was also on the list of water projects President Carter deplored. The plan was finally dropped in 1989.
His stance on the dam didn’t surprise Ryan, whom he met when both were young attorneys.
“Most of the people whose land would have been taken (for the dam) were opposed to it,” Ryan said. “People told him how much they didn’t want the damn dam.
“He didn’t run from the people; he listened.”
In 1979, Gov. Teasdale intervened in an eight-week St. Louis City teacher’s strike to offer $1.4 million in state aid for a one-time bonus for all school employees.
The Kansas City firefighters’ strike the following year was resolved in six days, with then-Kansas City mayor and Gov. Teasdale involved in the negotiations. Gov. Teasdale pardoned 71 firefighters jailed for disobeying a county court order barring a strike.
Gov. Teasdale signed Missouri’s death penalty into law in 1977, a move he came to regret.
In 1990, he told the Star: “We have a moral duty to honor life.”
Nearly a decade later, he and another attorney, John William Simon, petitioned for clemency for David Leisure, who was sentenced to death for the fatal car-bombing of James Michaels Sr. in 1980. They were unsuccessful in their appeal and Leisure was executed in 1999.
Gov. Teasdale, however, continued his efforts against the death penalty with some success, including helping to gain clemency for a man convicted of murdering a hitchhiker during his time in office.
For 20 years, by his own admission, he had been consumed by politics. When he became governor at age 40, he had been in politics one way or another his entire adult life.
But in 1980, when he lost his bid for re-election to the same man from whom he had wrested the governorship in a surprise upset four years earlier, he quit politics forever.
When it was over, he said he suffered withdrawal pangs.
“It's addictive, that style of life,” he said. “The only way I can describe it is to say that you feel grief. It's a loss that nothing compensates for, or consoles you for – except time.”
Joseph Patrick Teasdale was born March 29, 1936, in Kansas City. He graduated from Rockhurst High School, where he is now in the Athletic Hall of Fame. He earned an undergraduate degree from Rockhurst University and a law degree in 1960 from Saint Louis University School of Law, following in the footsteps of his father, a prominent Kansas City attorney.
From 1962 to 1966, he served as an assistant U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri in Kansas City. While serving as U.S. Assistant Attorney, Gov. Teasdale enlisted in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. From 1966 to 1972, he was the prosecuting attorney for Jackson County, Mo. He was the youngest person to hold that post.
He had wanted to be governor since he was a child. When he achieved that dream, he said it was all that he had hoped.
Being governor "is the best job in politics,” he told the Star years out of office. “It's exciting, it's fun ... and I loved every minute of it.”
While governor, he served on the National Governors Association Committee on Agriculture and Committee on Human Resources.
In 1977, Gov. Teasdale became part of the Academy of Missouri Squires, an organization established in 1960 by Gov. James T. Blair Jr. to honor outstanding accomplishments by Missourians. The academy has a ceiling of 100 members. He received the Outstanding Man of the Year Award in 1969 from the Kansas City Junior Chamber of Commerce and was named a lifetime member of the Kansas City Bar Association in 1977; the only other honoree at the time was Harry S Truman.
After being defeated in his rematch with Bond in 1980, he returned to Kansas City and went into private practice.
He was preceded in death by his parents, William B. Teasdale and Ada Maurine Teasdale, and a sister, Maureen Galey.
Gov. Teasdale is survived by his wife, the former Theresa Ferkenhoff, and their three sons, Bill (Colleen Teasdale, John Teasdale and Kevin (Kristin), all of Kansas City, and five grandchildren. Other survivors include two sisters, Sr. Bernadette Marie Teasdale, SCL, Denver, Colo., and Ginny (Bill) Keenan, Franktown, Colo.
Services are pending.
Memorials may be made to Saint Thomas More Parish in Kansas City, or Conception Abbey in Conception, Mo.