The day the blind senator cried

The word that former Senator Harold Caskey, who sat  less than fifteen feet away from my chair at the Senate press table for many years, had died didn’t reach this scribe until a couple of days later.  I think I was on the Inca Trail above Machu Picchu that day and in a situation where checking e-mail was not a daily thing.

Those of us who covered much of his 28-year career in the Senate have been left with memories of a unique character in Missouri politics.  Hard as nails sometimes—there were some lawmakers who had reason to consider him “mean” sometimes—bitingly funny at times (he once said the most dangerous place to be in the world was between a school superintendent and a dollar bill), and passionate about his bills and about being a Senator.

One night, during debate on the bill lowering the drunk driving blood-alcohol content threshold to .08, he claimed that he was the only member of the Senate with a perfect driving record, a claim that brought laughter to the chamber in a time when some of his colleagues were arguing that Missouri government should not join the national movement to reduce the BAC for drunk driving–because Caskey was legally blind and didn’t drive at all.

There are many memories of Caskey and we’ll recall some of them in what might be a long entry.  But for some reason, the first memory that came to me when I got the news he had died was the day he was reduced to tears.

Because Caskey was legally blind, he always had an aide in the Senate with him who would read him the amendments offered during debate on the bills.  For his last several years, he had permission to have a chair beside his desk for aide Kim Green.   Kim, and Marie Gladbach before him, had filled an important role in Caskey’s work away from the floor as well.  Caskey was one of those few lawmakers who actually knew what was in each bill.  Staff members such as Kim and Marie would read the bills to him in his office and his incredible recall capabilities made him more ready to discuss the issues on the floor than many of the sponsors of legislation.  Caskey could be an intimidating figure because he knew the rules and he knew the legislation so well.

When Peter Kinder became the President pro Tem of the Senate, he dramatically announced that he was going to slash the chamber’s operating expenses.  That meant getting rid of several staff members.  One of those he planned to axe was Kim, Caskey’s aide.  I think my story about that event referred to “taking away a blind senator’s eyes.”

The perceived callousness of that announcement by Democrats (and some of Kinder’s fellow Republicans) provoked instant reactions. Nobody, of course, felt the pain more than Caskey.  His anger, his hurt, his surprise that such a thing would be proposed left him in tears as I interviewed him.  It was a short interview that is still somewhere in the Missourinet archives because Caskey struggled through his emotions to find a few words to respond to Kinder’s plan.

The reaction within the membership of the Senate was so strong that Kinder backtracked on his proposal to let Kim go.

There are other memories that are more pleasant.   One year, a proposal was introduced the let the pizza chain Chuck E. Cheese let children playing the games that were (maybe still are) part of the chain’s attractions for customers win tokens that could be traded for prizes.  Caskey immediately branded the chain “Chuck E. Sleaze,” and accused supporters of the bill of trying to create a “kiddie casino.”

Many of his colleagues recall that Caskey was critical of bureaucrats who sought more state funding, sometimes likening them to the large dinosaurs that were so large they had two brains, a small one in the head and a second one near the tail.  Caskey would note that the tail brain was so far from the dinosaur’s mouth that it would demand more food, and the little brain in the head would respond by eating more.  “The tail would demand more green,” he would say, so the head brain would respond by going “chomp, chomp, chomp” and consuming more green.  Caskey would make hand gestures to dramatize the dinosaur eating, the dinosaur symbolizing a state agency that wanted bigger bites of the state budget.

Caskey did not hesitate to use his position as a committee chairman or his position as a hard-nosed Senator to kill legislation.  It would be a mistake to say he was universally popular, it being more likely to say he was widely respected during his seven terms in the Senate—an indication of the hypocrisy of term limits that forced him out.  Although voters had approved limiting senators to two terms, the voters in his district sent Caskey back to Jefferson City twice after term limits went into effect.

The State  Historical Society has had an oral history project for several years.  Several of those interviews include memories of Caskey’s legislative contemporaries.  Kaye Steinmetz, who served in the House from 1977-1995 said that a lot of people were surprised at how well she and Senator Caskey worked together.  Governor Bond once referred to them as the “dynamic duo” after signing six bills in one day that Steinmetz and Caskey had handled in their respective chambers.  “I guess Harold was Batman and I was Robin,” Steinmetz said.

“He goes about the law making process as if it’s a game,” she told the society interviewer. “He likes the challenge of a fight. He likes to hold a bill up in committee until he gets one out of the committee in the House, just for the sake of fighting. His approach is just different. Lots of times folks would say to me; other legislators would say to me, ‘Why are you having Caskey handle your bill?’ Or, ‘Why are you doing Caskey’s bill?’ But we got along great. Harold and I got along great. Sometimes we’d work together late in his office at night…He was the most amazing man. He‟d take a legal pad in, and I’d go to the Senate when he was debating my bills and watch him. And he’d have in great big letters the bill number. That’s all he’d have. Now he had to have staff people read him the bill. And of course he picked my brain about the legislation, but he did a great job of knowing what that legislation was all about and defeating back the bad amendments. We’d get into it once in a while and go into conference committee and have to have a knock-down, drag-out to get it ironed out the right way. I’d give a little and he’d give a little. But I enjoyed working with Harold Caskey. I have great respect for him.”

Representative Annette Morgan, who served 1981-1997, recalled that she and Caskey started out “like oil and water.”  She said, “It just took us forever to learn to get along with each other. But we did, and became really good friends now, and it was over the (school) finance formula. We sat down and we pretty much talked through our differences, or somehow at least got to know each other well enough to quit fighting, or quit reacting to the other person. Then the battle became so tough to get that through even with Mel Carnahan and a great Speaker, Bob Griffin and his experience, and Jim Mathewson — I mean, we had the cumulative experience of probably over a hundred years of legislative power right there, and couldn’t have done it without that. But we were so embattled getting it through, by the time it was finished that all of us who were on the same side felt a real close bond to each other.”  She was referring to the bill changing the way state money was distributed to public schools, a major proposal in Governor Carnahan’s first year.

Senator Frank Bild, a Republican who was in the House and Senate 1973-1991, called Caskey a “phenomenon.”  He told the society interviewer Caskey had “a brilliant mind, but you got to watch him” because Casekey would begin “consolidating various bills, so that before you know it, you’d have a bill a hundred pages long” that sometimes had extraneous matter included.  Bild recalled, “He had one bill there, and I had an amendment to delete a section of his bill, and he thought that I was taking advantage of him, so I told him, I said, ‘Fine, you go ahead and pass the bill with that particular provision in it, and I think you’ve got two subject matters, and I thought I was doing you a favor. If you don’t want the favor, forget about it.’ So I withdrew my objection. So after consulting — he always had somebody on the side to keep him abreast of what’s going on — came over finally, ‘Frank, I think you’re right. Why don’t you introduce your amendment again?’ And I said, ‘No, I think you ought to introduce it and take it out yourself.’ Which he did do. He’s a very brilliant person.”

When legislation was introduced in 1995 to change the name of Northeast Missouri State University to Truman State University, Caskey opposed it, saying that he felt the name change would hurt a few of his constituents who were proud to have diplomas from Northeast Missouri State University. “To change the name makes them lose their university,” he argued.  He didn’t mention, although most us knew, that one of those constituents was his wife, Kay, an NMSU graduate.  Plus, he and other critics pointed out, the school is in Adair County, a place Truman had visited only once and a county he never carried in any election.  When the name change was approved, Caskey supported a bill letting graduates trade their NMSU diplomas for new ones reading Truman State university.

When Caskey was a new Senator and was renovating his office, workers found a picket door that separated the two rooms.  The door had been opened and then sealed within its pocket at some distant time.  So Caskey had the office remodeled to make that door operable again.  Abut that same time, the W. F. Norman Company of Nevada, which had been a national leader in the manufacture of tin ceilings until the 1930s when they went out of style, gained new owners who discovered the original stamping dies still in the building and decided to start making tin ceiling panels again.  One of the first places they installed their new tin ceiling was in Caskey’s office.

When the Senate considered replacing the historic 1917 desks, it had a couple of samples made of new style desks.  Thankfully, the Senate decided not to make a change.  One of those proposed new desks was in Caskey’s office throughout his career.  The desks now are in Senate staff offices.

Another lasting legacy of Harold and Kay Caskey is “pie day.”  For several years, the Caskeys would bring dozens of pies to the Capitol a few days before legislative adjournment and during one of the lunch breaks, long lines would snake through the Senate hallways of people waiting to get a piece of pie.  Other Senators have continued the tradition.

This has been a long entry because Harold Caskey was such a memorable figure in the Senate and because, to be brutal, there are no Senators in this generation of lawmakers who come close to matching him.  And when we left the Senate press table for the last time, we had the impression that few of today’s lawmakers had aspirations to do so.  But we also understand that nostalgia sometimes clouds contemporary assessments.   It does seem, however, to be a rather widely-held feeling among the diminishing number of people at the capitol who recall him and his generation.

Two of Caskey’s Senate colleagues jointly issued a remembrance a few days after his death.  Roger Wilson was a Senator from Columbia before he became Lieutenant Governor (the President of the Senate) and then Governor on Mel Carnahan’s death.  Jim Mathewson was a Senator from Sedalia and served 28 years in the House and Senate, eight of those years as President pro Tem.  We’ll close with their thoughts:

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As former elected officials now long retired from politics and policymaking, we have no delusions of being remembered forever. The Capitol corridors are full of portraits of men and women who served their terms, made marks of varying distinctions, and departed the building and ultimately, this Earth.   But Missouri State Senator Harold Caskey, who died October 1, deserves more recognition than most because he did more to impact laws and the lives of the people of Missouri. Harold did more by confronting and conquering the major life challenge of being legally blind since childhood due to a genetic condition.   Although he lacked sight, Harold never lacked a personal vision for the potential of Missouri. Blindness instilled in Harold a tenacity which could at times be called stubbornness. This was especially true when it came to educating our children. No legislator better understood the mechanics and complexities of school finance. No legislator was a stronger advocate for rural schools since Harold recognized they are the lifeblood of rural communities.   Harold was a lead sponsor of the Excellence In Education Act, which led to smaller class sizes and set minimum pay for teachers to keep smaller schools competitive in hiring and retaining great educators. He also was a strong backer of Senate Bill 380, which provided the largest infusion of funding for public schools in generations while setting high standards.   Harold’s mind and its workings could be a beautiful process or a fearsome experience. That is because Harold never stood up on the Senate floor with less than total preparedness. He accomplished this with loyal and dedicated staff members who read the text of bills into tape recorders, texts which Harold then memorized late into the night. Senators lived in apprehension of being publicly corrected by Harold, sometimes in regard to their own bills.   Harold was what we call an old-school Missouri Democrat – pro-life, pro-gun, pro-public education and especially pro-people when it came to taking care of constituents. We may not have agreed on all issues, but we would rather have Harold for us than against us. Many times Harold was preceded into the president pro tem’s office by the sound of his heavy cowboy boots stomping on the marble. He would arrive lecturing in the most colorful terms, to which the president pro tem would repeatedly reply, “Harold, I love you!” Eventually Harold would turn back to his office, still lecturing.   He wasn’t all hard-charging negotiator. For example, Harold would ply senators with a vast array of homemade pies from bakeries in his district. He had a quiet personal manner, and as U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill eulogized, he was “secretly a sweet softie.” Nowhere was this quality proven as much as when Harold welcomed to his office and advocated for the blind and people with disabilities.   As Harold would tell you, his secret to success was his adored wife Kay, who gave the taxpayers free service by tirelessly taking care of constituents back home. She was Harold’s eyes and his ears in the district. Our prayers for comfort go out to Kay, Kyle and the family.   Term limits took Harold out of the Senate after 28 years. But the proportional loss of wisdom with his Jefferson City exit was far greater than can be measured by a calendar.   This is our personal remembrance of a colleague from our shared Missouri Senate service, which, for the three of us, totaled some 65 years in the chamber. We mourn the passing of a great man, and a great friend. But Harold Caskey’s life will be remembered as one of service and positive inspiration that will stand for years to come.

 

 

 

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