How I played the political game

A thin line can separate History from nostalgia and we’re not sure which side we’re on in relating this story today.  Perhaps we have one foot in both.

Anyone who was in or around the legislature when Richard M. Webster was in the Senate is unlikely to forget someone once known as the “King of Missouri Politics.”  The description comes from Jim Wolfe, a longtime Capitol correspondent for the Joplin Globe who wrote often and favorably about the senator.  He told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch back in 1993, “Senator Webster had respect that bordered on fear.”

Webster served two terms in the House before running a losing race for Attorney General in 1952.  He was re-elected to the House in a special election in ’53 and became the last GOP Speaker of the House in 1954 until Catherine Hanaway was elected Speaker almost fifty years later.  He lost a race for Lt. Governor in 1956.  He told us the story once that in 1956 he became   the first statewide candidate to use television to solicit votes.

Webster was elected to the Senate in 1962 and if he had not died early in 1990 would surely have been elected to his eighth term there.  He gave a speech in his hometown of Carthage on the night of his election to his last term, in 1986.  Former Senator Ryan McKenna gave us a copy of a newspaper article, probably from the Carthage newspaper, some years ago. It’s kind of long but we pass it along today because Webster’s remarks need to be recalled as history more than nostalgia, a reflection on how things were done thirty years and more ago.

When I arrived in Jefferson City in January of 1949, I found that I was part of a Republican minority.  The Democrats were in complete control.  I had the same general feeling with regard to those people who sat on the other side of the aisle that the 95 percent of the straight ticket voters in Missouri generally had for elected officials from the “other” political party.  I presumed that they were all either hoodlums or controlled by nefarious political bosses.

It was seldom that a member of the minority party actually handled a piece of legislation on the floor, so I spent my first month voting against almost everything.  Our floor leader, a middle-aged pharmacist from El Dorado Springs named Bill Cruce, once commented in passing that things weren’t quite as bad as I seemed to think they were. 

During the second month of the session, a young Irish bartender by the name of Tommy Walsh was handling a bill.

As I remember, the bill raised the salaries of constables in St. Louis County from $9 a day to $10 a day.  I remember the debate, in which virtually all the Republicans and a large number of rural Democrats were voicing their opposition. One old Democrat from Monroe County pointed out that it was more than a 10 percent raise, that it meant the constables would be making more than his grandson who was an army sergeant, and that the next thing we knew, the governor would want a raise which had the same percentage increase as the constables.  It was at that moment that Bill Cruce motioned to me to come back to his desk.  He said, “Kid, if I were you I would vote for this bill.”  When I expressed my surprise, he simply said, “Trust me.”  The bill carried by one vote.

As I walked out of the chamber the young Irishman put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I haven’t met you yet, but you saved me today. I won’t forget.” 

I immediately went to our floor leader’s private office, and he was the only Republican with a private office, and asked why it was important that I vote for that particular bill.  Bill Cruce leaned back in his chair and said, “Kid, let me explain.  All the good guys are not in our party and all the bad ones are not in theirs. I’m not going to point out who our bad guys are. If you can’t figure that out by the end of this session, you shouldn’t be here.  Tommy Walsh is one of the good guys. You can trust him and he would never ask you to vote for something that was against the interest of the people you represent.”

On one other occasion during that first session, I cast a vote on another bill affecting only the city of St. Louis. Once again the young Irishman came around to thank me.

When the next session began, Warren Fuqua came to me and asked me to introduce a bill.  Many of the farmers my age and some a little younger may remember Warren Fuqua, who was the legislative adviser of the Missouri Farm Bureau for three decades.  He retired more than 20 years ago and has long since left this life.  When he asked me to introduce a bill, I thought he merely wanted me to be a co-sponsor and told him I would be happy to do it.  He said, “No, no, I want you to handle the bill.”

I thought the old gentleman must be slipping, because anyone in his right mind would have had a Democrat introduce the bill and some Republican co-sponsor it.  I did introduce the bill and was shocked when I received notice of a committee hearing the following Monday night.

When I arrived at the committee meeting I found that the young Irish bartender was the chairman.  There were two bills on the calendar that evening.  There were quite a number of witnesses who testified for and against the first one.

When my turn came, Tom Walsh said, “The next bill is one which is very important to our friends from outstate Missouri.  Representative Webster, do you want to explain it or do you want us to go ahead and take action?”  It’s the only bill I have ever seen that was never discussed, but I took the cue. I simply said, “I have faith in your committee,” and I sat down. With no further discussion he said, “Do I hear a motion?”  The motion was made, seconded, and unanimously carried.  I had it on the floor the following week and Tom Walsh and several other new friends on the Democratic side saw to it that I had a sufficient number of votes.  That bill, incidentally, was the legislation which authorized the establishment of rural fire districts and permitted rural areas to be combined with town and city fire districts.  Without that legislation, the farmers in this immediate area could not expect to participate in the use of the Carthage fire department. 

After I was elected to the Senate in 1962, my first stop was in the office of my old Irish friend from St. Louis.  He not only welcomed me back to Jefferson City, but immediately got on his telephone and started calling state representatives from both St. Louis City and St. Louis County.  Between the time that I had been elected to the House and the time I was elected to the Senate, there had been a massive change in the population of St. Louis.  Almost 100,000 black citizens had moved in from Southern states and occupied the northern part of the city. A large segment of the Irish and German population had moved to St. Louis County.  The redistricting of 1950 and ’60 had added a large number of state representatives to St. Louis County because of that population increase.  Tommy must have introduced me to 20 new city and suburban Democrats. Without exception he would say, “You can trust this guy. He’ll always tell you yes or no. His word is good.  And if he can’t help you, he’ll tell you why.”   That was the beginning of many new friendships, all of which have lasted down the years.  I sat on the platform at the second inauguration of Warren Hearnes and the first inauguration of Kit Bond with my old Irish friend.  He left us for a better world, I am sure, almost a decade ago, but not before he had gone up and down the aisles to help both Robert Ellis Young and me get the votes to create Missouri Southern College, to make it a full four-year fully funded college and establish many other worthwhile projects in Southwest Missouri. 

If I ever wrote a book, I would tell a similar story with virtually the same beginning in the same development of a loyal friendship with regard to many legislators. I could tell of my friendship with Yogi Berra’s cousin, Paul Berra, with whom I served in both the Missouri House and the Missouri Senate. He is now the comptroller of the city of St. Louis.  He was a loyal friend when we needed him.  Probably my closest friend in the Missouri House of Representatives today is the senior Democratic member, Gene Copeland from Southeast Missouri.  Two years ago at the close of a legislative session, we were visiting in my office and comparing how each of us had voted, and both of us are basically conservative.  We found that our voting records had been identical.  After thinking for a moment he said, “Why is it that you’re a Republican and I’m a Democrat?”  I asked him, “What color of uniform did your great-granddaddies wear?”  He responded, “Gray, of course.” 

Therein lies the basic reason that he was a Democrat and I am a Republican.  It was a family tradition and it explains why the Missouri Legislature is basically conservative with a Democratic majority on both houses.  A majority of the Missouri voters vote their traditional party line for the local candidates. They vote for the man at the state and national levels. 

In the Missouri Senate the leaders recognized, three generations ago, that party affiliation had little to do with political philosophy.  They were wise enough, in 1919 when the new Capitol was opened, to establish an unwritten rule that we would never sit by political party on the floor of the Senate.  It isn’t possible to walk in and see the Democrats on one side and the Republicans on the other. It is the only legislative body in this nation which follows that tradition.  The result is the ability to vote in accordance with your conscience and the interest of the people that you represent. Neither the Democratic floor leader nor I would ever attempt to crack the whip and deliver a solid party vote in order to maintain party loyalty.

When the next session opens, I will be called upon, as the senior member of the Senet, to explain the traditions and “unwritten rules” of the body.  We follow the same rules of procedure as the United States Senate.  A rule can be suspended by majority vote.  We also have “unwritten rules” which have nothing to do with parliamentary procedure. Some of them simply deal with the matter of common courtesy. Others deal with overall conduct toward each other.

As an example, it doesn’t matter who the governor is, no gubernatorial appointment will be confirmed if the senator in whose district the appointee resides objects.  This has been hard for many governors to understand. It is not a written rule, but it is strictly enforced.

One of the things that binds us together as a family is the rule that you do not speak in another senator’s district without advising him in advance and getting permission.  I have never known of a senator who said don’t come into my district to speak to the Rotary club, or a church group, or even at a political rally. It’s a simple matter of courtesy.  Since 1949 I know of only one senator who did not strictly abide by that rule.  She happens to be running for a national office today and we’ll find out tonight whether or not she’s been elected.

The bipartisan friendship has led to an extremely interesting development and that is the monthly Senate prayer breakfast.  Without desiring to stimulate a religious argument, I would offer my personal opinion that it is part of God’s plan that all Christians will be untied before He returns.  The greatest change that I have seen in philosophy among my fellow elected officials is the ability to freely discuss the Bible, regardless of our church membership.

Now, we know about the president’s prayer breakfast, our governor’s prayer breakfast, many mayors who have a prayer breakfast, and other such events.  These meetings ar eopen, large crowds are attracted, and tickets are sold. The Missouri Senate prayer breakfast, on the other hand, is strictly a private affair.  It is held on the first Tuesday of each month. No one attends but the members of the Senate.  Our average attendance is 26 out of 34 members. It isn’t unusual to observe a devout Catholic reading the scripture from a King James version of the bible. We have come a long way in unity in that regard.

I can best describe how our system works by telling you about the last two days of the last session.  Both the governor and a virtually unanimous news media said it was the most productive session in the history of the state.

The session ended on a Monday.  After church on Sunday, the president pro tem and the Democratic floor leader met in my office. 

They had a list of 45 pieces of legislation that they considered to be vitally important.  The Democratic floor leader said, “I know that some of the Republican members have bills on this list, but there may be other legislation that is important to them in their district. Will you work up a list between now and 2 o’clock and we can figure out how to get a vote on each of these propositions.”  Now bear in mind we were looking at an afternoon and early evening session on Sunday and a session between 9:30 and midnight on Monday to clean the calendar and take up all of the priority measures. 

When we adjourned for the evening at 9 o’clock Sunday the three of us met again and decided to find some out-of-the-way place where we could have breakfast on Monday to review the list and set a timetable. We had such a meeting and allotted time for each remaining piece of legislation.  At 7:30 we met with the governor to review his priorities. At 9, the day’s work began.

Bear in mind that through the whole procedure, the question was never asked, “How do you you  intend to vote?”  It was simply a matter of guaranteeing that the members of the body would have the opportunity to vote on each of these important issues.  We allotted a specific amount of time for each measure. At eight minutes before midnight we had finished our work.  All the priority legislation had been taken up and our job was done with ten minutes to spare.

As I watch our colleagues in Washington spend days and even weeks on one single piece of legislation, I don’t know why they can’t learn the simple lesson of bipartisan cooperation.

The question is always asked, Why do you have to wait until the last week of the session for that final action on legislation? The answer is simple.  If you are going to build 200 houses in 100 days, you don’t complete two houses on the first, two houses on the second day, and two houses each day for 100 days.  You have to have input from 34 Senators and 163 House members. That work has already begun. I am in Jefferson City two days a week when we are not in session working on legislation that will be introduced next year.

What has taken place in the last generation and a half in the minds of voters, in which they have demonstrated the genuine ability to “vote for the man,” has also taken place among Missouri lawmakers in the ability to recognize philosophical differences and at the same time attempt to work together for the overall benefit of the state.  When we had those conferences, not only the last two days, but the first day of every week during the session, we were not agreeing on what would pass and what would not pass. We were simply ageing that every member of the body would have the right to present legislation that he or she considered to be important.  We were agreeing that crisis problems in the state would be approached. We were agreeing that we would take a financially responsible position.

It’s been slightly more than 47 years since I first addressed the Rotary club. I was a senior in high school and had won the city oratorical contest.  We have seen a multitude of changes in the minds and attitudes of America’s voters and American’s public officials.  Our Constitution, however, is still in place and it will fail only when the people of America lose interest in their government and how it works.

The leader of the Missouri Senate these thirty years later, Ron Richard, represents the district Richard Webster served.   But it’s no longer Webster’s Senate, no longer Webster’s legislature.  It’s hard to believe in this term-limit, unlimited campaign money, polarized era that it ever will be again.

And that, Mr. and Mrs. And Ms. Missouri, is sad.

Let me know what you think......