Betty Sims died the other day. I liked her. A lot. She was a Republican woman state senator when Democrats and men dominated the Missouri Senate. But they didn’t dominate her.
Betty Sims was a Senator. Not just in title but in spirit. She and Roseanne Bentley of Springfield were two of the first three women to serve together in the Senate, joining Irene Treppler in 1995. “It was like, this is a big boy’s playpen and what are we doing here? It didn’t take us long to figure it out,” she said in an oral history interview for the State Historical Society of Missouri three years ago, also noting “Rosanne and I were the first women to serve on the Appropriations Committee. If we were told once, I can’t tell you…’Are you still talking about children? What do you mean, it’s a woman’s issue?’ They just didn’t get the picture.”
(It’s really worth reading at http://shsmo.org/manuscripts/collections/transcripts/s1148/simsb.pdf.)
She, Roseanne, and Irene would not be trifled with. Senate President Pro Tem Jim Mathewson, a Democrat, took them into his office one day and explained how they could control the floor debate—and when a women’s health bill written entirely by the male members came up, they did. “I did not go to the senate as an advocate for women. I say that, I’m not a big women’s libber. I’m a people libber,” she told interviewer Blanche Touhill, a member of the society’s board of trustees. That’s not to say she wasn’t an advocate for women. Far from it. The business, still practiced in the legislature, of men writing proposed laws affecting women’s health, was a red flag to Betty Sims.
Betty had a wonderful smile, an exuberance about her, a directness, a charm, and an enthusiasm for being a Senator for all the people. But when she was serious, she was very, VERY serious and she never backed down in a confrontation with a senior male senator. She wasn’t afraid to take on any colleague, Democrat or Republican when the issue was right. She didn’t always win. But she won on some important issues—requiring insurance companies to provide coverage for reconstructive breast surgery, combatting child abuse, as well as care for those with mental health issues including Alzheimer’s disease.
Betty Sims is an example of the tragedy of term limits. Her voters were denied the right to send her back for more terms—and they surely would have—and Missourians were denied the presence of a person of her quality in that important place. She was barred from running again in 2002. She railed against term limits in that 2013 interview:
” I hate them. Term limits, to me, have been the undoing of a lot of that demeanor, if you will. I think what’s happening now, first of all, everybody said it will be an opportunity for the bureaucrats to get in there and the lobbyists and every time I go to a meeting…and I do sit on several state boards right now…the lobbyists are there and there’s no question but, equally, what I’m finding is, getting candidates, it’s not the same…not just not the same quality but people can say, ‘Well, I can give you eight years,’ and they come with very vested self interest. I mean, what’s been going on in the House is absolutely ridiculous and I don’t think it’s a whole lot better in the senate. So, much as I have been very critical of the number of vetoes that the governor put on, in certain instances I think he has to do that because there’s some hair-brained stuff going on down there right now.”
And she didn’t mince words about the relationship between Jay Nixon, the most veto-overridden governor in Missouri history, and today’s legislature:
I have never seen the relationships between a governor and a legislature at such a pitiful situation. I mean, I can remember when John Ashcroft was governor, Republican, both houses were Democrat but they got things done. They talked civilly to each other and we worked together for the betterment of the people. I don’t see that happening right now. I just see chaos going around and that really bothers me.
She remained, as she was as a member of the senate, hard to argue with. Because she was right.
Here’s another example of her character. She had to drop out of her first campaign for the senate because she didn’t live in the district in which she was running. She sent back the money from donors. She told Blanche Touhill, “People said, ‘Well, you’re the dumbest person I’ve ever known.’ Okay, so then the next opportunity came for the right election. I ran again and I had one letter written…and this is true…which was kind of fun. But anyway, the first letter written by my treasurer and we raised $64,000 in the first letter and we did it because people said, ‘Nobody ever gave us our money back. Obviously she’s the right person.’ So we were… fundraising never was a problem.”
God! She was such an interesting person to watch and to talk to.
I don’t know how many time in the dozen years after she left the Senate that I sat at the press table and wished she was still there.