Speechifying is an important element in starting a new legislative session and getting a new governor in place. Making speeches at the start of things is always the easiest part of the job. Hope is always its highest in the early hours or days of service in the pressure cooker we call the public arena. High hopes often are worn down by the grit of real life and the grinder of competing ideas. Noble words printed at the start often become nostalgic yearnings at the end. But let’s talk about the optimism of talk when things are new in Missouri government, beginning with the opening day remarks from legislative leaders and then doing a reprise of an outsider’s warnings and pledges on his inauguration day.
Senate President pro Tem Ron Richard has started his second, and final, term as leader of the state senate. He’s the only man in state history to lead both chambers of the legislature. Nobody will ever accuse him of being a political windbag. There sometimes would be pauses during our news conferences while reporters waited for a second sentence. It was kind of fun.
His opening was pure Richard: “I know it’s a tradition that the new President Pro-Tem gives a big speech on the first day and sets the agenda. But I’m not big on long, windy speeches.”
Richard believes the words “Senator,” and “Senate” have values that deserve more respect than they sometimes get from his fellow senators. “What we do here matters and how we do it matters,” he told his colleagues. “Why is it that Missourians—who are not unnecessarily extravagant people—decided more than one hundred years ago to build such a wonderful capitol?…I think Missourians then—and Missourians now—want us to feel the weight of what we do here.”
He urged his colleagues to pledge to teach other to “conduct the business of the Senate in a way that rises to the grandeur of the great state of Missouri.” He spoke at length of history and the hope that “we are remembered for respecting the institution of the Senate and each other; for restoring civility to the chamber; and that we were able to be passionate about our convictions without being combative with one another.”
In the House, Speaker Todd Richardson—starting his second term in that job—spoke at greater length and did lay out the majority party’s agenda. But he cautioned members of his own supermajority party not to overplay their power. “With this greater power comes even greater responsibility—a responsibility to make this legislative process deliberative. That means we must respect the voices and viewpoints of every Missourian…Inevitably we are going to disagree, both in our caucuses and across the aisle. This is the people’s House and we are a body that is supposed to have spirited discussion, but those discussions and that disagreement should stay professional and mindful of our fellow legislators, and the constituents we serve.”
He pointed to several economic and societal changes in which he felt Missouri was lagging behind as he discussed the Republican agenda for the session. “Government does not create jobs,” he said. “Real people do. Government’s role is to lay a stable foundation upon which entrepreneurs and hard-working Missourians can do the job-creating.” Minority Democrats already have served notice that they’ll noisily oppose Right to Work, don’t much like Republican tort reform ideas, charter school and private school voucher programs, right to life and LGBT positions, and the like. There’s general agreement on strengthening lobbyist controls including a ban on gifts to elected officials. Richardson says the gift ban will be the first bill out of the House this year. He called for an end to “half measures” and a commitment to “bold action.”
Governor Greitens’ inaugural speech fit into those themes. He cited history and the character that it has built for our state and that binds all of us together. But, he noted, that does not mean we have to agree with one another. “Sometimes the purpose of our opponents is to be our teachers,” he said. Further, “Even as we fight for our convictions, we resolve that the greatest conviction is to love our neighbors as ourselves.”
But, he said, “I come as an outsider, to do the people’s work.” He promised to be tough on crime and to be resistant to special influence. He mentioned, as others before him have mentioned, that government cannot fix every problem, that people carry a heavy responsibility as citizens to care for one another and to take advantage of opportunities government provides. “Let’s get to work,” he said at the end.
Three speeches. Three venues. Common themes in the beginning days of the legislature and of an administration.
Another thing Senator Richard said in his brief remarks added realism to the next few months. “We’re human, and we make mistakes, especially in the passion of the moment…How will history remember us?”
The way history remembers the participants in this annual drama will be determined in the next four months or four years. One thing is sure: They will make history.