Personal attacks in Congress vs. Missouri

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The recent personal and racially tinged partisan attacks by a couple of U.S. House members, and the absence of swift discipline, stands in stark contrast to how legislators treat one another in Missouri’s General Assembly.

This contrast reminded me of a speech by the late Sen. Richard Webster made on the night of his final re-election in 1986. The Carthage Republican was one of the most powerful and influential state senators I’ve covered.

He had a passionate drive to preserve the dignity of the Missouri Senate and to maintain it as a chamber where “gentlemen” and “gentlewomen” could engage in strong debate, but without personal attack and putting their differences aside after the chamber had adjourned.

“All the good guys are not in our party and all the bad ones are not in their’s,” Webster attributed to the Senate’s GOP leader advising him in his early Senate years.

Webster referred to a tradition in the Senate that continues to this day that the chamber seating of members is not divided by party.

That is completely the opposite of the Missouri House, where Democrats sit on one side of the chamber and Republicans on the other side. Like so many of the Senate’s traditions, Webster noted it was an unwritten rule.

“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,” Webster wrote.

I still remember when a violation of that unwritten rule led to a Senate outburst. But as you would expect, there were occasional violations of the expectation of civility.

Years after Webster’s victory speech, a Senate member’s violation of that unwritten rule of civility had a poignant and entertaining consequence.

It arose in 1994 when Sen. Danny Staples, D-Shannon County, joked about a Black colleague who was late for a joint legislative committee.

“I thought he might be stealing hubcaps,” Staples joked.

Sen. Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, had an angry reaction in a subsequent Senate session.

“Stereotyping people while we’re touring rural Missouri is disappointing,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch quoted Clay as saying at the time.

But how those two legislators from such different backgrounds defused the issue remains one of the greatest demonstrations about the commitment to civility about which Webster spoke.

Staples quickly apologized to the Senate in what I remember as a deeply sincere speech. Then, Clay had an auto hub cap delivered to Staples office.

The white rural senator mounted on his Senate office wall that hub cap. It remained there, I’ve been told, until Staples left office.

Also unlike the current U.S. Congress, Missouri lawmakers have demonstrated the ability to quickly rise above party when dealing with serious allegations against one of their own party.

In 2015, House Republicans forced GOP House Speaker John Diehl to resign after it was revealed that he had been sending inappropriate text messages to a 19-year-old House intern. Later that year, Sen. Paul Levota, D-Independence, resigned facing attacks by both Republican and Democratic leaders after allegations of sexual harassment.

In 2017, by an overwhelming bipartisan vote, Missouri’s Senate censured Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, for a social media post that said, “I hope Trump is assassinated!”

The following year, Republican Gov. Eric Greitens resigned after a House committee appointed by Republican House Speaker Todd Richardson deemed allegations against Greitens of violent sexual assault were credible.

This year, an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote censured Democratic Rep. Wiley Price for for lying about an alleged sexual encounter with an intern and attempting to cover it up by threatening a House employee.

Later in the session, Rep. Rick Roeber, R-Lee’s Summit, became the first legislator expelled from the Missouri House since the Civil War after 153 lawmakers voted to remove him from office over accusation by his adult children of sexual and physical abuse

I continue the ponder the reasons why party loyalty in the GOP-controlled Congress is such an obstacle to uphold civility and discipline misbehaving members while the actions of Missouri’s GOP-controlled legislature has been so different.

I am indebted to former Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard who gave me a copy of Webster’s speech signed by former Sen. Ryan McKenna, the son of former Senate President Pro Tem Bill McKenna.

(Phill Brooks, a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, is director of Missouri Digital News and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism). 

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