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Black Caucus: Mission Accomplished

January 11, 1996
By: Joseph Morton
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - For at least the past few years, some members of the Black Caucus have argued for taking a harder line with House Democrats - to send a message to Democrats that black support no longer could be taken for granted.

On Wednesday, it appeared that approach had worked as Black Caucus refusal to support the party led, eventually, to the election of a black to the highest legislative post in Missouri history.

When the Legislative Black Caucus and other "dissident" Democrats left the fold last week, the party fell apart. But after a week of political jockeying, the Democrats finally managed to regroup behind a mix of new leadership.

The election of Rep. Fletcher Daniels, D-Kansas City, as speaker pro tem was a direct result of the chaos into which the Black Caucus threw the party by refusing to support Rep. Sam Leake, D-Perry, the original democratic nominee for Speaker.

Daniels received his position as part of a deal between the Black Caucus and the rest of the Democratic party.

Black Caucus Chair Paula Carter, D-St. Louis, said the caucus would have supported any of the party's three possible nominees for speaker, as long as Fletcher Daniels was the party's nominee for speaker pro tem.

"It had to be a package," Carter said. "Let's be serious. If we're serious about change, let's have complete change."

Daniels personifies the hard-line approach taken by the Black Caucus.

A loyal Democrat for some 50 years, he agreed to be the Republican's candidate for speaker pro tem last year in an unsuccessful effort by Republicans to win over enough black Democratic support for the GOP to capture the speakership.

Last year and in the first speaker vote this year, Daniels was one of two black Democrats who voted for the GOP speaker candidate.

The opportunity for Daniels to seek the post as a Democrat emerged when the position of speaker pro tem was vacated by Rep. Jim Barnes, D-Raytown.

Last week, Barnes had said he would be willing to give up his position if it would provide a compromise with the Black Caucus.

Carter said the caucus did not request Barnes' resignation.

"That's something he did on his own," Carter said. "When he made his decision, I saw an opportunity for inclusion."

Inclusion is the buzz word among Black Caucus members. While blacks historically have been allied with the Democratic party, there were many who felt the Democrats had come to take this support for granted.

The Black Caucus was sending a message to the rest of their party that they would no longer be taken for granted when they first held up the election process, Daniels said.

"That was one way of getting the attention of our party and we certainly needed to get their attention," Daniels said. "Sometimes a physician has to cut deep, but it's always for the good of the patient. This was a wake up call that we are all going to be included and as you go down the stretch you'll see that."

Daniels said the caucus, along with the five dissident Democrats led by Rep. Tony Ribaudo, D-St. Louis, was able to get the party to respond to this message.

"The very fact that I will have the position indicates our people will be included all the way down the line," Daniels said. "The two groups had the same motives and mission and that means mission accomplished."

With Daniels in position as speaker pro tem, the Black Caucus expects to have more influence in the House.

"Fletcher will be at the table when they make the rules," said Carter, who spoke optimistically about the future.

"All parties are represented and so we can now begin the business of the state," she said. "It's been a good day."

The extent of confusion among Democrats was evident once Steve Gaw, D-Moberly, was elected - the party didn't have a judge on hand to swear him in as the new speaker. Griffin therefore presided over Fletcher's election as speaker pro tem while Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ronnie L. White was located.

"We were not sure we were going to get the job done and get a speaker elected," Griffin said. "Having a judge on hand was not one of our top priorities."

But now that the party has its leaders chosen, everyone is talking strength and cooperation.

"We have a new rule; we have no dissidents," Gaw said at the press conference as he gripped Daniels' arm and laughed.

Black Caucus member Rep. Russell Goward, D-St. Louis, said the shakeup had brought the party together.

"It united the Democratic Caucus," Goward said. "If we realize that we are a party of coalitions, in the future I think that we can achieve many objectives."