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Leadership Style Is First House Change

January 12, 1996
By: Joseph Morton
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - On the surface, it would seem the week-long political agony among House Democrats in selecting new a new speaker was of little significance.

No committee chairs have been replaced. There have been no changes in the legislative process, in the agenda of the legislature nor in the top legislative staff.

It's as if things were still the same after the departure of Bob Griffin after an unprecedented 15 years as speaker.

Yet, things have changed - reflected by the lack of a rush to change by Missouri's new House speaker, Steve Gaw.

A slower, more deliberative approach, which Gaw's friends had predicted, was main theme of an informal session Gaw had with a few statehouse reporters Friday.

Rather than imposing his own will on the House, Gaw stressed the importance of letting the legislative process make decisions.

And he conceded that his election in the middle of a two-year General Assembly makes it impractical to implement major changes in the legislative process.

Despite just three years in the legislature, Gaw possesses a strong reputation for thoughtful deliberation, honesty and fairness among his peers.

"He's the kind of leader everyone can be proud of; he has character and integrity," said Rep. Phil Tate, D-Gallatin. "This sends a very positive signal to the citizens of the state."

Said Rep. Tim Harlan, D-Columbia, "Steve Gaw is simply the most decent person I know. It is so rare to find such a person in a position of power."

Gaw, a former city prosecutor in Moberly, graduated from Northeast Missouri University in 1978 with a degree in physics. He received his law degree from MU's School of Law in 1981.

He describes himself as "a guy who believes the important thing is for the speaker's office to be the focal point for all the members."

The new speaker's lack of enemies and reputation for fairness have been cited by several House members as a major reason for Gaw's selection.

Harlan said Gaw's work as a general lawyer provides an additional advantage.

"When you handle such a wide variety of things, it makes you flexible," Harlan said.

But like many House members, Harlan stressed Gaw's personality as the key for bringing the House together.

"He's able to deal with people who are in a difficult situation," he said.

This ability will serve Gaw well in working with House Republicans, who have joined in the chorus of praise for the new speaker.

"As partisan as I may be, they've elected a fine young man," said Jon Bennet, R-St. Charles. "Steve will come to the table in a fair manner. I just hope he continues the spirit of reform that put him there."

Indeed, Friday, Gaw said he was willing to talk about some of the demands Republicans have made for fairer treatment in allocation of committee assignments and legislative resources.

Bennet said Gaw is a welcome change from the rule of Bob Griffin.

"There will never be a person more powerful in the Missouri legislature than Bob Griffin was," Bennet said. "And when you have power, you have the ability to abuse that power. And I don't think anyone will deny Griffin did that."

Gaw's peers on both sides of the political aisle say he will run the House as more of a manager than a director.

In Friday's session with reporters, Gaw described his role in a similar fashion - emphasizing the role of committees rather than his own powers.

"The most important thing here is a change in leadership," Tate said. "The speakership will be very different. Abandoning the top-down approach is very much his style. The challenge is to bring about substantive changes in the rules and so forth along with those changes in style."

Gaw echoed these sentiments, saying he wants the power of the speaker's office to stem from the members of the House and their input, rather than him as an individual.

But more than just a change in the speaker's office, some say his election illustrates the rise of the younger political generation.

The road to Gaw's election was paved by another young legislator, Rep. Jason Klumb, D-Butler. Klumb, 27, tried for the speakership nomination last November.

But Klumb faced ridicule from some House members for his young age and limited legislative experience. After all, he had served just three years in the House - ironically, exactly the same as Gaw.

"It became almost immediately evident that I couldn't win it," Klumb said. "My hope in part was to change the specifications of the candidates and how the democratic caucus looked at them."

Klumb said the time is right for a change of leadership.

"When you consider term limits and the fact that we're held to eight years, now is the time to make a generational change," he said. "If you make it now the more veteran members can oversee the transition."

Much of the legislation Gaw has worked on involves the criminal justice system and children. This included sponsorship of such measures as sex offender registration.

Gaw said one of the biggest things the legislature will confront this session is dealing with violent, disruptive students in school. Gaw said he is particularly concerned with provisions for alternative schools.

"One of the things I'm interested in is not just making schools safer for the students and the teachers in them, but also looking at what we do with kids who are causing trouble other than suspend them and see if they drop out," Gaw said.

As part of his let-the-process-work-it-out approach, Gaw said he would not use his powers to block House consideration of abortion-restriction legislation.

Like his predecessor Bob Griffin, Gaw has supported abortion rights and voted against last year's abortion-counseling bill.. But Griffin had used his powers as speaker to prevent House debate on the issue.

Last year, anti-abortion forces were able to defeat Griffin's efforts by voting to take the bill out of committee - a rare legislative procedure that threw the House into chaos for much of the session.

"It was just a horrible process last year," Gaw said.

Another sensitive issue for the new speaker will be the legislative push to legalize concealed weapons.

Gaw supported that proposal last year and voted against submitting the issue to Missouri voters.

Friday, Gaw said the governor's opposition to concealed weapons and his support of a statewide referendum on the issue would not change his position.

But, he stressed, "I will not force my agenda on the body."

Not forcing an agenda, of letting members themselves work things out, has been the main theme Gaw has stressed these first few days.

It remains to be seen if Gaw will be able to maintain that position as he encounters the enormous demands a speaker faces to take an activist role in directing the legislature - to be a political and governmental leader rather than implementer.