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Missouri's New House Speaker

January 11, 1996
By: Emily Goodin
State Capital Bureau

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JEFFERSON CITY - Young, bright, mild-mannered, a policy wonk and having few enemies are among the attributes colleagues use to describe Missouri's new House Speaker, Rep. Steve Gaw, D-Moberly.

At age 38, he's the youngest person to hold the office in more than 30 years. He's been a member of the House only since 1993 - just three years.

But the Moberly attorney's limited legislative history was cited by supporters as an advantage in winning over a divided party - he had not been around long enough to rack up a list of enemies.

Gaw was named the Democratic nominee after it was clear that former nominee, Rep. Sam Leake of Perry, did not have the support to win the election.

Leake's stepping down had "nothing to do with personality, everything to do with timing and he handled it well," Gaw said.

Gaw said 36 hours ago his nomination was not even on the table.

But when the House convened at 3:30 p.m., an hour and a half after it was scheduled, Gaw won with 86 votes, including those of the Legislative Black Caucus and the five dissident Democrats, whose votes prevented Leake from winning the office.

His Republican rival, Minority Floor Leader Mark Richardson of Poplar Bluff received 75 votes - all Republicans.

Later, in a press conference, when Gaw was asked what changes he would make, including committee chairs and memberships and office assignments, he made no promises, unlike Leake who had received criticism when he signed a pledge not to shift the committee chairs Speaker Bob Griffin appointed.

"All of that will be looked at," Gaw said. "I think that the important thing right now is to establish some stability. We want to get through this with everyone understanding we're looking for long term change."

Part of the changes Gaw plans include a team effort on the part of the Democrats.

"I'm a part of it but not every part of it," Gaw said. "All of us together are going to come up with an agenda."

He did say that the specifics of his plans will take time.

Gaw succeeds Cameron Democrat Bob Griffin in the speaker's office, who departed after 15 years in the top House leadership slot - a record tenure in Missouri history.

Griffin's record would seem secure. Legislation passed in 1994 limits legislatures in both the House and Senate to eight years of service.

Griffin had been attacked by Republicans and a few Democrats for concentrating too much power in the speaker's office.

But Gaw said the question of power will not be as big of a concern for him, repeatedly stressing a team effort.

Griffin praised Gaw saying he will "provide strong leadership in the House."

Despite his 15 years on the speaker's dais, Griffin said his best accomplishment was "what occurred today - to insure an orderly transfer of leadership in the House of Representatives."

As for his future plans, Griffin hasn't decided when he will resign his seat, but it would be a matter of days. Then he plans to practice law with the possibility of doing consulting or lobbying work.

Gaw's election was a major victory for abortion-rights advocates. Like Griffin, Gaw opposed the abortion-restriction bill passed last year by the legislature and vetoed by the governor.

Leake, the Democrat's first choice for speaker, had supported the bill. And Gaw's leading opponent for the second Democratic nomination was the House sponsor of the anti-abortion bill.

A couple of demographic firsts were set by House Democrats Wednesday.

Fletcher Daniels, D-Kansas City, was elected to the highest legislative post held by black in Missouri's history - the position of speaker pro tem.

He replaced Jim Barnes of Raytown who turned in his resignation that morning.

"I feel real good," Daniels said. "It's not only good for me, but good for those who come after me."

Electing a black to a legislative leadership post had been one of the demands suggested by members of the Legislative Black Caucus to get their support for a Democratic House speaker.

Women also scored a first Wednesday.

After the House elected a speaker, Democrats returned to a closed-door caucus to elect Gracia Backer of New Bloomfield to the Majority Floor Leader's position - the highest legislative office to be held by a woman in Missouri's history.

"I've worked very hard for this," Backer said. She is confident that she, Gaw, and Daniels will have a great working relationship.