JEFFERSON CITY - With an informal meeting set to begin at the Capitol, the entrance of Quincy Troupe grabbed most of the group's attention.
Sporting an all-black outfit -- except for a dark tie full of bright red polka dots -- the Democrat from St. Louis drew smiles and questions about his unusual look.
"At my age, you have to use any hook you can," answered Rep. Quincy Troupe, D-St. Louis.
But this sort of hook is just what most expect from the 21-year veteran of the House. Troupe, 62, is one of those figures whose humor and quirky nature are the stuff of legends.
He's made his biggest impression with his legislative activity. Troupe has been an outspoken champion of issues that many of his colleagues have swept under the rug. By focusing on topics that are politically dangerous or unpopular, he has forced the state to examine many serious problems.
He was the lonely voice in state government that began demanding that Missouri confront the realities of AIDS. And it was Troupe who blew the whistle on the beatings of Missouri prisoners at a Texas prison that made national news.
Troupe is also a well-respected advocate for the underpriveliged, while also being one of only 14 black lawmakers in Missouri.
A recent day in the life of this busy legislator showed Troupe's energy and passion. He met with everyone from the top health care companies and elected officials in St. Louis, to the Federation for the Blind and some old friends.
And all of this left him without a chance to stop and eat lunch.
"I haven't eaten since breakfast," Troupe told some guests as he munched on a leftover barbecue rib one late afternoon.
As a lawmaker from St. Louis city, Troupe knows that many problems exist in his own district. But his devotion to the underprivileged certainly can be felt throughout Missouri.
A VOICE FOR THE POWERLESS
By just watching Troupe discuss society's problems, his sincerity is unmistakable. His forehead's troubled look and his softening voice express almost as much as his idealistic words.
But Troupe knows that talk alone can only do so much. In his 21 years at the Capitol, he has pushed through several pieces of landmark legislation that have truly made a difference.
One of his biggest accomplishments was his teen pregnancy bill that sought to educate students about reality. Troupe said it's important that kids know what responsibilities come with pregnancy -- especially at such a young age.
One of Troupe's friends who stops by agrees the bill was important. Jean Neal, executive officer at a St. Louis family service center, said people don't automatically understand the ins and outs that come with parenting.
"There are assumptions that you know how to be a parent by osmosis," she said.
Other pieces of Troupe's legislation were intended to have a real impact on humanity. He worked for an AIDS bill establishing a support system and confidentiality in the 1980s. This level of accomplishment even surprised Troupe.
"It was unbelievable that we would put out an AIDS bill in Missouri that was better than anywhere else in the country."
Troupe also beams proudly when discussing the electronic benefits transfer idea, which was eventually supported nationally by Vice President Al Gore. The plan helped all government welfare programs upgrade their system to transport benefits electronically.
PROBLEMS IN SOCIETY
While some people grow up dreaming of a spot in public office, Troupe said it was never his goal. It just sort of happened.
Outside of the statehouse, he's an electrical contractor, small developer and union official. In the mid-1970s, however, Troupe decided to challenge the status quo -- and his own state representative.
After losing in his first attempt, Troupe was elected state representative in 1978. He set out to change things for the better -- in just a term or two. Twenty-one years later, Troupe looks back and sees just how maddening public service can be.
"It was addictive," he said. "The more work you do, the more work the community demands of you."
And it's this very inverse relationship, Troupe said, that makes people not want to do anything in government.
"It doesn't matter if you have a Democratic governor or a Republican governor, the philosophy is the same," he said.
He said too many people are worried about helping the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. In fact, Troupe said a fundamental component of government is responsible for much of what ills society.
"If you look at all the problems that exist, they can all be derived from the tax system," he said.
He said sales and property taxes, along with the influence of rich rural farmers, work to keep many impoverished. That's why, Troupe said, there needs to be a complete restructuring of the tax system that is more friendly to the poor.
Rep. John Louden, R-St. Louis County, said that Troupe is true to his word when it comes to the poor. Louden said he's worked with Troupe on several issues, and he always stands up for what he knows is right.
"He doesn't let partisanhsip get in the way of principle," he said.
But Troupe said many Americans have left the nation's principles behind. He laments a society that watches as the family apparatus dissolves before its eyes. He said the increased vulgarity, sex and violence on TV are destroying humankind.
"We have done a 180-degree turn in creating a wholesome environment for our kids," he said. "There's absolutely no way that can be a blueprint for success."
It's his own hope in humanity that keeps Troupe working to reverse these patterns. He said he becomes very offended when people say it's not his job to make sure better family environments are out there.
"When you go into these jails and talk to welfare recipients, you see the glowing light in people," he said. "They made a mistake. They didn't have a support base."
A BALANCE OF POWER
With only 13 black colleagues in the legislature, Troupe understands that legislative politics aren't just about political parties.
Troupe acknowledges that he faces some discrimination and insensitivity. Still, he said the biggest problem blacks face is that they don't vote together all of the time. Troupe said that when they do, black legislators can have an interesting role to play.
"Being a minority is not an impediment," he said. "As a minority group, we are the balance of power between Democrats and Republicans."
An old friend pops into Troupe's office as he is continuing with his political philosophy about looking at the big picture and keeping his roots. Almeta Crayton, who now lives in Columbia, met Troupe in St. Louis as he was beginning his legislative career.
Listening to Crayton describe their first meeting just adds to Troupe's mystical reputation. Crayton said she and a friend were walking along the street one afternoon, when they happened to pass Troupe's election headquarters. She said he figured they were probably getting into trouble, so he told them to come in and help.
"We went in there and stuffed envelopes and licked stamps," she said. "We came back and worked for him every summer. We've been friends ever since."
Crayton stops in often and she came by recently to ask for Troupe's support as she seeks a spot on Columbia's city council. But visiting Troupe is not something that's uncommon to her.
Crayton said she goes to see him so often that her friends always wonder what she's up to. But she said going to see Troupe is like having another father.
"People always ask me where I'm going," she said. "I say 'I'm going to see my daddy'."
THE FINAL ACT
With term limits set to have their full impact felt in January 2003, Troupe knows his tenure is running out. As a bitter opponent of the 1992 referendum, he has worked to educate the public about its effects.
"The people conceding to the millionaire companies, the bueracrats and the lobbyists their powers to elect who they want to elect, was done in great ignorance," he said.
But in typical Troupe fashion, the answer was not to get even, but rather to make progress. Troupe said most people don't realize how complex government service can be.
The result, he said, will be vastly inexperienced people trying to make sense of a budget process that took him eight years to learn. As chairman of Appropriations for Social Services and Corrections, Troupe has begun sessions to educate new lawmakers.
"That's going to be an awesome task to get these people ready for the situation that's going to confront them," he said.
With the end of his career approaching, Troupe said ensuring the legislature's future stability is his biggest remaining goal. While he wishes the law would be overturned, he recently joked that term limits might be the only thing that could get him to leave office.
But as long as he's still at the Capitol, so is the inevitable stress. To add to this, Troupe is also having to battle some nagging allergies.
"Who the hell gets allergies that get in their eyes?" asked Troupe.
While it's just this sort of quip that makes him appear entertaining during the day, Rep. Russell Gunn, D-St. Louis, said Troupe is truly in his element at night.
"He's very kind and gentle during the day," he said. "But by the evening time he's turned into a hearty lion."