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Democrats leave session divided

May 16, 2003
By: Heather J. Carlson
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - This legislative session featured squabbling, wrangling and name calling -- and that's just among Senate Democrats.

Tension between liberal and moderate Democrats erupted this session with party members arguing on the Senate floor over guns and abortion. The infighting culminated Friday with veteran lawmaker Sen. Harold Caskey, D-Butler, publicly quitting his chairmanship of the Democratic Caucus.

"Being a rural conservative legislator... it's just a marriage that didn't work," Caskey said.

Majority Floor Leader Michael Gibbons, R-St. Louis County, said during his 12 years in the Legislature he has never seen a party so publicly divided.

"I think it's pretty obvious that there's a fracture in the Democratic Caucus," Gibbons said. "It's palpable. You can see it. You can feel it. You can hear it."

Some Senate Democrats say the division comes down to different ideologies -- urban liberals versus rural moderates. Others say some party members are just angry they are no longer in charge. Still others accuse Minority Leader Ken Jacob, D-Columbia, of inflaming dissention.

Regardless of the reason, two camps have clearly emerged: one led by Jacob and the other by Caskey.

At the start of the session, Senate Democrats narrowly elected Jacob minority leader over Caskey by a vote of 7 to 6. Jacob's election represented a change in leadership from veteran senators to relative newcomers who originated in the House. And this new leadership style may be causing some of the problems, said Sen. Wayne Goode, D-St. Louis County.

Goode said Senate party leaders have always respected lawmakers who disagree. But this year, Goode said Jacob has pressured Democrats to tow the party line or else face threats.

Goode said Jacob should just accept that some members do not agree with the Democratic Caucus and "when that's the case, he ought to just live with the fact and not try to force members of the minority party to go lockstep with everyone else."

But Jacob says he does respect members who disagree with the caucus majority.

In the Democratic Party "there's a lot of diversity," Jacob said. "And when you have diversity, you have differences of opinion, but they're all allowed."

Supporters of Jacob say some of the long-term senators who are being critical of the minority leader are just upset they aren't in charge.

"Those who are unhappy now may be unhappy because they did not get the leadership role," said Sen. Maida Coleman, D-St. Louis.

Sen. Pat Dougherty, D-St. Louis City, added that Democrats had a string of bad luck with all the controversial bills -- guns, abortion, worker's compensation -- coming at once.

"I think it's just the way this year fell out," Dougherty said.

Nonetheless, senators witnessed history when a senator blocked a filibuster by his own party. Caskey stopped debate on the concealed carry gun legislation, something done only a handful of times in Missouri Senate history.

"I know it caused quite a bit of rancor," Goode said. "There is also kind of basic respect for how you do business and one of those is that you don't use the previous question -- that's of particular importance to a minority party."

Ultimately, Dougherty said it's inevitable that not everyone in a caucus will agree on everything.

"You try and pull people together," he said. "It doesn't mean everyone's happy, does it?"