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Extreme partisanship surprises freshman legislators

May 16, 2003
By: Sara Bondioli
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - The high degree of political fighting was a surprise for many of the state House's 90 freshman legislators this session. As the first session since the implementation of term limits ended, many of the 56 Republican and 34 Democratic freshmen said they had expected to see more bipartisan cooperation.

"What I've learned is the party in control is truly the party in control," said freshman Rep. Curt Dougherty, D-Jackson County.

Some Democrats, such as Dougherty, have found it difficult to accomplish much while being in the minority this session.

Freshman Rep. Brad Lager, R-Maryville, said he has been disappointed by the lack of bipartisanship.

"I guess I came down here, maybe naive, believing that there would be bipartisan cooperation to at least work through this process and try to make the best of it. And that really did not happen," he said.

Rep. D.J. Davis, D-Odessa, is in his fourth term in the House. He said new legislators this year had additional obstacles with the party leadership change and difficult economic times.

"After they got here, they might not really see it the same as they were when they were out here getting elected," he said.

He added that those legislators are then stuck in a difficult position and would find it hard to change their stance after they were elected.

Dougherty said partisanship is often worse than it appears.

"On the face they say that we're working together but truly behind the scenes they don't really work together," Dougherty said. "I think a lot of (legislators) are pushed into voting along party lines against their better judgment, against what they really inside feel like they should be doing, because many of them come out in the hallway, shake their heads and say, 'I hated doing that, but I had to.'"

For freshman Rep. Bryan Pratt, R-Jackson County, the real frustration has come when partisanship leads to the defeat of a bill that he feels everyone should agree on.

"I really thought that if you came up with a good idea then it'd be done. It'd be easy," he said.

LONG HOURS

Pratt said he thought he would be able to continue his law practice part-time during the session but quickly realized that would not be possible.

Lager said twenty-hour days have been common for him during the session. He said he drives to Jefferson City on Sunday afternoon and returns home late Thursday or Friday.

"I'm glad that we're only in session five months because it would be really easy to lose touch when you're not at home or in the district six of the seven days a week," he said.

Freshman Rep. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, said he has realized he will never be done with all his legislative work, and he must make sure he reserves time for his family.

"After about the first two months, I realized I'm not going to take any of this stuff home, mentally as well as physically," he said.

Pearce said he has a hard time replying to all the correspondence he receives, since only he and one assistant work in his office. He said it's possible to spend three or four hours on research for each email his office receives, but he is not able to.

The long processes of moving bills through the legislature and appropriating money surprised some freshmen.

"I knew that government moved slow. I did not realize that government moved THIS slow," Lager said.

With such a wide variety of issues coming up in the legislature, freshman legislators have learned that they don't have enough time to gain in-depth knowledge on all the topics.

"You got to start picking colleagues in this body that you believe philosophically, you agree with and that you trust and can rely on to have that depth of knowledge.... If you try to do everything, you're going to do it all half right," Lager said.

INVOLVEMENT

Many freshman legislators from both parties said they felt the leadership got them involved from the start.

Pearce said freshmen were encouraged to get involved early by being appointed as vice chairs of committees and deputy whips.

Freshman Rep. Rachel Bringer, D-Palmyra, got involved by serving as a deputy whip. She also participated in many floor debates and said she did most of her legislation by amendments.

Pearce said many freshman legislators observed the tone of the House before getting too involved on the floor and many may not have discovered their role in the legislature until the end of the session.

Freshman Rep. Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, said he has found it easier to get involved because of the large number of new legislators.

"When you have a majority of freshman legislators, then the logical conclusion is that you have opportunities for freshmen to really become as anyone in the legislature, regardless of seniority," he said.

Pratt said he jumped right in at the beginning, sponsoring one of the first House bills to come to the floor.

"I got killed out here on the House floor," he said. "But, doing that, it gave me the confidence to now get up at any time on the House floor and say whatever."

But some freshmen chose to focus on learning House procedures during their first session. Freshman Rep. Marilyn Ruestman, R-Joplin, said she learned a lot by sitting back and watching the House conduct business.

For freshman Rep. Robert Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, the learning experience may lead him to accomplish more of what he wants to next session.

"By the time I knew exactly how to get a bill filed and into the system, it was too late to do that," he said.

Davis said he is impressed with most of the freshmen and their desire to get involved.

"You've got some stronger than others mainly because they desire to be stronger than others," he said.

Ruestman said veteran legislators have been helpful, especially concerning floor protocol.

"I think they mostly have really tried to help us not make a total idiot of ourselves -- which we could easily do," she said.

Melissa Maynard contributed to this report.