JEFFERSON CITY -- Coming from a dairy farm in Pickering, Mo., Stephen Knorr said he learned early on to enjoy the company of other people.
"When you're on a farm, anytime you see something besides livestock, you have a tendency to visit. It comes naturally," he said.
It's a skill set that suits him well professionally. Knorr now leads the University of Missouri system's lobbying efforts in the Capitol -- a job that involves, mainly, a lot of mingling, handshaking and talking.
Last September, UM system president Elson Floyd added a new system-level position that Knorr was asked to fill. Previously, Knorr's focus was on lobbying the federal government in Washington, D.C.
Now, in his current $95,900 per year job, he oversees all UM system lobbying efforts -- federal and state. Knorr said it's an attempt to "leverage" the power of both Jefferson City and Washington together.
But his history of raising money for MU programs began long before last fall's organizational shakeup. In his federal position, Knorr got the university nearly $200 million for 150 different programs.
Ed Blaine, director of the Dalton Cardiovascular Research Center, worked with Knorr in 2000 to secure about $2 million for building new research labs. Blaine, who sat on the university's development council, said that he could see how Knorr could be a successful lobbyist.
"He's a very invigorated kind of guy," Blaine said. "He's reliable, responsive -- I know I'll hear back from him."
Knorr got his start in politics after graduating from MU in 1988. He got work with the John Danforth campaign for U.S. Senate. Danforth, a leading Missouri Republican, hired him because "they needed someone with a rural background, and I fit the bill," Knorr said.
His family wasn't very political, and he didn't have much of a political background (he was an agricultural economics major) but he was hooked.
"That, and I needed the money," he said.
It was a turbulent session for the UM system and its lobbying leader, with the system's funding attacked several times.
The biggest issue facing the system was a bond proposal that would have garnered $195 million for the UM system. It would have been used to construct life-science research facilities on all four system campuses, including a $90 million health sciences building.
That bond bill, Knorr said, "has a long way to go," and appears headed for a legislative death.
The failure to push through the bonds also generated one of Knorr's sharpest critics, Columbia Democratic Sen. Ken Jacob. He said Knorr's inexperience with this particular state government was a problem from the get-go.
Jacob said he was especially irked at the way Knorr led the approach on the bond issue, saying the new lobbying team was without a game plan. And he said he was stunned to learn that Knorr had attended a fundraiser for Republican gubernatorial candidate Matt Blunt.
"I think it was dumb to attend a fundraiser of the opponent to the sitting governor who would sign funding bills. That's unhelpful," Jacob said.
But Knorr, who said his job asks him to cross party lines regularly, said he would talk to anyone who would listen to higher education's needs. And, he said, a few weeks earlier he had been at a fundraiser for Chuck Graham -- who'se seeking the Democratic nomination for Columbia's state Senate seat.
Beyond learning the ropes of Missouri state politics, though, Knorr's first session also saw several bills that would have heavily penalized the UM system financially.
One bill would have cut the UM system out of state funding for including sexual orientation in its non-discrimination employment policy. Another would have required Floyd to disclose the names of private donors to the salaries of chancellors.
Knorr said that a key part of his lobbying job is identifying bills that could be problematic -- but also knowing which ones are likely to die and which ones aren't. (He said he thought neither bill was likely to pass.)
And the news wasn't at all bad budget-wise for Knorr and the lobbyists -- the UM system ended up with about a $12 million funding increase in the budget sent to the governor last week.
Switching from Beltway politics to the statehouse did require some learning on the job, said several people who worked with Knorr.
"I think he had a bit of learning curve, in terms of assumptions that Jefferson City would work similar to Washington," said Rep. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia." Republicans in Congress work hard to bring projects home, whereas Republicans here, especially in the House, don't. They're more true believers in the sense that they want to shrink government. That's a big difference."
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Now, the legislative session is almost at its close. Both houses of the General Assembly are working overtime to pass legislation. And Knorr, as expected, is in the thick of it.
"It's been an interesting year," Knorr said. "We began with people thinking that (our budget) was going to get cut or stay the same, and to end up with an increase ... we're very excited about where we're ending up."