Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Lobbyist Money Help
By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»«MDBO»COL134.PRB - He's No Cato the Younger«MDNM»
Unless he chooses to run for the state Senate in two years, the legislature's recent veto session may mark the statehouse conclusion for one of the most politically collaborative lawmakers I've covered.
He's Chris Kelly, Columbia's long-term House Democrat and the legislature's senior member.
His impending departure has led me to think about the stark contrast between Kelly and ancient Rome's Cato the Younger.
Kelly's legislative career began in 1983 when he entered the House. He rose to chair the powerful House Budget Committee«MDNM».
But after 12 years in the legislature, Kelly left to become chair of the state Labor Commission and later a Boone County judge.
He returned to the House in 2009. But, golly had things changed during those 14 years of legislative absence.
Democrats no longer were in control. That party shift had coincided with the emergence of deep partisan divisions and bitterness, on both sides.
The parties had become more ideologically pure and more rigid in enforcing party discipline.
Legislative term limits also have caused profound changes to the legislature in which Kelly first served.
With less-experienced legislators, House rules now block last minute amendments drafted in response to House debate.
No doubt, those changes have given less experienced members more time to read and analyze proposals.
But it also has led to House debates that sometimes sound like scripted performances with little effect on the outcome.
There have been a few legislators from the era before term limits who returned to this new environment. But most did not stay around very long and did not have much of an impact on the process.
They reminded me of Cato from two millennium ago when he ranted about how his beloved Senate had changed as Rome evolved from a republic to a dictatorship under Caesar.
Cato comes across as an inflexible and somewhat bitter throwback to an earlier era -- more willing to attack compromise than to find a way to bridge differences between the generations.
Chris Kelly is no Cato the Younger. He adjusted to the changes and thrived in his second legislative career.
That's not to say Kelly thinks this new process is better. Instead, he's openly critical of some of the changes.
But rather than grumbling like Cato, Kelly found ways to achieve legislative success and help the lawmakers of the new, ruling GOP majority.
Former Budget Committee Chair Allen Icet, R-St. Louis County, would voice praises to me about the Boone County Democrat's assistance in helping Republicans get a budget put together.
Eventually, Republicans took the near unprecedented step of naming Kelly as chair of one of the budget-writing appropriations committees.
Kelly worked with the Republican House Speaker on a major statewide building construction bond issue. He collaborated with the conservative Republican chair of the House Judiciary Committee to rewrite the state's criminal sentencing laws.
Despite a political career as a Democrat, Kelly was not hesitant to attack those in his own party when he thought they were wrong. He publicly criticized Gov. Jay Nixon's plan to avoid seeking voter approval for bonds to finance reconstruction of the Fulton Mental Health Hospital.
That political independence caused gripes from some in his own party.
But Kelly seemed to rise above adversarial partisanship to serve as a near mentor for less experienced colleagues from both parties.
I heard that approach during the veto session when Kelly attacked a bill to limit Conservation Department authority over deer.
It almost sounded like a plea for his colleagues to better understand the history and complexities of wildlife regulation.
I don't know how many votes were affected by Kelly's speech that night. But, the veto-override motion for the deer bill was defeated after Chris Kelly's unscripted teaching-moment lesson to his colleagues.
In contrast to Kelly's approach adjusting to change as a teacher, Cato the Younger committed suicide in bitterness.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
Missouri Digital News is produced by Missouri Digital News, Inc. -- a non profit organization of current and former journalists.