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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»COL336.PRB - The Passing Era of Bipartisanship in Missouri
This spring, Missouri lost one of the key partners in the most dynamic cross-party legislative collaboration I've seen in half a century.
Jack Buechner was a founding member of a group of lawmakers who entered Missouri's legislature in 1973 when Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War created a tidal wave of change.
Republican Buechner quickly partnered with a fellow legislative freshman, Democrat Steve Vossmeyer.
The two St. Louis area lawmakers became a bipartisan tag-team I've never seen since in Missouri's General Assembly.
They became extremely close friends. In my last conversation with Buechner a few years ago, he reminisced at length about his pal and former law-firm partner who had passed several years earlier.
Together, Buechner and Vossmeyer became a formable team for issues including women's rights, consumer protection and campaign finance disclosure.
These issues had not been top priorities in the past.
In an era of fierce party discipline, they were treated as outcasts and almost traitors by some of their more partisan legislative colleagues.
But Buechner and Vossmeyher displayed a courage to stand up to the entrenched party control of the General Assembly when party disloyalty could endanger one's political future and legislative influence.
Researching for this column, I ran across a post Buechner wrote about their cross-party friendship in response to a website inquiry about bipartisan collaboration.
"Our friendship was looked down upon by the most partisan legislators from either side," Buechner wrote just four months before his death.
"During that decade my best friend was a Democrat from the city of St. Louis, Steve Vosmemer," Buechner wrote. "My friendship with Steve was much like two soldiers in the same trench during a war. I had his back...he had mine."
I was keenly aware of those partisan animosities as members from both parties would gripe to me about the "disloyal" members, who were called white hats for seeking to clean things up like the town marshal in days of old.
Buechner and Vossmeyer were not the only white hats.
Four years before they entered the House, Republican Jack Danforth became Missouri's attorney general with a similar agenda.
Then, in the same year Buechner and Vossmeyer entered Missouri's House, Republican Kit Bond became governor pursuing similar issues including cleaning up government and consumer protection.
With Buechner and Vossmeyer gaining legislative allies, it became an unstoppable movement.
It would be difficult to exaggerate how profound was the change those two championed and helped lead in an era of secret government meetings and secret special interest money flowing into the pockets of government officials.
They made government and politics more open to the public. They made the legislature far more focused on consumer protection.
But for me, women's rights stand out. Buechner and Vossmeyer co-sponsored legislation to restrict questioning a rape victim about past sexual activity in a trial against the accused rapist.
It's hard to realize that one-half century ago that idea encountered fierce opposition from some long-term members of the legislature.
It was only years after they left the political scene that I begin to appreciate how unique was their era when policy and friendship overshadowed partisanship in Missouri government.
I fear the vision of those two partners has almost faded away.
Their approach is so different from the legislature's current practice of holding closed-door party caucuses to define party agenda and strategy.
I hope, someday, a legislative leader will choose to put a bust of those two men in Hall of Famous Missourians between the House and Senate chambers.
If so, it needs to be a single bust of Buechner and Vossmeyer, arm in arm, as a reminder to future lawmakers as they enter their chambers about what can be accomplished by rising above partisanship, ideology and special interests.
Jack Buechner, who served in Missouri's House and then Congress, passed on March 6, 2020. His pal, Steve Vossmeyer, passed March 9, 2001.
[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.]
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