Nine State Senators won’t be returning to Jefferson City next year due to term limits. Among them, Republican Kevin Engler of Farmington, who made a failed bid two years ago to become President Pro-tem after serving as Majority Leader. Since then, he has been outspoken on the way the Senate works, or in the views of some political observers, doesn’t work.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Marshall Griffin talked with Engler on the final day of the regular session.
After not being elected to the President Pro-tem’s post, was it difficult to transition back to being a regular-old senator and not one of the GOP leaders?
Engler: It was very disheartening that I worked a year and made sure that we got all five of the races that we’re trying to get won, and then lost on what I believe were principled positions that I [as Pres. Pro-tem] wasn’t going to shove bills down the other side’s throats, the minority members’ throats…the ironic part of that is none of those bills [by Pres. Pro-tem winner Rob Mayer] ever got passed…those ones they told, “well we’ll get this done and if you’ll vote for me we’ll get this done,” none of them ever got passed…we didn’t do Right to Work, we didn’t get prevailing wage, we didn’t get paycheck protection, we didn’t get any of these bills that we were going to shove down their throats done…I lost the position over bills that we never did get done.
Would you consider the battle over tax credits one of the big battles that could have been avoided?
Engler: We could have made some steps to get a handle on it, which we didn’t…some of the people here just want all-or-nothing…one of the criticisms given of me is that I’m a consensus builder, like that was a bad thing…the problem is when you don’t build consensus you have stalemate, which is what we have in the state of Missouri right now.
Senator Jason Crowell (R, Cape Girardeau) said that he’s glad to be leaving the Senate, and House member over the past couple of years have said that the Senate is broken…what are your thoughts?
Engler: I’m saddened to think that that’s probably true…I’m going to speak [during the final day’s session] and I’m going to challenge those coming back that they need to change things, bring back some civility…I’ve caused some of it myself, I guess, and I’m sorry for that…the respect is not there anymore…it used to be the Senate would bind together, Republican and Democrat, to get things done for the people…now we don’t, we bind together to kill things…we’ve got groups that are formed solely to filibuster, and these are people that always say they have principled positions…it’s not a principled position to kill things that you believe are right just so the people you’re working with will kill things for you next week…that’s not the way you get good legislation passed…hopefully with the new group coming in and some of the long bitterness leaving they’ll be able to change that back a little bit…whether you call them the Four Headless Horsemen or the Nutty Nine or whatever, you can’t have groups with their sole purpose to kill things.
Senator Tim Green (D, Spanish Lake) and other lawmakers say part of the problem is term limits, that lawmakers aren’t here long enough to learn how to be a lawmaker…what do you think?
Engler: [Former] Senator [Charlie] Shields (R, St. Joseph) said one time that you spend the first four years learning and the next four years not caring…I’m for term limits…when I got here the average age of the Senate was around room temperature, and some of these guys were completely out of touch…but I think term limits probably need to be a little bit longer, maybe a 12-year period where you have a steep learning curve but you then you’ve got a few years where you can use that learning curve…in the Senate, half the time you’re here you have no repercussions to your actions because you’re going to be leaving…[in your second term] you’re unaccountable, the people can’t vote you out and you don’t have to really listen to them…I think that’s been for the worst.
For many years you’ve been known for having (your English Bulldog) Winston with you (who passed away last summer)…how much of a role did Winston play in your political career?
Engler: Winston was with me at all the parades…if it was too hot to have him [out], people would yell ‘where’s Winston?,’ [Even] people in [places like] Indianapolis that shouldn’t [have] known Winston’s name…he was undoubtedly more popular than I was.
When I ran my first election, my consultant said 'you need to put your dog in [your] ads, because if women know you, they really like you, but if they don’t know you, they’re scared of you, you need to do something to humanize yourself'…I’ve got the image of a pretty tough guy with the bald head, intimidating and big, so [having Winston] was part of my softer side.
(Engler is seeking election to the Missouri House, where he served one term before moving to the Senate).