John Britton: Missouri Super-Lobbyist Convinced Generations Of Legislators To See Things His Way
In recent years, Missouri lobbyist John Britton, who single-handedly thwarted innumerable attempts to enact laws that would put additional limits on cigarettes and alcoholic beverages, made a late-in-life health concession: He went from smoking five packs a day to three.
In the early days, he was a Benson and Hedges man. He later switched to Camels, but recently he favored organic cigarettes and was smoking even less.
“He’d cut down to a pack and a half a day in the past six months,” laughed Jennifer Durham, his colleague for 46 years.
Mr. Britton, who for 50 years had been as much a fixture in the capitol as the state seal, died of pneumonia on Election Day, Tuesday (Aug, 5), at St. Mary’s Health Center in Jefferson City. He underwent gall bladder surgery about three weeks ago, Durham said. He was 88.
Mr. Britton didn’t advocate for tobacco and liquor interests because they were his favored vices.
“He believed in individual liberties,” said Durham. “He was one of the most principled people I’ve ever known.”
Mr. Britton was working as an executive in the Nebraska asphalt industry when he transferred to Jefferson City in 1957. Several years later, he took a job with Missouri’s then-Attorney General Thomas Eagleton. It was his first step in becoming the state’s longest-serving, most powerful lobbyist.
In 1964, Eagleton recommended Mr. Britton for a job as a lobbyist for Anheuser-Busch Cos. Britton wanted the job, but was hesitant. He was an alcoholic with six years of sobriety behind him. Eagleton advised him to take the job if he wanted it because there was no beer-drinking requirement.
August A. “Gussie” Busch took an instant liking to Mr. Britton and hired him on the spot.
John Britton Associates was born. He soon added the Tobacco Institute, the mighty trade association for big tobacco companies, as a client.
He gained a reputation as a formidable lobbyist for an array of clients that included other corporate giants such as Enterprise Holdings Inc. and Express Scripts, along with some of the nation’s largest industries, including movies, railroads and public utilities.
His power as a super-lobbyist was derived from having perfected “old-school” techniques. Not wining and dining, although he did that with the best of them, but strategy.
“The guy was so smart and understood how the process worked and worked closely with legislators and became trusted by them,” said Charlie Shields, former Missouri Senate President Pro Tem.
“That’s what epitomized John Britton. I don’t want to say he was the last of the breed of the old-school lobbyists, but that’s certainly what he was.”
Former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Terry Ganey said Mr. Britton derived a lot of influence from nurturing young lawmakers during their rise to power – and playing no favorites.
“Britton was probably one of the most influential lobbyists of his time,” Ganey said. “He just had to collect the votes he needed, and I don’t think he was a particularly partisan person.”
The ‘peanut butter’ defense
He certainly enjoyed bipartisan admiration.
“I adored him,” said Jane Dueker, a Democratic activist and corporate lobbyist. “He’s forgotten more than any other lobbyist will ever know.”
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, also a Democrat and one who is running for governor, issued a statement that called Mr. Britton "a giant among those who walk the halls of the capitol."
Missouri House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, said in a statement: "Through his decades of work within the halls of the state capitol and across the state of Missouri, he became an iconic figure who set the standard by which all other lobbyists are measured.”
Few could match Mr. Britton’s “peanut butter case,” described in Under the Influence, a book about the Busch family co-written by Ganey and former Post reporter Peter Hernon.
He was pleading Anheuser-Busch’s case against a proposed law banning open containers while driving.
“The real problem was the fact that the driver's hand is wrapped around a beer can instead of the steering wheel. In that context, a peanut butter sandwich was just as dangerous as a beer,” he reportedly argued successfully.
But Mr. Britton’s lobbying on behalf of the liquor and tobacco industries is not an unblemished legacy for some. His success in keeping Missouri’s “sin taxes” among the lowest in the nation caused years of consternation for organizations such as Missouri GASP, an anti-smoking group, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
“He probably gets a little more credit and a little bit more blame than he deserves on some of those things,” Charlie Shield said, “but I don’t think there’s any question that he was a very effective lobbyist.
“Whether he’d been lobbying on those issues or any other issues, I’m sure he would have been equally effective.”
And so he was. Mr. Britton successfully represented nonprofit organizations such as public television, the Missouri Historical Society and the St. Louis Zoo.
Best in the business
John Frederick Britton, the only child of Frederick and Beulah Elaine Stump Britton, was born Oct, 23, 1925, in Reading, Pa. After graduating from Wayland High School in Wayland, Mass., Mr. Britton enrolled in Harvard University. In his second year of college, he enlisted in the Army during World War II.
As a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division, Mr. Britton was dropped behind enemy lines on the shores of France on D-Day, June 6, 1944. He was honorably discharged after being seriously wounded. He was able to return to Harvard and graduated with high honors in 1949.
His humanities degree stood him in good stead. He often influenced lawmakers with his erudite pleas that were liberally sprinkled with the words of great philosophers like Aristotle, Bacon and Plato.
“Everyone listed to what John had to say,” Durham said, “and he was the best the business will ever have.”
If any further proof of his clout is needed, in a rare move, on July 16, 2014, Anheuser Busch named a Clydesdale foal, "Britton,” in honor of his 50 years of service.
Mr. Britton’s first marriage ended in divorce. He was preceded in death by his second wife, Catherine “Kate” Britton, his parents and two sons, Mark Britton and Bill Britton.
Among his survivors is his wife, Gay Tillery Britton; four daughters, Susan Murray, Debby Gillis, Abigail Britton (Dale Davenport), and Elizabeth (Bob) Burns; a son, Bruce Britton; two stepdaughters, Leslie (George) Walker and Susan Hesselgesser, and a stepson, Chad (Amanda) Tillery.
Services for Mr. Britton are currently being planned.