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Government, Politics & Issues

Justus emerges as pragmatic leader of Senate Democrats

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 3, 2013 - A younger version of Jolie Justus probably would have laughed if somebody told her that she would one day become the highest-ranking Democrat in the Missouri Senate.

“My dad is a lawyer and a politician, and those are the two things I said I would never be,” said Justus, a two-term Democratic senator from Kansas City. “But you know how one thing leads to another, and all of a sudden you’re doing both.”

In early January, Justus will become the Senate’s minority leader. She’ll lead the Senate's Democratic caucus, a 10-person group that hopes to make an impact in a Republican-dominated chamber.

In her leadership position, Justus will face the challening task of making her caucus relevant again in a General Assembly with a Republican majority. Since the GOP possesses veto-proof majorities in both chambers, the Democratic caucus may be the last line of defense to stop controversial bills.

Justus’ story is more than about the political path she took to get to the Missouri Senate. It’s also about how she’s evolved while in office, transforming from a thorn in the side of the Republican majority to a pragmatic legislator well liked on both sides of the aisle.

"We don't agree on everything, but we have respect for one another," said incoming Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles. "And I enjoy working with her."

And at least one of Justus’ former colleagues – former Sen. Jeff Smith, D-St. Louis – said the Senate Democrats “couldn’t have made a better choice” for a leader.

“She’s a team player, she keeps her word, she’s smart and she’s a good floor debater because she’s quick on her feet. She’s been really effective at building relationships across the aisle as well as in her own party,” said Smith, who is now a professor at a university in New York.

And if anything, Justus says her legislative style could pay dividends in cooling tensions in a traditionally divided chamber.

“I was this pragmatic and just sort of ‘roll with it’ kind of person, I just get along with most people,” Justus said. “I just always have. And I don’t think just because somebody’s a Republican that they’re a bad person. Once they realize that I basically have the same interest that all of they do, then they realize that I wasn’t the evil person they thought.”

From Branson to Kansas City

While born in Kansas City, Justus grew up in Branson – the southern Missouri town known throughout the world for its wholesome entertainment.

Unlike Kansas City, Branson is Republican territory, and many members of Justus' family hold a decidedly different political viewpoint than the Democratic senator.

“I am the only Democrat in my family,” Justus said. “So when people ask me how it is I can get along so well with everybody in the Missouri General Assembly, it’s because I was raised in Branson by a group of Republicans. I can pretty much get along with anybody.”

Case in point: Justus' father, James Justus, is an attorney who served as Taney County’s prosecutor from 1977 to 1990. He was elected as a Republican for an associate circuit judge position in 2002.

And Justus' uncle -- Jeff Justus -- was elected this year as a Republican for a Taney County-based state House seat. 

Although politics was a major element of her upbringing, Justus' primary aspiration was to work in the radio industry. When she was nearly 18 years old, Justus provided color commentary for Branson’s girls’ basketball games. She later worked at KFRU in Columbia, a news and sports talk station.

After graduating from what is now Missouri State University in Springfield, she went to work full time at a Branson radio station. But she soon realized that her chosen profession wasn’t terribly glamorous.

“I’d just finished my sixth year in radio and I had just gotten a raise up to $6 an hour,” Justus said. “I was working seven days a week and hadn’t had a vacation in a very long time. I didn’t have any health benefits. I didn’t have any paid vacation or days off or anything. And my dad offered me a job working at his law firm for $6.50 an hour. I jumped at it and after doing it for a while – I realized if he could do it, I could do it.

Political bug bites

After obtaining a law degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Justus landed a job at Shook Hardy Bacon. In her first five years of legal work, she represented food, drug and beverage companies for one of the biggest law firms in the state.

But Justus concluded that a full-time director was needed to organize the firm’s pro bono work. In what she described as her first “lobbying effort,” Justus convinced the law firm’s executive committee to name her director of pro bono services, a position she's held since 2003.

Even before she took her role at Shook, Justus was beginning to shake her earlier aversion to running for office.

One reason for her change of heart was a push from the Missouri Bar Association to get more lawyers in the General Assembly. But she also said her role as Shook’s pro bono director made a difference.

“In my law practice, I was representing a lot of kids in the foster care system and then foster parents who are removed from their care and put into state custody,” Justus said. “And I kept thinking how these laws needed to be changed and that was another little trigger. It was like ‘wouldn’t it be nice if I could clean some of this up on the front end instead of just deal with the after-effects of it.”

In 2006, then-Sen. Charlie Wheeler, D-Kansas City, decided not to run for another term and instead made an unsuccessful run for Jackson County executive. In a district where winning the Democratic primary is tantamount to election, Justus narrowly prevailed over former state Rep. Jason Klumb, Mike Flaherty and Ingrid Burnett.

After Justus won re-election in 2010, she was thrust into a rather unusual situation a year later.

Her district -- the 10th -- was moved from Kansas City to the eastern part of the state. For the next two years, she'll represent Callaway, Audrain, Lincoln, Monroe, Montgomery and Warren counties in the Missouri Senate. 

In a move she attributes to "dumb luck," Justus bought a house in Callaway County soon after she was elected to the Missouri Senate. She said earlier this year that her office "is going to give the best service that we can to those folks."

But even though the new 10th District leans decidedly Republican, she said she is not "going to change any of my core values or beliefs."

"Because I believe we have a representative form of government and Kansas City elected me," Justus said. "I’m going to vote the way I vote. I’m basically an agent. I’m not going to change my values because I have new district."

Sexuality a 'non-issue'

Justus holds the distinction as being the first openly gay senator in Missouri’s history. But even in a legislature where socially conservatism is the norm, Justus says her sexual orientation has been a “non-issue.”

“Every now and again it comes up, but it’s really a non-issue,” she said. “When I first got elected, there weren’t many news articles about me that didn’t say ‘Jolie Justus, lesbian.’ And that’s frustrating, because I knew that -- yeah, I’m gay. And that it’s a big deal that I’m the first gay person in the Senate … and I understand that. And at the same time, just anybody else who’s openly gay, we’re trying to do our jobs and doing the best we can and then ‘oh, by the way – we’re gay.’”

Indeed, Justus said that her presence in the Missouri Senate meant that “we haven’t heard as much of the heated rhetoric since we’ve been in the legislature because they’re not going to talk about you as much when you’re sitting in the room.”

She also said it’s allowed her to elevate issues important to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, such as a recent push to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s anti-discrimination statutes.

“People assume ‘well, I guess you’re going to go after gay marriage.’ And I’m like ‘no, I’m not going after gay marriage at all. We’d just kind of like that you don’t get fired because you’re gay,’” Justus said. “And people are like ‘that’s not true, you’re protected from that.’ And you’re like ‘no, actually there’s no protections for anyone.’ In the state of Missouri, you can walk into somebody’s cubicle and say ‘you’re gay, you’re fired, get out.’ And most people don’t know that. And so, it’s been a good educational experience to explain to colleagues what we’re trying to do.”

Embracing pragmatism 

Although Republicans probably can't count Justus as a reliable vote, she said her legislative mindset shifted over the last few years.

Much of that may have to do with the direction of the Missouri Senate. Back in 2006, Republicans and Democrats in the Missouri Senate were almost constantly at odds with each other. And that conflict, she said, shaped her first years’ in office.

“I think I was a pragmatic person coming in,” Justus said. “But when you run in an extremely liberal or conservative district, you run way far to the left or way far to the right. And you come down and you are all ready to go. [When I ran for the Senate] it was the year after the Medicaid cuts. And we were all running about reversing the Medicaid cuts and kicking Matt Blunt and all of the Republicans’ butts. We ran for office, we didn’t run so much against each other in the primary – we were running against Matt Blunt and George W. Bush and that sort of thing.

“So I got down here and thought that was kind of how it was going to be,” she added. “That we were going to have this sort of constant battle.”

Justus learned early on that a combative mindset wasn't always the right strategy.

In 2007, Missouri lawmakers grappled with whether to approve the partial asset sale of the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority. The plan – which sought to sell the loan servicers’ assets to build capital improvement projects at colleges and universities – was controversial, leading to a nearly endless filibuster led by the Senate Democrats.

Justus was one of the last senators speaking on the bill before Republicans called the “previous question,” a rarely used parliamentary tool to shut down debate. Republicans stripped out money that would have gone to build a $15 million allocation for the pharmacy and nursing building at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

It was an experience that proved to be instructive in her Senate career.

“To answer your question – am I more pragmatic? Yeah, I think I am. And maybe I’m just as pragmatic, but I think I’ve learned the game better,” Justus said. “That MOHELA stuff, I was getting a lot of pressure from, frankly, other senators. I was brand new, and there were a couple of other senators that were really gung ho on the issue. There was a lot of groupthink. There was a lot of pressure from outside sources, from the Democratic Party.

“That was to me a real lesson that I need to take all that information in, but you absolutely in the Senate just can’t follow along. You have to make your own decisions,” she added.

In the past few years, Justus became a key senator dealing with issues affecting the legal community as well as children. For instance, she was part of a push to reconfigure the state’s criminal code. And she's played a big role over the years in the debate over a constitutional amendment to change the Missouri nonpartisan court plan.

She said some of her proudest moments as a lawmaker have been when she was able to pass legislation altering the state’s child care and foster children regulations. But she also found some her most trying moments instructive,  such as the fierce fight earlier this year to pass a budget.

“It was flat out awful. I mean, we had members of the majority caucus calling for an overthrow of Rob Mayer. We had all sorts of stuff being thrown out there,” Justus said. “There were a lot of tempers and a lot of passions and a lot of anger. And the way that a handful of us worked together to get to the meat of the issue and then get that done to me was just the beauty of the Senate.

“If we can go brink of where we were last year and come out with something that everyone – while they weren’t happy with it – realized they accomplished it without complete and utter meltdown, I think it’s important,” she added.

Leading the charge

Justus was one of 13 Democrats in the Missouri Senate in 2007. That number dropped to eight after the 2010 election, and the running joke was that the Democratic caucus was small enough to fit inside a van.

But despite their small numbers, Senate Democrats were reasonably effective at blocking certain bills or slowing things down enough to make concessions. Both Smith and Justus attribute that in part to outgoing Senate Minority Leader Victor Callahan, an Independence Democrat with a renowned knack for strategy.

Justus entered the Missouri Senate with the idea that she would "hate" Callahan, one of the more conservative Democrats in the General Assembly. Now, she says, the departing lawmaker is one of her closest friends and a model leader for the opposition.

"The thing that I loved about him as minority leader is he understood as a leader, you have to lead when his ideology or his personal belief were different from his members of his caucus," Justus said. "So when we had a handful of folks who were trying to negotiate something on a contraception bill or an abortion bill, his vote might have been against us that were working on that deal. But he’s going to be there to support us. As long as we were dealing in good faith and were being reasonable, he was there to support us.

"And he was very, very strategic," she added. "And so those things I’m absolutely, definitely going to keep."  

Justus said her caucus will meet soon when the legislative session begins in January. She said the Democrats will decide their priorities, including what would be a caucus position.

She said as her caucus becomes more acclimated with each other, a reoccurring question will be “what does it mean to be a Democrat?”

“What I want to do is talk to my caucus and see what they’re interested in,” Justus said. “If they’d like to meet more, then by all means meet more. I’m not one to meet just for the sake of meeting, so I’m not going to say ‘let’s meet every Monday or something like that.’ But if we’re heading into something that’s a big deal for our caucus – maybe it’s a labor issue or something traditionally Democratic – then, yeah, it makes sense for us to plan that out.”

While it's impossible to predict the legislative future, Justus said her caucus can make a mark. For instance: She predicts Senate Democrats can help get major legislation through if the GOP caucus is divided.

“Everybody says that there’s a veto-proof majority and that the Democrats are completely irrelevant,” she added. “That’s just not the case. At the same time, the Republican Party wants to get things done and need the votes to do it. And because of the split between their own party, they do need all Missourians working in the same direction.”

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