On the Trail: We've got 21 questions, and they're all about Missouri politics
Typically when December ends, journalists tend to become reflective about the highlights and lowlights of the past year. This reporter is no exception, as the scandal, tragedy, transition, conflict and hilarity of the past 12 months gave everybody who covers Missouri politics a lot to think about.
So yes, this is an article rounding up all of the big moments from the past year. But renowned financier Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson inspired me to take this retrospective in a different direction.
The seminal tune “21 Questions” provided the right impetus to ask and answer the past year’s 21 big, burning queries. It’s admittedly an ambitious undertaking, but it’s hard to turn down a chance to take the “five-to-10 things to look for” journomeme in an expansive direction:
1. What was the most surprising streak that ended in 2015?
That would have to be prohibition on using the filibuster-squashing “previous question” during a regular session of the Missouri General Assembly.
While lawmakers unleashed the maneuver during special session in 2014, the Missouri Senate generally shied away from using the “PQ” during regular session because it provided an incentive for Senate Democrats to gum up legislative proceedings. And that fear came to fruition in May after senators killed a filibuster on so-called “right to work” legislation, a bill that clearly did not have enough support to override Gov. Jay Nixon’s eventual veto.
The 2016 session may showcase whether breaking the years-long previous question prohibition was truly worth it.
2. Which hypothetical legal battle would have been fun to witness?
Keeping in mind that few people find litigation “fun,” it would have been illuminating to see if a vetoed bill that failed to be overridden had any legal significance.
This was brought up during debate over a bid to raise St. Louis minimum wage, which raised all sorts of questions about the legal authority of cities to push back against state laws.
This query became moot, however, when the legislature overrode Nixon’s veto of a bill banning municipalities from raising their minimum wages. So for now, state constitutional nerds can only dream of what might have been.
3. What was the best analogy to describe the state of the NFL in St. Louis?
It may best to let St. Louis Alderman Sharon Tyus handle this one, talking at Rams owner Stan Kroenke:
“He’s been very plain with us. I do not want to be here. I want to go to California. I don’t even really want your money. Keep throwing it at me. You know, we’re like at the stripper clubs or something and we’re making it rain. We're making it rain! And the stripper is throwing the money back at us and saying ‘We don’t want it!’”
4. Which 2016 election became more complicated in 2015?
The governor's race.
At the beginning of the year, the GOP primary appeared to be a straightforward clash between former House Speaker Catherine Hanaway and state Auditor Tom Schweich. After Schweich died in February, the Republican field dramatically expanded to include Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, businessman John Brunner and author Eric Greitens.
The fascinating thing is that all four candidates are viable, ensuring that the first nine months of 2016 will feature a lot of scrambling -- and perhaps some verbal fisticuffs.
5. What political event prompted Attorney General Chris Koster to exhale a little bit?
This one’s easy: It’s when U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill chose not to run for governor and spared Koster from having to engage in a high-stake primary challenge.
After that happened, political prognosticators could confidently Koster “the likely Democratic gubernatorial nominee” again.
6. Which decision prompted the biggest political domino effect?
How about Sen. Scott Sifton’s decision to run for re-election instead of attorney general?
It prompted former state Rep. Vicki Englund to drop her state Senate bid and instead run again against state Rep. Cloria Brown. And it could have also played a role in state Rep. Marsha Haefner ending her bid for the 1st Senatorial District seat.
Sifton’s decision also prompted another Democrat to jump into the attorney general’s contest – former Cass County Prosecutor Teresa Hensley.
That's a lot of falling dominoes for a relatively straightforward choice.
7. What were the most consequential elections of 2015?
This is always a tough question to answer in odd-numbered years. There weren’t any Earth-shattering state legislative contests in 2015, primarily because Nixon held off calling special elections for the still-vacant 11th and 23rd Senatorial District seats.
Perhaps a sleeper pick would be the additions of Jack Coatar and Cara Spencer (and the re-election of Megan Green) to the St. Louis Board of Aldermen. While these youthful elected officials are low in seniority and have different takes on the big issues, they’ve made a pretty substantial impact on high-profile debates over a new riverfront stadium and raising the minimum wage.
Expect them and other relative newcomers to the board to make their mark on policy battles for years to come.
8. What was the most memorable inauguration ceremony this year?
No contest: The spontaneous outdoor inauguration for the St. Louis Board Aldermen after a bomb threat emptied City Hall.
It provided an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for aldermen to be sworn in wearing sleek, sleek sunglasses.
9. Which bill will have the most long-term impact on the region?
Most likely a wide-ranging overhaul of municipal governance, which was seen as the biggest accomplishment in the wake of Michael Brown’s shooting death.
Even though a number of other of “Ferguson-related” bill didn’t make it past the finish line this year, the new law – known as SB5 – will change how St. Louis County cities operate. That is, of course, if it can survive a legal challenge.
10. Which state legislative amendment may have the most lasting impact on the region's future?
Former House Speaker John Diehl’s bid to make St. Louis County cities adhere to certain financial, operational and public safety standards.
Diehl had been pushing the standards long before the shooting death of Michael Brown, but wasn’t able to get them past the legislative finish line. But he was able to insert them into SB5, and they may end up being more impactful than the caps on traffic fine revenue. One of those provisions require all police departments in St. Louis County to obtain accreditation within six years.
This was one of Diehl’s final legislative moves before he resigned from office.
11. What local election got the most attention?
Clearly the races for three open seats on the Ferguson City Council.
The reason is relatively straightforward: Municipal contests in St. Louis usually don’t get that much press coverage, primarily because there are so many municipalities (and, at times, not enough people vying for local offices). But that changed in a big way with this year’s elections in Ferguson, which were covered by basically every major news outlet in the world.
In the end, voters added two African-Americans to the city council. But none of the candidates backed by protester groups won, which amounted to a big political win for Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III.
12. Which political relationship showed the most strain this year?
The one between St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay.
While the two Democratic officials were never that close from a political standpoint (especially since Slay was a key ally of former County Executive Charlie Dooley), their divergence on policy this year had tangible consequences. Stenger’s insistence on having a countywide vote for stadium funding took St. Louis County out of financing the proposed facility – and placed much more pressure on St. Louis policymakers to fork over money for the project. And as the city embarked on raising its minimum wage, Stenger declined to follow suit.
That didn’t mean the two men disagreed on everything: They came together to push for the federal government to build a new National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency facility in north St. Louis. And Slay gave a big thumbs up to Stenger’s bid to force municipal police departments to adhere to certain standards.
13. Which was the most entertaining verbal sparring match from the past year?
The collision between state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal and St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger.
Don’t believe me? Just listen.
14. Who made the best speech over the past year?
There were a lot of good ones, including the one Nixon made at the end of the legislative session about Jefferson City's culture. But one that stood out was Rev. Starsky Wilson’s address at the final meeting of the Ferguson Commission.
No longer, he declared, would it be acceptable for candidates to ask for votes throughout St. Louis. Instead, he said that aspirants to office in Missouri must buy into concrete policy change throughout the St. Louis region.
The big question is whether people seeking elected positions next year will have listened to what Wilson said.
15. What gubernatorial decision may have the biggest ripple effect on Missouri politics?
Nixon’s selection of Nicole Galloway to be state auditor.
Not only did this change a previously Republican office into a Democratic one, but the governor might have helped grow his party's fairly thin statewide bench. After all, the auditor’s office has been a stepping stone to higher offices – and Missouri Democrats will need a viable statewide contender in 2020 if Koster falters in his gubernatorial bid. Galloway could be that person – assuming she can win re-election in 2018.
16. What was the best use of an automobile as shorthand to describe issuing bonds for a stadium without a legislative or statewide vote?
While I’m sure there are a lot of deserving nominees, this one goes to Nixon. It all started when I asked him about growing legislative opposition to how the riverfront stadium would be funded with state money:
Me: "Isn't that significant enough opposition to give you pause about whether doing it by fiat is workable?"
Nixon: "First of all, I don't know what this term you're making up as far as doing it by some sort of French car has got to do with what we're talking about.”
Nixon took the entire kerfuffle in good humor, Tweeting out later: “I prefer #MOMade @Ford @GM @Chevrolet @UAW.” Legislative opposition to issuing stadium bonds without some sort of vote, however, remains pretty high.
17. Who wore the most awesome outfit to a Politically Speaking taping?
It’s a tie between former state Rep. Rodney Hubbard and political consultant David Barklage!
18. What was the most long-overdue discussion that occurred this year?
The treatment of women in the Missouri Capitol.
To hammer home how this isn’t a new problem, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill related in her excellent book how she was harassed both as an intern and as a lawmaker – in the 1970s and 1980s. But as the Kansas City Star noted in gripping and unsettling detail this year, that experience hasn’t changed that much.
The resignations of Diehl and Democratic state Sen. Paul LeVota pushed the issue to the forefront and spurred discussion about altering intern policies. But all the new regulations in the world may not change anything unless state legislators follow them -- and dole out punishments for breaking those rules.
19. What the darkest day in Missouri politics this year?
Feb. 26 – the day Tom Schweich committed suicide.
The Republican officeholder’s death was difficult to fathom from a human perspective, as many close friends and family lost someone who’d made an indelible impact throughout his life. It also opened the door for months of introspection, recrimination and political decision-making – at least until the Clayton Police Department released a broader report into Schweich’s death.
Yet while Schweich’s passing faded from the headlines, one hopes it imparted much-needed perspective to people in and out of Missouri politics about the personal sacrifice of elective office. As former House Speaker Steve Tilley noted, some GOP statewide candidates -- like state Sen. Mike Parson -- are using Schweich's death as a impetus for running positive campaigns. It remains to be seen if that tactic will work next year.
20. What should Missourians expect from 2016?
Lots of sharp political advertisements – and elections that could determine Missouri’s future for the next four to eight years.
21. Any final takeaways from 2015?
I’m thankful to Susan Hegger and Margaret Freivogel, two outstanding journalists who immeasurably helped nurture my career. They both announced their retirements this year, and I know for a fact I wouldn’t be where I am today without either of them.
And contrary to intense speculation, my soon-to-be-2-year-old son, Brandon, will not be running for lieutenant governor next year. Though he is clearly skilled at swinging a gavel and saying hello to dogs, he will be devoting his energy to learning how to talk.
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.