On the Trail: Some worry Dempsey's departure is an end to the 'Old Senate' | St. Louis Public Radio

On the Trail: Some worry Dempsey's departure is an end to the 'Old Senate'

Aug 2, 2015

The imminent departure of Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey amounts to an end of an era for the Missouri General Assembly, at least for Missouri Public Service Commissioner Scott Rupp.

Rupp – a former Republican senator from Wentzville – served in the Missouri House and Missouri Senate with Dempsey for years. He said the soon-to-be former St. Charles Republican senator was part of a very exclusive club within the Missouri General Assembly. 

“After serving there – what? 12, 13 – or how many years I was there? -- there are very few people who I have maintained and still have a high level of respect for. And Tom is on a very short list," said Rupp, who served in the House from 2003 to 2006 and the Senate from 2006 to 2014. “I do have a lot of respect for him. He has a lot of integrity. He served the state well. He will be missed. But I really applaud his decision to do what’s best for him and his family.” 

People mill in the hallway leading to the Missouri Senate chamber. The Missouri Senate often moves slower than the Missouri House -- and can also be where the fiercest legislative fights occur.
Credit File photo | Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

Dempsey will be walking away from legislative service on Friday. He said in a lengthy statement that he was leaving the legislature to go into the private sector and spend more time with his family. And many of his colleagues are sad to see him go.

“He was never one to jump at a headline,” said Senate Minority Leader Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis. “He was more focused on getting something accomplished than achieving a headline.”

In a term-limited environment, Dempsey was one of the few grizzled veterans of legislative life. After all, he was one of the select few sitting lawmakers who knew what it was like to be ensconced with the minority party. And he held key leadership positions in the Missouri House and Missouri Senate. 

But Rupp and some of his current colleagues feel Dempsey’s imminent resignation amounts to more than just a symbolic milestone. He said it could produce a shift in tone for the Missouri General Assembly’s upper chamber – especially since Dempsey was renowned for being even-keel and embracing compromise.

Goodbye to the old

“I would think Tom leaving would be a negative for the traditional way the Senate would operate,” Rupp said. “I guess every time something happens, I thought it was the nail in the Old Senate. I thought it was when [former Senate Secretary] Terry Spieler resigned. And now that Tom’s going, I think the Old Senate – or what you and I would think of as the Old Senate – is probably no longer and has no hopes of coming back in the short time.”

Instead of collegiality and slowing things down to get things right, Rupp worries the Senate may become more like the House – which is essentially run through majoritarian rule. He said he's concerned that constant filibustering and personal attacks may become more commonplace once Dempsey leaves.

“I think the [the House and the Senate] are becoming more identical,” Rupp said. “Where it used to be such a stark difference. One was the gas pedal on the car. One was the brake. Now those lines have been blurred.”

The rise of Richard

To be sure, term limits would have ensured Dempsey's departure from the Senate after 2017. But Rupp’s fears may be based on how the Senate unleashed the so-called “previous question” motion in May for the first time in years. Dempsey was part of a bipartisan group of lawmakers who helped shelve that maneuver in 2008 after a particularly brutal 2007 legislative session. 

Senate Majority Leader Ron Richard, left, will likely be the next Senate President Pro Tem. The Joplin Republican is known for his blunt demeanor -- and a desire to get things done.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

And some noted that Dempsey’s likely successor as pro tem, Senate Majority Leader Ron Richard, R-Joplin, possesses a different temperament and leadership style than his soon-to-be predecessor. (Richard, by the way, will become the first person ever to serve as speaker and president pro tem – an achievement that may take another 195 years to repeat.)

“We’re going to see a different beat,” said Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis. “When it comes to the philosophical views from a Republican standpoint or to the Democratic standpoint, he’s going to hold his ground. Like right to work. He’s going to hold his ground.”

University of Missouri-St. Louis political science professor Dave Robertson says there’s another reason the tone in the Senate might change – and it has to do more with political considerations than personalities.

“The legislature may become a little bit more a forum for vaulting the Republican ticket forward in the 2016 elections, because Republicans will have a chance to coalesce around their candidates and push the ticket a little bit that much stronger,” Robertson said. “It’s not that wasn’t going to happen anyway. It’s not that Republicans weren’t going to push their agenda. There may be a harder edge to it in 2016 than there was in 2015.”

But others are more optimistic about Richard’s likely rise to power. 

Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis, said he is confident that Richard will be able to effectively lead the Senate. "I believe Ron has a record of proven leadership," he said.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

Rupp’s successor in the Senate – Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis – said he “would expect that our caucus and the Senate more broadly would be in good hands under Ron Richard.” He isn’t too worried that the right-to-work previous question will end the Senate’s tradition of collegiality.

“My own view of this is that everything in government is a matter of checks and balances,” said Onder, pointing to how governors have the right to veto bills and the legislature can override that objection. “I don’t think there’s any one legislative maneuver in state government that should be an absolute. The folks have the right to filibuster – and if there’s a large enough majority will to stop the debate and the end that filibuster, that’s an important check and balance on the system.”

Keaveny added that Richard’s successor as Senate floor leader could have a bigger impact of the tone of the chamber. Possibilities include Sens. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, and Jay Wasson, R-Nixa.

“Right after the end of March, the President Pro Tem really doesn’t have a whole lot to do,” Keaveny said. “Most of it goes through the majority floor leader. That’s when the funnel starts to narrow and people get concerned about getting their legislation through. So a lot goes on – and a lot depends on the demeanor of the majority floor leader.”

For his part, Richard told St. Louis Public Radio's Marshall Griffin that his legislative agenda will revolve around building transportation infrastructure and bolstering economic development. Those are typically two areas that the two parties can find common cause -- which in turn could produce a collaborative atmosphere.

Who’s next?

By the end of August, both Dempsey and Sen. Paul LeVota, D-Independence, will have stepped down from their seats. And the next logical questions are who will replace them – and when will they be replaced? 

Sen. Paul LeVota, D-Independence, is stepping down after dual accusations of sexual harassment. LeVota -- who has denied the allegations against him -- will get a say in choosing the Democrat who would run for the seat if a special election is called.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

For one thing, party committee people will choose nominees for both seats. Potential successors to Dempsey include state Reps. Anne Zerr, R-St. Charles, and Mark Parkinson, R-St. Charles, while several Democrats – including former Jackson County Democratic Committee executive director Jessica Podhola – could succeed LeVota.

Of course, it’s not out of the question that Nixon may decide to leave the 11th District and 23rd District seats vacant until 2017. While Nixon did call special elections when then-Sen. Jeff Smith, D-St. Louis, and then-state Rep. Steve Brown, D-St. Louis County, resigned in late August 2009, the deadline has passed for the governor to call Nov.  3 special elections for the upcoming LeVota and Dempsey vacancies.  And while it's still hypothetically possible for Nixon to call special elections in, say, December or January, that would  create additional expenses since its not on a set selection date.

One of the intriguing 11th District wrinkles is who will be involved in selecting the Democratic nominee. If Gov. Jay Nixon calls a special election, LeVota – who is a Democratic committeeman – will cast four of the 92 votes to select his potential successor. (Several members of LeVota’s family, including his daughter Meghan LeVota, will also cast votes.)

“Sen. LeVota is still a member of the Jackson County Democratic Committee for Blue Township Sub District 7,” said Jackson County Democratic Party Chairman Tony Wyrsch in an e-mail. “Unless he resigns, he would be allowed a vote within that senatorial district committee if the Governor calls a special election.”

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.