Missouri state officials meet amid spirit of bipartisanship

Thursday, November 6, 2008 | 9:39 p.m. CST; updated 10:45 p.m. CST, Thursday, November 6, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Just two days after the November election and months of campaign stump speeches and rhetoric, a theme of bipartisan cooperation emerged in Jefferson City.

On Thursday, Governor-elect Jay Nixon was quick to meet with leaders of the House and Senate on both sides of the aisle. But he said his first meeting didn't involve discussions about specific issues. Instead, Nixon said those issues would be left for future conversations.

Nixon characterized the half-hour meeting as "very productive" and said the meeting was held in the spirit of bipartisan cooperation.

"Missouri has to move forward," he said. "We pledged to understand that the elections are over. We need to have a bipartisan effort this legislative session."

A similar tone of cooperation was voiced by Sen. Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, who Senate Republicans nominated to take over as Senate president pro tem.

"I think the voters said 'We expect progress to be made, and y'all quit fighting with each other,'" Shields said.

One sign of bipartisanship came the day after the election when Columbia Democratic Rep. Chris Kelly came to the Capitol to schedule a meeting with the Republican House Budget Chair, Rep. Allen Icet, R-St. Louis County.

Kelly had chaired the committee in the early 1990s. "I've known every budget chair in the last four years. They've been men, they've been women, Republicans and Democrats. They've all been hardworking — that's been the unifying factor. They've all been worker bees," Kelly said. "I wanted to show that I didn't want to be a problem, but a collaborator."

"It's always good to talk to a former budget chair. We talked about our times serving as budget chair. We have similar backgrounds, and we talked about the issues and challenges we have both faced," Icet said.

Nixon's meeting with legislative leaders came after legislators selected their party leaders for the legislative session that will begin Jan. 5.

The only surprise came in the Missouri Senate where Republicans elected a self-described moderate as its party leader while Senate Democrats selected one of their party's most conservative members.

Selected Democratic floor leader was Sen. Victor Callahan from Independence. Callahan voted for last year's bill to toughen regulation of abortion facilities and voiced support for gun rights.

Callahan said he knows it is important for him to put aside some of his personal viewpoints when it comes to representing what he called a diverse party.

"The role of the minority leader is to represent all the voices within your party. We represent small farmers, people in urban areas — there's great diversity here. The leadership role is to represent to views of the caucus," Callahan said.

Several Democrats expressed their happiness with the choice.

"We need someone who plays chess instead of checkers. Victor is a chess player. Strategy is going to play a key part in this session. What looks like a simple move in checkers is two moves down the road in chess. He's pragmatic and a tough negotiator," Wes Shoemyer, D-Clarence, said.

Sen. Jeff Smith, D- St. Louis, also said he was pleased. "I'm delighted to have him as a leader just as I was delighted to have him as a mentor."

Although Smith acknowledged differences between himself and Callahan in terms of "women's reproductive freedom," he said he was not concerned about ideological differences.

"He's assured more liberal members he will suppress his ideology," Smith said.

Columbia Sen. Chuck Graham, who was defeated for reelection Tuesday, had planned on running for Democratic floor leader.

Republican Sen. Kevin Engler was elected Senate Majority Leader, and said he had high hopes for working with Nixon as governor.

Engler, whose rural southeast Missouri district includes Jefferson and Washington counties, is the former mayor of Farmington.

"We're going to work with the governor to try to figure out what we can do," he said. "We need to try to figure out where we can have common ground."

Engler said he gets along well with legislators on both sides of the aisle, including Callahan.

"The hard part is going to be having 23 senators who range from moderate to ultra right wing, and keeping all sides happy," Engler said.

Outside his district, Engler may be best known for his repeated, but unsuccessful, efforts to provide stronger restrictions on telemarketers and political "robocalls."

In the House, Paul LeVota, D-Independence, was re-elected as House minority leader and Ron Richard of Joplin was nominated by Republicans to be House Speaker.

At a news conference after his selection, Richard called the budget problems lawmakers will face next year an "emergency."

While Nixon did not characterize it that way, he said he and the leaders of both the House and the Senate will share the responsibility to work with the funds the state has available.

In a curt response, Nixon vowed he would not take the same course the former Democratic governor had taken when he faced a budget shortfall.

In 2003 and again in 2004, former Gov. Bob Holden proposed a package of tax increases that eventually exceeded $400 million — a plan firmly rejected by the Republican controlled legislature.

"I will not follow that route. Next question," Nixon said Thursday.

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