Former Missouri Gov. Warren Hearnes dies at 86

Monday, August 17, 2009 | 6:30 a.m. CDT; updated 8:36 a.m. CDT, Monday, August 17, 2009
Former Missouri Gov. Warren Hearnes takes a moment in 1982 for a quick portrait with his wife, Rep. Betty Hearnes. Warren Hearnes became the first Missouri governor to win re-election in consecutive terms. Hearnes died Sunday at his home in Charleston.

JEFFERSON CITY — Warren E. Hearnes, Missouri's first consecutive two-term governor and a champion for education and mental health care, died Sunday at his home in Charleston. He was 86.

Family spokesman Rob Crouse, who wrote a biography about Hearnes, said early Monday that Hearnes was with his wife, Betty, and his family before he passed away around 11 p.m. Sunday of natural causes after being gravely ill for several days.

"He was one of the most successful governors in Missouri history, as far as the breadth of what he accomplished and the fact that he and Betty, even in the years after he was governor, remained so committed to public service," Crouse said.

Warren Hearnes served in all three branches of state government, starting his political career in 1950 as a Democratic state representative from Mississippi County. He served in the General Assembly for 10 years and was the secretary of state and governor. He also briefly was a circuit judge in southeast Missouri after being governor.

Hearnes became Missouri's 46th governor in January 1965. He immediately broke tradition by having the inauguration ceremony outside, instead of in the Capitol Rotunda.

As governor, Hearnes advocated for more state spending for mental health, education and social services. During his tenure, Missouri's budget for mental health increased from $26 million to $86 million. Higher education funding increased by 204 percent to $145 million, and K-12 education spending climbed 167 percent to $389 million.

"His legacy will reach beyond our generation, continuing to make life better for the citizens of the state he served so faithfully and so well," his family said in a statement Monday.

While campaigning for governor in 1964, Hearnes promised not to raise taxes. But to pay for his mental health and education efforts, Hearnes broke the promise during his second term. A major tax increase cleared the legislature in 1969 and was blocked by voters in an initiative petition drive led by a critical senator. Hearnes then got the legislature to pass the tax increase again.

Hearnes told The Associated Press at his 80th birthday party in 2003 that he raised taxes because he believed it was the right thing to do, if not the popular choice. Hearnes said said his biggest challenges were the tax increase and handling 1968 riots in Kansas City after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Hearnes secured funding for three intensive mental health treatment centers, including one in Columbia that was innovative because it focused on short-term treatment. An alcohol and drug abuse pilot program in St. Louis gained national attention after 60 percent remained sober.

Hearnes also helped secure passage of a 1965 constitutional amendment that allowed governors to serve successive terms. He told The Kansas City Star in November 1972 that governors should step aide to refuel after eight years but should not be barred from seeking a third term.

"I really love this job," Hearnes said shortly before leaving office. "You know, if it were possible, I'm not saying four years from now I wouldn't run for governor again."

Hearnes was succeeded by Republican Kit Bond, who had been serving as state auditor and is now a U.S. senator.

"Despite the fact that I had complained about his policies in the auditor's race and the governor's race, he stepped forward and made the transition as smooth as could be for a greenhorn like me to take over," Bond recalled.

Hearnes left office in 1973 for private law practice in Charleston in southeastern Missouri. He made several attempts to return to politics but was hampered by a lengthy federal investigation of his income taxes and potential corruption in state government during his term in office. Hearnes called the queries a "witch hunt" engineered by Republicans but eventually agreed in an out-of-court settlement to pay $3,800 in income taxes.

Hearnes was the 1976 Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate — a stand-in for U.S. Rep. Jerry Litton who died in a plane crash on the night he had defeated Hearnes and others in the Democratic primary. Hearnes lost the general election to Republican John Danforth.

In 1978, Hearnes made a failed bid for state auditor.

Hearnes was born July 24, 1923, in Moline, Ill., the youngest of five children. He attended Charleston public schools and graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1946.

He married Betty Sue Cooper in 1948 and left the Army in December 1949 after failing to fully recover from breaking an ankle in a softball game. Hearnes enrolled in law school at MU and won election to the state House in 1950.

While governor, Hearnes gave lawmakers and reporters open access to his office. Capitol journalists joked that "it's easier to get in touch with the governor than your wife," according to Crouse's book, "Warren Eastman Hearnes: A Memoir," published in 2007.

Hearnes was the first governor to get security protection from the Missouri State Highway Patrol because people would stake out on his two-block walk from the Governor's Mansion to the Capitol to lobby him about legislation and seek state jobs. A state trooper drove him.

Hearnes was a national leader in the Democratic Party. In 1966, he drew the ire of President Lyndon B. Johnson after candidly telling reporters that Democratic governors believed Johnson needed to improve or be kicked off the ticket in 1968.

Asked about his political legacy in 1972 by the St. Louis Globe Democrat, Hearnes said it bothered him that he would be evaluated and recorded as either a "good" or "bad" governor. But he added: "I don't think anybody is going to pass anymore progressive legislation than we have in eight years."

Besides his wife, Hearnes is survived by his three daughters, Lynn, Leigh and Julia, and four grandchildren.

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