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Term-limited senators take a look back

Saturday, May 15, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 5:20 p.m. CDT, Monday, May 17, 2010

*CORRECTION: Missourians approved term limits for state legislators in 1992. An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the year.

JEFFERSON CITY — At the end of the 2007 session, Sen. John Griesheimer was finished. Beat after a particularly stressful legislative session that ended in a series of vetoes by then- Gov. Matt Blunt, he said he thought about resigning. Three years later, as the legislative session closes, he said he's sad to leave after 18 years in the General Assembly.

"If someone had offered me a job then and there, I'd be gone," said Griesheimer, R-Washington, about his mindset after 2007. "Everyone was burnt out. But now I'm going to miss this place so much; it's such an honor to do what we do for a living."

This year, the 10 members of the second-to-last class of pre-limit senators are leaving, taking with them a host of institutional memory and a sense of bipartisanship, which some say has already been in steep decline.

"What we've become is a body that can't pass meaningful, truly sweeping legislation," said Sen. Delbert Scott, R-Lowry City, who is leaving after 23 years in the General Assembly. "We pass little things and say we've done something big."

Far from limited impact

Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat who saw his signature job creation bill die in the Senate and most of his aggressive provisions in campaign finance and lobbying pulled out, said he didn't see why term limits were so popular with the public. Missourians approved eight-year limits per chamber in 1992* with more than 70 percent of the vote.

That said, he was hopeful a new group could help his causes next year.

"I don't understand why, in a democracy, people don't want freedom to choose whoever they want in office," Nixon said. "But the priming of the pump will give us a chance to move forward."

In interviews with all of the term-limited senators, most agreed that term limits have damaged the art of compromise, but even this had a partisan tinge. Some Republicans accused Democrats — who hold just 11 of the 34 seats — of filibustering more now, while others said the majority is more willing to try and ramrod bills through.

"They say the Senate is a family, but it's dysfunctional at best," said Sen. Joan Bray, D-University City. "People don't seem to know what they're doing now."

Experience matters

All of the eight-year senators, including both those who served in the House prior to the law and those who didn't, said help from tenured members who had served for decades made their transitions much easier.

"The guys who were here for decades — Democrats and Republicans — their knowledge was dearly helpful to us," said Sen. Carl Vogel, R-Jefferson City. "I'm sure that's true of all of us who got elected in 2002 for the first time."

After this year, no senators will have served with pre-term-limited members, which Sen. Gary Nodler said creates a major unknown.

"The people coming in will be a transitional class, much the way our class was," said Nodler, R-Joplin. "When we leave, there's not going to be anyone who worked with guys like Harold Caskey or Jim Mathewson, the real lions of the Senate. I don't know what that's going to mean."

However, Vogel said he doubts that all this memory will be lost, noting that there are no term limits for staff, the media, lobbyists and others who have observed the General Assembly for decades.

"When we talk about a lack of experience and institutional memory, someone will be there to remind us," he said.

House influence

However, some Democrats worry that experience won't carry over into the future. The next class of Republicans to enter the Senate from the House will have spent the last eight years in the majority, which worries Sen. Tim Green, D-Spanish Lake, who will become the Senate's longest-tenured member next year.

"I've already started worrying about next year," said Green, who was first elected to the House in 1989 and will be term-limited after 2012. "You see how the House has operated, and I worry about what's going to come over here."

Without naming specific representatives, both Republican and Democratic senators worried about House members bringing the rancor that has marked their session, over to the Senate.

The House this session was marked by divisive committee meetings, bickering and name-calling on the chamber floor. A debate over the ethics legislation last week brought cat calls from Democrats and commands to "shut up" from Republicans, things senators said would never be acceptable on their side of the Capitol.

"You got these young turks coming up trying to make a name for themselves," Griesheimer said of the House. "The dynamics of the Senate are gonna change when a bunch of them come over here, and that's true of both parties."

Memories

Still, all of the retiring members said they will miss being members of Missouri's most exclusive club. Some are looking for jobs, some are running for higher office, while others said they'll run as far from Jefferson City as they can.

While the 10 have different emotions about leaving, they all have treasured memories from their service. Sen. Rita Days, D-Bel Nor, said she will never forget the first time she stepped on the floor of the House after winning a 1993 special election to represent parts of north St. Louis County.

Days traveled to the Capitol on a day when the legislature was out of session, opened the leather-padded doors to the chamber, and stood deathly silent, in awe of what she was about to be a part of. She said the knowledge that she was a black woman about to become part of a group that consisted of only white men until 1960 made it that much more special.

"I got goosebumps; it was such a powerful experience," she said. "To know that my dad couldn't have had this job, it was a truly overwhelming feeling and something I'll miss."

This was at a time when Democrats controlled large majorities in both houses of the legislature and would continue to hold those until 2002. The Republicans who served in the minority said that experience has made them more deferential, now that they hold a veto-proof majority.

Sen. Norma Champion, R-Springfield, said that coming to the House from the Springfield City Council was jarring, because her influence was greatly diminished. She said that 10-year experience made her more willing to work across party lines as a majority member in the Senate.

"I toiled in the minority for years and never got a bill heard on the floor in the House," Champion said. "Now that we have control, we can empathize with them. We have felt how they feel."

A future with term limits

Senate Speaker Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, said government needs to work better to accommodate term limits. He said he has pushed for the state to make a number of outlines for long-term growth, and even floated the idea of doing two-year budgets.

He even suggested changing the constitution to shrink the size of the state House, which currently has 163 members, each representing about 31,000 constituents.

"Term limits are here, that's just the fact," Shields said. "So how do we make government better? That's what we've worked on, but in the next decade it's going to be up to these guys to figure it out more."

While most senators lamented term limits, Vogel noted that those same limits bumped out many long-term senators, such as his predecessor, Larry Rohrbach, R-California.

"We love to rip limits, but a lot of us wouldn't be here without them," he said. "If those older guys could still be here, they would be. So it gives a real chance to express different ideas that we might not have had before."

Changing careers

If those limits are what got some members into the Senate, it is definitely what's kicking them out. The senators' future plans vary widely; some will return to making their outside careers full-time, while others will be running for another office this year.

Nodler is running to fill the seat of U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Strafford, who is running for U.S. Senate, while Griesheimer is running to be the Franklin County Commissioner, the highest position in his county on the outskirts of St. Louis.

Days and Bray do not currently have jobs lined up, though Days said she hopes to serve north St. Louis in some future capacity. Bray said she wants to take time to travel, including a trip to South Africa for next month's World Cup.

"With the stress of the Senate behind me, I can really relax," Bray said. "And there's no better way than traveling back to a place we used to live to watch a truly great event."

Of all the retiring senators, Griesheimer was the only one to express interest in returning to Jefferson City should he lose his race. He said he loves the city and tries to find any excuse to travel here, even when he's not in session.

"Besides, my wife is an (accountant), so spring is busy for her anyway," Griesheimer said. "I'd rather stay out of her way and also be somewhere I love."

But others, such as Vogel and Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, specifically ruled out ever working in the Capitol again. Bartle said he didn't want to be like some past senators who didn't know when to let go.

"I've seen guys who roll back in here and really don't have any reason to," Bartle said. "You kind of just feel sorry for them."

Looking back

As their final legislative session wound down, some of the senators seemed more nostalgic than others. Shields compared it to the same feeling that many high school and college graduates are feeling now.

"I think it will feel the same as the end of college, where you keep going and working every day, and then just one day it stops," he said. "It definitely hasn't hit me yet that I'm leaving."

Nodler said he isn't very wistful, for the sole fact that he will be spending all summer immersed in a campaign before the Aug. 8 primary election, which is basically the important one in his mostly Republican district in southwest Missouri.

Still, he said he has been walking through the halls, noticing major changes from the Senate he came to eight years ago.

"I didn't even own a cell phone before I ran for the Senate," he said, holding up his BlackBerry. "Now I can get 96 TV channels on here. It's crazy how things change in not a huge amount of time."

All the senators said they would miss the staff, their fellow members and the fact they have a job that impacts the lives of Missourians. Nearly all of those who had distinguished careers prior to serving said the Senate was the best experience they ever had.

That includes Champion, who, prior to elected office, spent 30 years as a professor at Evangel University in Springfield, and also played the role of "Aunt Norma" on the Children's Hour television program on KY-3 in the 1960s.

"When I did Children's Hour, when I taught, when I was in the House — those were all fulfilling positions," Champion said. "But there's not a day that goes by now where I don't think how lucky I am to have been a Missouri state senator."


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Comments

Allan Sharrock May 16, 2010 | 11:12 a.m.

So everyone wants to get rid of term limits? Could it be that they just want to stay in power and keep their jobs? Think about how partisan our US congress is and they don't have term limits so that argument doesn't really hold water with me. As far as the experience thing goes the US congress has people who have been in power for a long time and look at the mess they have created.

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