The announcement of last Friday’s meeting of the Muleskinners, a mainly grey-haired gathering of Boone County’s hardest-core Democrats, promised that Rep. Chris Kelly would discuss this year’s legislative priorities.
As I commented in my column for that day’s Missourian, I went to listen even though I was pretty sure what we were going to hear. Wrong again.
Instead of the attempt to find some rays of hope in the gloom of Jefferson City that I expected, Chris treated us to what struck me as a valedictory address. The young legislative session is the old boy’s last, and he used the occasion in front of a friendly crowd to reminisce about a political career that began in 1976, almost by accident.
The accident was that he happened to be in the county clerk’s office on election night and found himself appalled by the disorganization. He decided to run for the office. His campaign got a boost, he recalled with a chuckle, when the long-time incumbent, Murray Glascock, “did me the favor of getting indicted on 14 or 15 counts.”
The job, he said, turned out to be “an unmitigated pleasure.” Listening to his string of anecdotes, his recounting of battles won and lost, his descriptions of friendly foes, I got the strong impression that he would say the same about nearly all of his four decades in politics.
He described, with another chuckle, a “dirty little backroom trick” he used as a legislative committee chairman to persuade then-Gov. Mel Carnahan to locate the newly created Missouri Employers Mutual workers’ compensation company in Columbia rather than in its intended home, Kansas City.
“That’s the kind of thing you want your representative to do and hope none of the others do,” he advised.
Chris’s style is low-key, his speeches are rambling, his humor is self-deprecating; but when he turns serious you realize that he just might be the smartest guy in the room.
That came across last Friday when he explained his decision not to seek another term in the legislature.
The first reason is that redistricting would force a move across town. He doesn’t want to move, he said; and his wife, senior federal judge Nanette Laughrey, refuses to.
The second reason, he made clear without using the exact word, is that the legislature has become dysfunctional. By contrast to the days he remembers so fondly when compromises were reached and deals made across party lines, the right-wing Republican-dominated General Assembly of today refuses to address the state’s real and growing problems.
He ticked off a few: The Fulton State Hospital is decaying and dangerous; Interstate 70 is close to being a “parking lot;” the Capitol building itself is falling apart; the public schools are floundering (“the death knell of economic development”); the University of Missouri, with state funding below the level of 2001, is in danger of losing its membership in the Association of American Universities, the 62 top research universities in North America.
(The current issue of “Mosaics,” the promotional magazine of the College of Arts and Science, features an article on the AAU, accompanied by three charts that show where MU stands in comparison with the other AAU members. On the criteria taken most seriously by that club, our rank is only a hair’s breadth above the lowest.)
While the real problems fester, Chris concluded, “We’re protecting you. We’ve protected your right to pray, your right to shoot, your right to farm – although Farmland Industries is now Chinese-owned – and this year we’ll protect your right to burn wood.”
He wasn’t joking, he insisted.
He wasn’t joking, either, when in response to a question he assessed the losses Missouri will suffer if, as expected, the legislature refuses to expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act. Columbia alone stands to lose $30 million, he pointed out. The state’s hospitals, physicians, even 50 local chambers of commerce have all endorsed expansion.
“Everybody’s on board – except the tea party.”
After his talk, I asked whether he’s even considering running for the state Senate in 2016, when the Republican incumbent will be term limited. No, he said. He’ll back Rep. Stephen Webber instead. “He’ll do well.”
I’m sure he will. But I’m also sure we’ll miss Chris Kelly. In my 40 years of watching Boone County politics, I haven’t seen a more entertaining player. Nor are we likely to see a better public servant.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. He writes a weekly column for the Missourian.