JEFFERSON CITY — Coming from a dairy farm in Pickering, Stephen Knorr said he learned early on to enjoy the company of other people.
“When you’re on a farm, anytime you see something besides livestock, you have a tendency to visit. It comes naturally,” he said.
It’s a skill set that suits him well professionally. Knorr now leads the University of Missouri system’s lobbying efforts in the Capitol — a job that involves, mainly, a lot of mingling, handshaking and talking.
Last September, UM system President Elson Floyd added a system-level position that Knorr was asked to fill. Previously, Knorr’s focus was on lobbying the federal government in Washington.
Now, in his current $95,900-per-year job, he oversees all UM system lobbying — federal and state. Knorr said it’s an attempt to leverage the power of both Jefferson City and Washington.
But his history of raising money began long before last fall’s organizational shakeup. In his federal position, Knorr netted nearly $200 million for 150 different programs at the university.
Knorr got his start in politics after graduating from MU in 1988. He worked with the John Danforth campaign for U.S. Senate. Danforth, a leading Missouri Republican, hired him because “they needed someone with a rural background, and I fit the bill,” Knorr said.
His family wasn’t very political, and he didn’t have much of a political background (he was an agricultural economics major), but he was hooked.
“That, and I needed the money,” he said.
This year’s session was turbulent for the UM system and its lobbying leader. The system’s funding was attacked several times.
The biggest issue facing the system was a bond proposal that would have borrowed $195 million for the UM system. It would have been used to build life-science research facilities on all four system campuses, including a $90 million building at MU.
The failure to push through the bonds also generated one of Knorr’s sharpest critics, Columbia Democratic Sen. Ken Jacob. He said Knorr’s inexperience with Missouri government was a problem from the get-go.
Jacob said he was especially irked at the way Knorr led the approach on the bond issue, saying the new lobbying team didn’t have a game plan. And he said he was stunned to learn that Knorr had attended a fund-raiser for Republican gubernatorial candidate Matt Blunt.
“I think it was dumb to attend a fund-raiser of the opponent to the sitting governor who would sign funding bills. That’s unhelpful,” Jacob said.
But Knorr, who said his job asks him to cross party lines regularly, said he would talk to anyone who would listen to higher education’s needs.
Beyond learning the ropes of Missouri state politics, though, Knorr’s first session also saw several bills that would have heavily penalized the UM system financially.
One bill would have cut the UM system out of state funding for including sexual orientation in its nondiscrimination employment policy. Another would have required Floyd to disclose the names of private donors to the salaries of chancellors.
Knorr said a key part of his lobbying job is identifying bills that could be problematic — but also knowing which ones are likely to die and which ones aren’t. He said, incidentally, that he thought neither bill was likely to pass.
And the news wasn’t at all bad budget-wise for Knorr and the lobbyists. The UM system ended up with about a $12 million funding increase in the budget sent to the governor last week.
Switching from Beltway politics to the statehouse did require some learning on the job, several people who worked with Knorr said.
“I think he had a bit of learning curve, in terms of assumptions that Jefferson City would work similar to Washington,” said Rep. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia. “Republicans in Congress work hard to bring projects home, whereas Republicans here, especially in the House, don’t.”
The 2004 legislative session closed last week, with the General Assembly working overtime to pass legislation. And Knorr, as expected, was in the thick of it.
“It’s been an interesting year,” Knorr said. “We began with people thinking that (our budget) was going to get cut or stay the same, and to end up with an increase ... we’re very excited about where we’re ending up.”