JEFFERSON CITY — The request to former state Attorney General John Ashcroft from then-state Sen. Ralph Uthlaut Jr. was clear: Are Missouri lawmakers immune from arrest for drunken driving and other traffic violations?
Three decades ago, the answer was no — a legal ruling that overturned a 1953 attorney general opinion that General Assembly members were “privileged from arrest except for cases of treason, felony or breach of the peace.”
Fast forward to the 21st century. As state Sen. Chuck Graham knows all too well, that archaic perk of office no longer applies. The Columbia Democrat and assistant minority floor leader was arrested Oct. 20 on suspicion of driving while intoxicated and careless and imprudent driving.
Graham’s arrest — and subsequent refusal to take a breath test — has sent ripples through the local and statewide political chattering classes, fueling speculation about his future. A bizarre struggle between the arresting officer and an emergency room doctor over Graham’s urine specimen only further fueled the intrigue.
Graham was later court-ordered to submit to a blood test — six hours after his initial arrest.
When it comes to the political fallout faced by Missouri legislators who drink and drive, recent history is decidedly mixed.
In 1997, then-state Rep. Mark Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, was arrested for drunken driving and child endangerment because his young daughter was in the car. After initially vowing to keep his post as House minority floor leader, Richardson changed his mind — or was pressured — in a Republican caucus a day later and stepped down from that post.
Butler County voters were more forgiving. Richardson won re-election in 1998, collecting twice as many votes as his Democratic opponent, before leaving the House two years later because of term limits. He was promptly elected as a Circuit Court judge in Poplar Bluff, a position he continues to hold.
Rep. Charles Portwood, R-Ballwin, also won re-election after a drunk-driving arrest. The Republican caucus chairman and chiropractor was also charged with leaving the scene of an accident after his pickup truck swerved into a suburban Manchester pool house in the early morning hours of Aug. 9, 2004.
Portwood, who registered a 0.17 percent blood-alcohol level, pleaded guilty to leaving the accident scene but avoided a drunk-driving conviction because a technician mistakenly wiped Portwood’s skin with an alcohol swab before drawing blood, thus tainting the evidence.
Voters in his suburban St. Louis County district returned Portwood to the House in 2006, with the incumbent collecting 56 percent of the ballots cast. He has since formed a committee to pursue a possible state Senate run in 2010.
Former Rep. Tom Burcham, R-Farmington, had an altogether different experience after a pair of drunken-driving arrests over the course of five months in 2002. After his second arrest, Burcham went into rehab for three months at the Betty Ford clinic in California, he said.
His political career was effectively over — by his choice.
“Alcoholism ended my political career,” said Burcham, who now practices law in his hometown. “A DWI can cripple a political career.”
While emphasizing that he did not want to draw comparisons between his own problems with alcohol and Graham’s arrest, Burcham said his experience taught him that the public is more forgiving when officials come clean.
“I’m not sure he wouldn’t be better off to say he made a mistake and move on,” Burcham said. “If he fights this in court and loses, it’s only going to get worse.”
Several days after his arrest, Graham issued a public apology. Before the week was out, he attended a previously-scheduled fundraiser at Mizzou Arena’s Clinton Club on the MU campus — but canceled the cash bar. Graham then said he was committed to remaining sober.
In an interview, Graham said he was “humbled” by his arrest. He repeated earlier statements that he has no plans to leave office and hopes voters consider his complete body of work come the November 2008 election.
“People in general are fairly forgiving as long as you treat the situation with the seriousness it deserves,” he said.
Graham said his decision to stop drinking was a “day-to-day” choice and not necessarily a lifelong abstinence vow.
He also has not decided whether to fight the arrest — Boone County prosecutors have yet to file charges — and declined to comment on whether the near-brawl between a Columbia police officer and a University Hospital physician would play a factor in that choice.
According to a 17-page police report, officer Donald Weaver and the doctor on duty that night, Scott Schultz, nearly came to blows when the policeman tried to take Graham’s urine sample as evidence. Only after Weaver threatened the doctor with arrest was he able to leave, the report says.
The arrest of Graham and other lawmakers has to be viewed in the prism of a political culture where lobbyists and trade associations regularly use alcohol to curry favor with legislators, Burcham said.
On any given night during the annual session, lawmakers can drink and eat for free at numerous after-hours events in Jefferson City bars, restaurants and hotels.
“Each night there are multiple invitations to multiple events, all of which involve alcohol,” Burcham said.
Still, modern-day legislators attend those functions knowing that police will no longer look the other way when a tipsy senator or representative gets behind the wheel.
Such favors happened more than once in the old days, acknowledged Uthlaut, who retired after 20 years in the Capitol and is now a Montgomery County farmer.
“There was a double standard,” he said.