For Missouri Democrats, figuring out how to exert influence at a time when Republicans enjoy trifecta control of state government has proved to be a daunting task.
How best to navigate those challenges was at the forefront of Rep. Kip Kendrick’s mind as he took time Monday to explain his sudden decision to step down as representative for Missouri’s 45th District.
Kendrick, D-Columbia, will move to the office of Sen.-elect Greg Razer, D-Kansas City, at the beginning of 2021, where he will serve as chief of staff.
Kendrick, who won reelection unopposed earlier this month to his fourth and final term in the House, repeatedly expressed gratitude for his time in office, excitement about his new role as well as frustration with the restrictions that term limits place on Missouri legislators.
A special election will be called by Gov. Mike Parson to replace Kendrick. He plans to touch base with Parson’s office and the secretary of state this week about those plans.
“I will do all that I can to encourage a special election in early 2021 to get the seat filled as early as possible,” he said.
His decision to step down from his current role came about after Razer called him shortly before Election Day to offer him the position.
Razer’s offer, which “was basically prefaced on ‘should he win his general election, would that be something that I would consider,’” took Kendrick by surprise, he said.
But after giving the idea serious consideration and going through “a whirlwind of running through scenarios in my mind,” he realized that the move made “absolute perfect sense” to him.
“It took me a little bit of time to fully make up my mind, but I think what drew me to it immediately was just getting a chance to work with Greg,” Kendrick said. “He is well respected on both sides of the aisle, which is important to me. I think we have a lot of shared policy overlap.”
Kendrick acknowledged that his announcement is likely a source of surprise and potential consternation for many of his constituents, both because of its timing so soon after his reelection and because of his important role as ranking minority member on the House Budget Committee. In his capacity in that role, Kendrick has placed particular emphasis on allocating and preserving funding for higher education and MU.
Asked if constituents in Columbia and within the MU community should be concerned about losing his influence on the committee, though, Kendrick’s response was direct.
“Not at all,” he said. “I suspect there’ll be some disappointment, and I completely understand that. I really do. But if there’s been a bigger advocate for the university in the House than me in the last few years, it’s been Greg.
“He’ll continue to be a strong advocate, and having him in the Senate role and having me based here in Columbia with my finger on the pulse of the university, and obviously his understanding of it all, I think is just going to be critical moving forward. Having another ally in the Senate is a good thing.”
Kendrick also pointed to his and Razer’s close working relationship and their commonalities as reasons for accepting the chief of staff position. Both lawmakers grew up in rural Missouri and now represent urban districts, and both hold degrees from MU.
Kendrick added that he couldn’t think of many other people for whom he would have made the same decision.
Razer echoed many of the same sentiments in explaining his decision to hire Kendrick away from the House, highlighting in particular their alignment on policy, Kendrick’s experience on the Budget Committee and his efforts to gain respect across the aisle.
“He’s respected just because he’s a decent human being who works hard, thinks deeply about the issues and probably knows the state budget better than most anybody else,” Razer said. “He’s just immensely respected, and that’s the kind of office that I want to have. Together, hopefully the two of us can get some things done, even though we’re in the minority party.”
He also said higher education funding will remain a top priority for him in the Senate and attempted to assuage any concerns that Kendrick’s constituents might have about his departure.
“If I was in a room full of people from Columbia, I would just say I know it’s upsetting to lose Kip as a representative,” Razer said. “But I lived in Columbia for five years, I was Truman the Tiger when I was at Mizzou. … It’s a place that’s near and dear to my heart, and it’s not as if Kip is going to a place where Columbia will be an afterthought.”
Looking forward, Kendrick said he doesn’t know who will succeed him as ranking member on the Budget Committee but expressed optimism that there will be a worthy replacement from the current crop of Democratic members on the committee.
Still, the question of his replacement gave him cause to return to the issue of term limits.
The eight-year cap on Missouri representatives’ and state senators’ time in office was a key factor in his decision to forego his final term and has been a frequent target of his criticism.
“It often puts people in the position like myself of ensuring that you can land on your feet, with a young family especially, and you can do so in a way that’s going to be meaningful and will continue to build on your service that you’ve put in for the state. … It’s really done a lot to impact constituents’ ability to be properly represented, and it’s really handed over a lot of power to unelected people.”
While maintaining his enthusiasm about his new role in Razer’s office, Kendrick admitted that, without the prospect of term limits, he would have considered the new offer differently.
But he was adamant that the change in positions will be the best way for him to continue to serve the same interests that he did as a representative. “In order for me to continue having a seat at the table at the state level beyond two years, this is the only guaranteed route for me,” he said.
He was also frank in describing the difficulties of being a Democratic lawmaker in a legislative body controlled by a Republican supermajority.
“I’m not gonna sugarcoat that,” he said. “Serving in a superminority is extremely challenging. But I’ve found ways to be effective, primarily with my work on the Budget Committee and my desire to build relationships in the building and to be respected.”
He also stressed that Razer “will have more influence, undoubtedly, in the Senate, than he had in the House,” and said he looks forward to helping the senator-elect leverage that influence.
Taking a step back to discuss the longer-term vision for the Democratic Party in Missouri and his role within it, Kendrick was again forthright.
“I’ll say that there is reason for Missouri Democrats to be fairly pessimistic at this point,” he said. “We took a significant beating on Election Day, and I think we all have to be very realistic that this is not going to be a short-term turnaround. This is going to be years in the making, and it is going to be very painful at times. It’s probably going to be more painful before we start seeing the uptick.”
Part of the solution for Democrats and the country at large, Kendrick said, is to listen to one another more. “I’m not just talking about hearing someone; we need to listen. And we need to as a party and as a state and as families understand that what we individually see as problems, the other side generally sees as a problem as well.
“Disagreement’s good. If we all agree, then we’re missing something. But we have to find that common ground and then work forward from there. I know that sounds broad, but that’s really the way I see it. This patchwork solution for the party is a patchwork solution for all of us.