By Phill Brooks
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. —
Every January after a general election, I’m fascinated by those who will be leaving office after years, sometimes decades, of service.
Some finish with a flurry of work. Some just fade away. And a few just give up and effectively quit before their terms expire.
The only Missouri state official leaving office this January, Robin Carnahan, faded away in her final days as secretary of state. On her last day in office, she skipped the inauguration of her successor.
Carnahan’s withdrawal from public life actually began two years earlier with her defeat for the U.S. Senate. She rarely made a public appearance in the Statehouse after that.
I sympathize with those looking at the end of their careers in public office. For some, it has consumed enormous amounts of energy, time and commitment.
Years in public office can create a particular sense of self. It can define what you are. A few senior legislators have confided to me the difficulty of adjusting to private life after leaving office.
There’s another problem for departing state officials. Some of their staff leave early to take advantage of new opportunities. Some join the official’s successor with the resulting shift in loyalties.
One of the most egregious examples of a quitter was Joe Teasdale after his defeat for re-election as governor. Teasdale all but abandoned his job and was rarely seen in the Statehouse after the election.
It was a particularly bad time for a governor to walk away. The state was facing one of the worst budget crises I’ve seen. Months before the election, Teasdale had pushed through the legislature a spending plan well beyond what the state could afford.
By the election, if not earlier, it was clear that state agencies needed to make deep cuts in the rate of spending or the state would run out of money before the budget year ended.
But Teasdale was not around to deal with the problem.
His absence led to one of the most memorable acts of statesmanship Missouri has seen in more than a generation. Gov.-elect Kit Bond stepped in and called together Teasdale’s cabinet. He told Teasdale’s department directors of the cuts that he would have to make when he took office. With no legal authority until January to order spending reductions, Bond advised the agency officials that if they voluntarily reduced spending immediately, it would spread out the cuts over a longer period of time and thus have a less dramatic effect on the agencies and on the citizens they serve.
It worked. They followed the governor-elect’s advice.
Bond effectively had taken over a couple of months before getting sworn into office.
It was a demonstration of the value of a law passed just four years earlier that creates a transition office and staff for a governor-elect.
It provides the resources to put together a staff, organize a cabinet and to begin work on the budget that the governor will have to present to the legislature just a couple of weeks after taking office.
In Bond’s case, that transition staff helped facilitate dealing with the budget crisis before his formal inauguration.
Another memorable transition period was the few months Roger Wilson was governor after the death of Mel Carnahan in the fall of 2000.
Wilson had no time for a transition. The lieutenant governor found himself with the power and responsibilities of governor just hours after Carnahan’s fatal plane crash.
Far from being a caretaker, Wilson unveiled a plan to take advantage of the Capitol’s neglected Missouri River overlook with a major Capitol office addition. It was to be named in Carnahan’s honor.
While the idea went nowhere in the Legislature, it helped keep Carnahan’s demoralized staff busy.
Wilson called that one of his major jobs for his time as governor, to provide comfort for a staff deeply affected by the death of their governor and his top aide. They had been like an extended family, and you could almost touch the pain of loss among the staff Wilson inherited.
Phill Brooks has been a Missouri Statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the Statehouse press corps.