By Phill Brooks
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. —
One of the more fascinating legislative patterns I’ve watched over the decades has been the dominance of rural Missouri in the state’s General Assembly — particularly in the Senate.
Back four decades ago, rural legislators firmly were in control.
They were a pretty conservative lot, more interested in limiting government than expanding it.
Highways were the one exception. An adequate highway system in rural Missouri was almost sacred. Those rural folks watched over the Transportation Commission like a hawk, making sure that rural Missouri was not getting shortchanged in distribution of highway funds.
A harmony of interests like highways has been a key factor in unifying the rural bloc of legislators. Whether a senator is from rural Southwest Missouri or the rural northeast, the culture and economic interests are pretty much the same. That is not the case for their metropolitan colleagues, who are divided by urban-suburban splits as well as cross-state rivalries.
The rural domination was personified by Norman Merrell. A farmer and schoolteacher from rural northeast Missouri, he rose to become the first person to hold the Senate’s top leadership position, the president pro tem, for three consecutive terms in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Merrell shared attributes I’ve seen in a number of rural lawmakers. With laid-back personalities and almost a twang to their voices, they often are underestimated. Simple words and country stories belie political skills, sophistication and determination that can catch the metro politicians off-guard.
Merrell’s election to a third term as Senate president pro tem was a perfect example of that.
Initially, Merrell had lost the Democratic caucus nomination for pro tem. That should have been the end of it. And, at first, he accepted the one-vote defeat.
But when he discovered that the liberal, metro-area wing of the Democratic caucus intended to remove rural Sen. Nelson Tinnin as Education Committee chairman, Merrell reacted with a vengeance.
It was not just that his friend would lose his chairmanship; it also was all the talk coming from the metro Democrats on plans to make the Senate more responsive to urban Missouri with a liberal agenda. They had gone too far, and they were to pay the price.
Plotting in secret, Merrell and his rural allies put together the votes to deny the job to the Democratic caucus nominee, Phil Snowden. But they never let Snowden or his allies know their plans.
On the opening day of that legislative session, Snowden had his family attend to watch over the chamber from the visitor’s gallery for what should have been an almost formality of a vote for his ascension to the Senate’s most powerful post.
As he heard the votes go against him, Snowden was so caught by surprise that he broke down in tears sitting at his chamber desk.
Over the years, the visibility of the rural dominance in the Senate has faded. With Republicans gaining control of the chamber, coupled with the steep drop in the number of rural Democrats, the continued conservative bent to the Senate now is seen as a factor of party rather than rural control.
But the rural aspect of those past decades when the Democrats were in power has a deep legacy for the state.
It is a reason, I think, why Missouri’s Transportation Department is burdened with so many more miles of rural highways than it has funds to adequately maintain. Conversely, it also may be why St. Louis city is stuck with having to finance repair of state roads within the city.
Phill Brooks has been a Missouri Statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the Statehouse press corps.