The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Opinion

April 21, 2014

Phill Brooks, columnist: 40 years later, Missouri's Capitol is a lot less fun

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Sitting in the Senate’s recent memorial service for deceased members reminded me how different the chamber has become from the Senate I first covered more than four decades ago.

As I was recounting some of those memories to a fellow Statehouse reporter after the ceremony, he said it must have been a lot more fun to cover back then.

It sure was.

To my student reporters, I used to describe it as getting to attend a circus without buying an admission ticket. It was that entertaining.

Filibusters that now are so tedious and boring were great political theater back then. Senators performed as if they were on stage.

I cannot remember the number of times Sen. Danny Staples would launch into stories about his childhood horse or about Jesse James, causing us to chuckle.

The late Sen. Jet Banks, D-St. Louis, once entertained the chamber with a holstered toy pistol on his hip to debate against a bill expanding gun rights. Using a prop like that violated Senate rules, but it was so entertaining that I don’t remember anyone seriously objecting.

The absence of a sound system helped make those debates more entertaining. A senator had to speak up with a booming voice to be heard. Unlike now, it usually would be a full chamber — providing an incentive for a filibustering senator to be entertaining.

Now, a filibuster empties the chamber.

With a sound system pumping Senate audio into offices and streaming on the Internet, both reporters and members can sit in their offices or even leave the Capitol and still follow what the Senate is doing.

Among those remaining in the chamber, you’ll find some absorbed with their smartphones, checking email, texting, tweeting and surfing the Web. For years, laptops have been banned from senators’ desks to assure members pay attention to what their colleagues are saying. For a while, the rule worked — until smartphones came along.

Just the other day, I heard a Senate speech by a bill sponsor interrupted when he got a text message.

Listening to my colleague, Bob Priddy, recount at the Senate memorial service stories about departed members made me realize how many of these domineering and entertaining voices came from legislators with blue-collar backgrounds.

Former Cape Girardeau Rep. Gary Rust, in a column about Staples’ death, recalled how Staples would joke that he graduated from high school “24th in a class of 23.”

Staples, a canoe rental operator in southern Missouri, might have made fun of his education, but often, there was a serious purpose to his comic filibusters. It was to ease tensions and bring levity to the chamber when tempers had become too heated.

Banks’ background was even more humble. He was the son of a sharecropper. One of my reporters could not even find his birth record to clarify conflicting information about his background.

I was told by the late Sen. Al Spradling, one of Banks’ colleagues and a former FBI agent from the region, that at the time of Banks’ birth in southeast Missouri, it was not unusual for black births to simply not be recorded.

From that humble background, Banks rose to become the Senate’s majority leader, the highest legislative position held by an African-American in Missouri history.

Another example was Ed Dirck, one of the most influential and dominating Senate Appropriations chairs I’ve covered. When not in the Statehouse dealing with complicated budgets, Dirck was driving a train. The St. Louis County Democrat was a locomotive engineer.

Golly, was it a hoot for me to interview Dirck on his train phone with the sounds of the locomotive in the background.

I wonder if term limits are a reason why there seem to be fewer dominating blue-collar voices like those of Dirck, Banks and Staples.

Without advanced courses in subjects like law and economics, maybe it takes more time than allowed by term limits to develop the legislative confidence and knowledge to be so entertaining on such complicated government issues.

Phill Brooks has been a Missouri Statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the Statehouse press corps. He is the Statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and a faculty member of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.

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