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House Democrats Divided

January 03, 1996
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Demands by Missouri black legislators for a greater legislative role in derailed Democratic plans to elect a new House speaker on the opening day of the 1996 legislative session.

Instead, the opening day of 1996 legislative session began much like the 1995 legislative - with disarray among Democrats, House business suspended and House Democrats unsure whether they can produce the votes to maintain control of the House leadership.

The first signs of trouble appeared Wednesday morning when the legislative Black Caucus boycotted a caucus of House Democrats.

The Democratic meeting had been scheduled to assure there would be sufficient votes to elect as speaker Rep. Sam Leake, D-Laddonia, who had won the caucus nomination in November.

But without support from black members, House Democrats lack the majority needed to elect a speaker.

"We are no longer going to be taken for granted," vowed the chair of the Black Caucus, Rep. Paula Carter, D-St. Louis.

In return for supporting Leake, Carter said the caucus wants more blacks in House leadership positions.

"The Missouri General Assembly has systematically excluded African Americans from House leadership positions and employment within the state," the caucus charged in a statement issued later in the day.

Short of the majority needed to elect a speaker, the House Democratic leadership promptly

Carter did not specify the specific demands she will raise with Leake this morning.

One caucus member said blacks were demanding election of a black as Democratic floor leader - the second most powerful position in the House.

Rep. Gracia Backer, D-Fulton, appears to be the leading candidate to replace Rep. Bob Ward, D-Bonne Terre, who resigned as majority leader last month.

In an interview Wednesday night, House Speaker Pro Temp Jim Barnes, offered up his own post if it would avoid a women-versus-blacks split within the Democratic caucus.

"If that includes me having to step down so, you know, a woman or an African American is in that position, that's not something I'm opposed to," Barnes said.

But Barnes stressed any such move would have to include "reforms" in the House process that he and some other Democrats have been seeking.

It was the second year in a row that dissension among House Democrats disrupted the opening of day of the annual session.

The House was scheduled to elect a replacement for Missouri House Speaker Bob Griffin, who announced several months ago that he would step down from his 15-year reign has House leader.

Instead, Griffin adjourned the 88th General Assembly less than 20 minutes after it convened - a move protested by the House Republican leader, Rep. Mark Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff.

"The session was adjourned when others were not acknowledged. It's obvious the entire state is being held hostage," said Richardson, who unsuccessfully sought recognition before the House adjourned.

House Democrats said they could not proceed without a unified party.

"We simply cannot make any decision unless everyone is included," said Phil Tate, D-Gallatin. "We cannot make a caucus decision without everyone. The African Americans were not in attendance."

In last year's election of the speaker, Griffin nearly lost his position to Richardson as five Democratic dissidents crossed the aisle and voted for the Republican leader. The same Democrats boycotted Wednesday's Democratic caucus.

Like Barnes, they have called for changes in House rules that provide more equitable treatment for members.

With the black and dissidents' boycotts, various House Democrats conceded they were at least 16 votes short of number needed to elect a Democrat as speaker.

Democrats spent much of the afternoon and evening Wednesday in various closed door meetings trying to find a solution.

Absence from those efforts was Griffin, who rushed out of the Capital immediately the house adjournment.

Tate said Griffin had left for Cameron to be with his wife, who was to undergo emergency surgery for breast cancer later in the day.

The speaker's office issue a statement that the decision to operate was made Tuesday when Linda Griffin's physicians determined her malignancy had the potential to spread rapidly.