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Black Caucus Flexes Muscle

January 08, 1996
By: Emily Goodin and Angie Gaddy
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Black members of the Missouri House demonstrated Monday afternoon they have both the votes and the solidarity to block Democrats from electing their party's candidate for House speaker.

But what that means - both for the future of the House and for the House Democratic Caucus - had Democratic legislators scratching their heads Monday night.

Some said that there was an even greater need to cut some sort of deal with the Legislative Black Caucus. But a few other Democrats privately suggested it was time to pick another person as the Democratic candidate.

Republicans argued it demonstrated the chamber's desire that Bob Griffin step down as speaker before his successor is elected.

As scheduled, the House promptly held the speakership election shortly after it convened Monday afternoon.

But both the Democratic and Republican candidates failed to secure the number of votes needed for election.

The Republican nominee for speaker, Minority Floor Leader Mark Richardson of Poplar Bluff, actually garnered the largest number of votes in Monday's election - getting 76 votes to 71 for the Democratic candidate, Sam Leake, D-Laddonia. But Griffin had ruled that 82 votes were needed to win the election.

Five dissident Democrats, the same ones who voted against Griffin last year, voted in favor of Richardson. Eleven Democrats - including nine members of the Black Caucus - voted present.

Of the 12 black Democrats, only one supported Leake. Two voted for the GOP candidate and the nine others voted "present."

Caucus members had warned last week that they would not support Leake unless he was willing to agree to caucus demands.

"There is no need for party loyalty without the respect and the responsibility that is concomitant with such loyalty," the statement said.

But the caucus has not detailed its specific demands, except to say it goes beyond just a leadership spot in the House.

Also Monday, Republicans formally filed a resolution signed by more than half the House - including several Democrats - declaring the speaker's office vacant.

Minority Whip Don Lograsso, R-Blue Springs, said the Republicans have made it very clear that Griffin should resign and allow Speaker Pro Tem Jim Barnes, D-Raytown, to preside.

"Look how badly the Democrats are running things, they can't even elect a speaker," Lograsso said.

But Griffin refused to step down and vowed he would not quit until a successor is elected.

"I'm going to insist on an election," Griffin said. "How can you be more fair than that?"

Republicans have threatened a lawsuit to force Griffin's removal if the Cameron Democrat does not comply with the written resolution end his 15-year hold on the office.

One of the principle players in this drama was noticeably quite Monday.

Leake said nothing on the House floor and was unavailable to reporters after the House session.

By early evening as other Democrats met in small groups trying to figure out what to do next, Leake's had left the Capitol. His office said he was driving his wife back home.