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Kings of Their Domain

May 10, 2001
By: Lauren Shepherd
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY -- The third floor of the state Capitol building -- the home for more than 50 years of the most powerful Democrats in the state Senate -- is quiet on the night of the special elections in January. Doors are closed and hallways are vacant. Even the popular third floor coffee room is deserted.

Looking for any Democratic senator who can give them a quote, groups of reporters troll the halls.

Finally, Sen. Ed Quick, D-Liberty, the president pro tem of the Senate and arguably the most powerful man in the legislature, slowly opens his office door. Coffee cup in hand, the gray-haired senator glances at the reporters heading toward him. Quick is not a man of great stature.

With embedded wrinkles creasing his weatherworn face, the senator looks as if he would be more comfortable fishing with his grandchildren than wielding power in a gray suit.

Quick senses the destructive winds of a political hurricane.

Three senatorial districts are up in the special elections -- the Democratic-leaning 4th district in St. Louis City, the Republican 12th district and the competitive 18th district, which both parties see as their best chance to tip the balance of power.

Control of the Senate is at stake. If the Republicans win two seats, they will become the majority party for the first time in over half a century.

It is 7 p.m, and Quick knows the end is near. The numbers are written all over his face.

The special election night was the end of a long hibernation for the Republicans. After 52 years of Democratic rule, the Republicans took control of the upper chamber. As they have adjusted to their newfound power, the new majority has taken control with a partisan flair. Democrats say the 2001 legislative session, which began with promises of bipartisanship, has morphed into one that is ripe with contention.

"The tone of the Senate has changed, sure," Quick says. "I don't think the unity and the respect for the body is at a higher level than it used to be."

"The tone is more mistrust," he says.

On the other side of the aisle, the Republicans reason that any stress between the parties is a result of the historic role reversal. And there is some evidence that the Senate may be starting to revert to the friendlier chamber of old.

But on the night of Jan. 24, tense times are still to come. It is still the moment for celebration on the fourth floor of the state Capitol -- the temporary Republican headquarters. Ties undone and cigars in hand, excited, red-faced legislative helpers scurry in and out of senate offices.

Knowing that victory is almost theirs, the Republicans camp out in Sen. Peter Kinder's office, R-Cape Girardeau. They are lit with the glow of newly acquired power.

One Senate Republican aide sits at the secretary's desk in Kinder's office and frantically reloading the secretary of state's election returns website. He shouts out the numbers, loud enough that the senators inside Kinder's private office can hear.

"It's a good time to be pro-tem," one Senate aide yells to Kinder.

Packed with legislators, the Republican's office is engulfed in a haze of cigar smoke. Even Rep. Catherine Hanaway, R-St. Louis County -- the highest-ranking Republican in the Democratic controlled state House and the only woman in the Republican leadership -- slowly closes her eyes and leans her head back while she sucks on the cigar.

Republican supporters, legislators and aides file into the office to congratulate Kinder. Reporters fill the hallway outside.

"People are wanting to come see the kingfish," another legislative aide says as he walks through the growing crowd.

When the election is finally called at 9 p.m. the Republicans have a majority in the Senate, 18-16. A legislative aide pops champagne bottles open.

Talking intently on a cell phone, Kinder emerges from his office and paces quickly up and down the fourth floor hallway. Ruddy-faced with piercing eyes, Kinder's intensity keeps him moving constantly, even on the Senate floor. Known as a vocal ideologue for his party, Kinder has made a name for himself as a hard-nosed conservative.

Tonight, though, he has the face of a boy who has won his first Little League game. Almost unable to keep a smile off his face, Kinder talks to Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond on his cell phone.

"It's a big win," Kinder says. "It's history."

With power come perks. Along with majority status, the Republicans won bigger offices, the right to appoint all committee chairmen, more attention from the press and the power to set the legislative agenda. Most importantly, as the majority party, the Republicans garnered the strength in numbers to push legislation through the Senate.

What the Republicans won, the Democrats lost that night.

Kinder did not force his hand on the defeated Democrats at the beginning of the session. When accepting the mantle of power and all its spoils, he spoke of bipartisanship - a goal he says was realistic.

"But I also knew that as the session progressed, efforts to keep it on a bipartisan track would be strained," he says, sitting in his spacious wood-paneled office.

He was right.

Only two weeks after the election, Sen. Jim Mathewson, D-Sedalia, resigned from the Senate Transportation Committee. He said he was frustrated with the Republican leadership. Mathewson, a 20-year veteran of the Senate, said he could not keep the promises he had made to Missourians to fix the state's highways.

While the transportation committee met down the hall, Mathewson stood outside his office and talked to reporters.

"Under the circumstances of dealing with the new leadership and the new chair of the committee, I didn't feel like I could keep the commitments I had made," he said.

Meanwhile on the Senate floor, debate was infected with the background noise of partisan bickering. When Kinder introduced a measure to prohibit state or local governments from suing handgun manufacturers, legislators looked more like schoolchildren throwing tantrums than adults debating legislation.

When Sen. Ken Jacob, D-Columbia, distributed a study detailing the cost to the public of gun violence, Kinder promptly threw the study in a nearby trash can.

In the two months after the special elections debate on the Senate floor had become more like a circus tightrope act than a stroll across Main Street. The cord of cordiality was fraying, but had not broken.

The committees had new chairmen, and office doors had different brass nameplates. Nothing, though, had really changed.

By the middle of March, the Republicans, led by Kinder, were ready to climb out of their winter cave to assert their power.

The Democrats would know who was in charge.

Sandwiched between the usual introductions of school teachers who are visiting and debate over the bills that make the government machine run, Kinder stands up in his gray-stripe suit and introduces Senate Resolution No. 346.

The resolution is a significant change in the Senate's rules - the guidelines for how the Senate operates. Kinder's objectives range from firing about a dozen Senate employees to "achieve economy in government" to limiting "frivolous" ceremonial resolutions. Kinder also proposed giving the Republicans the authority to strip any legislators of their office space or seat on the floor.

But the crux of Kinder's resolution is establishing a Republican checklist that would act as screening criteria.

The list includes decreasing taxes, lessening government interference and promoting family values. Bills would have to pass the checklist test before they could be brought up for debate on the Senate floor.

Furious at Kinder's power play, the Democrats take turns protesting.

The power struggle has begun.

Sen. Ken Jacob, D-Columbia, stands next to his desk on the Senate floor, styrofoam coffee cup shaking in his hand. With his furrowed brow behind his glasses and a finger pointing across the aisle at Kinder, Jacob is angry.

Jacob yells that a Republican - regardless of their power since the special elections - would attempt to alter the status-quo, especially without getting input from the Democrats.

"This is a partisan, political tool and that is wrong and you know it's wrong," he shouts, sounding like a furious parent."Just like it's wrong to try to reform the Senate yourselves."

Kinder sways by his desk but stands firm. He weaves his fingers together and pulls them apart while shifting his weight from foot to foot. Rather than looking like a nervous child being punished for stealing cookies from the cookie jar, Kinder manages to look almost electric, as if he is garnering energy from the anger on the other side of the aisle.

Always conscious of his leadership role, he speaks calmly.

"The leadership has always run this place," he says.

Jacob, one of the most outspoken senators on this particular day, does not back down easily.

"I think you can tell from the mood of this body that you caused a great deal of offense in the minority party," he says.

While the action takes place on the Senate floor, one secretary of a Democratic House legislator sits in her cramped office listening to the Senate proceedings over the Internet on her computer.

She hears Kinder say, "I have to step out to go to the bathroom."

She slams her pen down on her desk and screams, "to flush your head!" - a sentiment that reverberates through the Democratic hallways of the Capitol.

Despite the upheaval, the Senate leaves the decision to another day by declining to vote on the resolution.

Looking back, Jacob still expresses anger and frustration with Kinder and the Republicans for suggesting the changes without any Democratic input.

"To me, I felt like it was enough for them to have won the majority," Jacob says. "It's kind of like kicking sand in the wound. The way they kind of blindsided everyone."

"There were no negotiations about this -- no discussions," he adds.

Kinder now blames himself for not having communicated more with the minority party before introducing the resolution.

"In an episode like that, there are always lessons to be learned, and I learned mine," he says.

But he stands by his decision to fire six state employees to reduce the Senate budget, and he still believes in the principle underlying his idea for a checklist of Republican priorities.

"They are common sense ideas to say that whoever party proposes legislation that comports with these ideals gets moved and that it is a principle-based legislative model, not a power-based legislative model"-a way of doing business in the statehouse that prevailed when the Democrats were in the majority, he says.

"The power-based legislative model was how close are you to the Speaker of the House or the President Pro Tem - do you go out drinking with him at night? Does he have your vote in his hip pocket when he absolutely needs it?" he adds.

Rick Hardy, University of Missouri political science professor and former GOP congressional candidate, says Kinder's adherence to his principles could help him institute a principle-based type of session.

"I think Peter Kinder could probably operate under that philosophy," Hardy says.

But Hardy adds that Kinder's belief that the Democrats led through power and not principles may be some evidence of sour grapes.

"There is probably a pent up feeling here," he says. "They've been in the minority for so long."

Quick says he sees Kinder's resolution as only one more manifestation of the role reversal in the Senate.

"We are going through such change," Quick says, sitting at his desk and eating a sandwich in his noticeably smaller office. "There's a certain amount of time everyone needs to take to adjust to the changes."

"The roles we play are very different," he adds.

Sen. Harry Wiggins, D-Kansas City, has worked in the state legislature for 26 years. Sitting in the side gallery of the Senate, Wiggins says the day Kinder introduced his resolution is an example of how much more partisan the Senate has become.

"The Senate I knew for 26 years was not the Senate I saw before me that day," he says.

"I think that probably the sudden switch overnight of control in the Senate created a lot of uncertainty, some dissent and some political animosity, which had not been present in the Senate before," he adds.

Since the resolution debate, relations have still been strained, but they are improving. Several bills, including a measure to approve a new stadium for the University of Missouri, have had bipartisan support. The stadium bill is co-sponsored by a Republican and a Democrat.

Debate has become a bit friendlier, with Democrats and Republicans occasionally laughing together and cracking jokes. Recently, members of both parties huddled at the Senate podium and discussed a procedural rule change. Kinder sat on the steps listening, while Mathewson argued the merits of his point of view.

The partisan bickering may have moved a floor down to the governor's office. Kinder and Democratic Gov. Bob Holden have both accused the other of lying, distorting facts and pushing an agenda too forcefully in the past month.

With state and Congressional redistricting now on the schedule, the backbiting has escalated. Kinder recently accused Holden of trying to trade support for the governor's expensive transportation plan by appointing a Republican to the House and Senate redistricting commissions. The governor called the accusation "a complete fabrication."

"Through most of the session, I've had a good relationship with the governor and would like that to be restored," Kinder says. "One indicator not so good on that score is that his lobbyist has stopped coming around."

"I don't see her in my office anymore bringing me this or that official or this or that piece of information," he adds.

Regardless of his deteriorating relationship with the governor and the continued tension on the Senate floor, Kinder says he thinks he has been successful at fostering bipartisanship.

"Given the fact that we're all political animals and to some degree party animals up here, I think it's worked just as nearly as well as it could have," he says.

With only one month left in the session and the 2002 elections looming, there could be more partisan fighting in store.

The night of the special elections, Quick sat in his office and told reporters that having Republicans in power is temporary.

But surrounded by framed newspaper clippings and snapshots of himself with po liticians on the walls on his outer office, Kinder is all confidence.

"I expect that when the dust settles after a big struggle in 2002 that we will have an expanded Republican majority," he says.