JEFFERSON CITY — There will be not just one, but three Democratic party chairs heading committees in the Republican-led House of Representatives come January, including Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia.
The three Democratic chairmanships are the most to be granted to the minority in the history of the state House, said next year's house speaker Steven Tilley, R-Perryville.
"I visited with my dad a few weeks ago. My dad basically said, 'Listen, you have the opportunity to hop in a boat, float down the stream, end the ride and not do a lot but be excited that you were speaker. Or you can hop out of the boat, create some waves and charter a new course.' And that's exactly what I'm going to do," Tilley said.
With a vast majority of Republicans in the legislature, the appointments are a step to share power with the Democrats, he said.
"I've got 106 Republicans. I've got a clear mandate from the voters in the state. I could probably do what everybody wanted within our party and ignore the Democrats," Tilley said. "I think that's the wrong way to go, and I think (next year's House Democratic leader) Rep. Talboy appreciates that."
Kelly spent ten years on the House Budget Committee serving as both chair and vice chair when Democrats controlled the chamber. Now the senior member in the House, he will be in charge of the committee that writes the House version of the budget for law enforcement and prisons as chair of the Appropriations Committee on Public Safety and Corrections.
"I think it would have been inappropriate and churlish to turn down the invitation from the speaker," Kelly said. "I feel an obligation to return the speaker's confidence with a continuing show of bipartisanship. My colleagues, appropriations chairs and I are going to do everything we can to keep the cost down of running this government, and that is an incredibly non-partisan issue."
Despite Democratic expectations, Kelly indicated a need to accept recognition of the enormous Republican gains in the election last month.
"I try to live in the real world. The fact is, we had an election; elections have consequences. Republicans won the election. They have a legitimate opportunity to try to run the government in the ways that are consistent with the people who voted for them. It's my job as a representative of my district and as a state representative to try to do what I can to fit those together with the needs of the state and my district," Kelly said.
In the last several years, Republicans have given the chairmanship of an urban issues committee to a Democrat. However, handing the chairs of three committees to minority party members was unprecedented, according to House staff.
"It's outside the box. It's something that no one's ever done before," Tilley said. "But if you look at the people I've appointed chairmen ... they're talented people. And they'll do a fantastic job on behalf of this state."
In addition to Kelly as chair of the Appropriations Committee on Public Safety and Corrections, Tilley announced his intention to appoint Rep. Linda Black, D-Bonne Terre, as chair of the Corrections Committee and Rep. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, as chair of the Urban Issues Committee.
Technically, Tilley cannot make those appointments until Jan. 5 when the new General Assembly takes office, House members elect their speaker and the House adopts rules creating the committees.
Tilley said he believes in the power of the two-party political system and wanted to ensure Democrats still have input in the legislative process. The chairmanships particularly reward those he said are honest, hard-working and reasonable with leadership positions.
"I've always believed the person is more important than the party," Tilley said. "I think it's important to choose people who are best qualified for the position, regardless of their party."
This is also the first time the committee chairmanships have been announced so early, Tilley said. With the extra time, the new chairmen have been asked to look closely at their committee's purpose and responsibilities as well as speak with their committee members individually so everyone is prepared for the first legislative session.
"We've got 70 new members in the Missouri House, we've got 9.5 percent unemployment, we've got a budget deficit of $600 million," Tilley said. "We've got significant problems in this state, and I think it's important to do everything I can as the incoming speaker to try and make sure our new members are up to speed as fast as they can."