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Capitol Perspectives: Jim Mulvaney

Phill Brooks
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This past week, Missouri lost one of its White Hats.

Jim Mulvaney was a state representative from St. Louis County who rose from a milkman to become one of the leading consumer protection advocates in Missouri and one of the state’s top utility regulators. He died Tuesday, April 3, 2012.

Mulvaney served as a state representative from St. Louis County. In the 1970s, Mulvaney chaired the Missouri House Consumer Protection Committee. There, he gained a reputation for being a tough champion of consumer issues. Despite that toughness and intensity, friends in the statehouse today talk about his gentle kindness and the humor he regularly expressed in his soft, mellow voice. One colleague said he could never remember Mulvaney being angry.

I do not remember who coined the phrase White Hats for Mulvaney and some of the other lawmakers of his time. The term came from the old Western movies in which the cowboy with the white hat came in to clean up the town.

The term White Hats was used for the wave of new legislators who swept into Missouri’s House of Representatives in 1972 from redistricting and the aftermath of Watergate and the Vietnam War.

Like the cowboys with white hats, they entered office determined to clean up government. The disappointments of Watergate and Vietnam that discouraged so many about government and politics had just the opposite effect on the White Hats. They were driven to fundamentally change government, to reform the old political systems and to make government more relevant to its citizens.

They gained allies from legislators who had been around for a few years and shared their views — such as Mulvaney, who started in the House in 1967.

Many of the features of Missouri’s government that we take for granted today came from the efforts of those White Hats in the 1970s. They include requiring disclosure of campaign contributions, requiring the government to open its meetings to citizens, enacting ethics laws, requiring public schools to serve special needs students, stopping courtroom harassment of rape victims and creating a much more active role for government in protecting consumers.

In a few short years, they pushed through a package of legislation of a scope that has been unmatched in the succeeding decades.

As a young reporter at the time, I just assumed this kind of high-intensity effort on so many major public policy issues was normal. It was only later that I began to realize how incredibly special those few years were. A couple of the White Hats with whom I’ve reminisced called this period the most exciting and rewarding of their long political careers.

Bipartisanship was a defining feature for the White Hats. In their first year, they formed the Freshman Caucus composed of both Republicans and Democrats to shake things up. They regularly worked together on legislation at a level that remains unique for the House. It was personalized by Republican Jack Buechner and Democrat Steve Vossmeyer. They were close pals who behaved like an unstoppable team.

The White Hats were a remarkably diverse group. There were those from metro areas, such as Buechner and Vossmeyer. But there also were small-town legislators such as Willow Springs auto dealer Wendell Bailey who went out of his way to portray his rural roots.

In what at the time was a male-dominated legislative process, women had a major role with the White Hats. You can argue that the emergence of women as leaders in Missouri’s legislature began with the White Hats. Prominent among them was St. Louis County’s Sue Shear who began a quarter-century of legislative service championing women’s issues, including the Equal Rights Amendment.

With their governmental inexperience, the White Hats easily could have been neutralized by the old guard veterans who had decades of experience in diverting legislative effort. And their agenda did meet stiff resistance from legislative leaders. Buechner told me the House speaker kept trying to get Democrats to quit the Freshman Caucus.

But when blocked, they just went outside the system. In 1974, they won overwhelming statewide voter approval for an initiative petition proposal that imposed disclosure requirements on campaign contributions and created today’s Ethics Commission to enforce the requirements.

In 1977, the legislative dominance of the White Hats was assured when they captured the House speakership with the election of St. Louis County Democrat Ken Rothman.

But their dominance in the legislature was short-lived. The decline of the White Hat era was marked in 1980 by the defeat of Fulton Democrat Joe Holt, a White Hat who lost the race for House speaker to a more traditional politician, Bob Griffin.

Pat Dougherty, who joined the House a few years later, stressed that the spirit of the White Hats continued with what he called the legislative children and grandchildren of the White Hats. The flame might have continued, but it no longer shone with the brightness of those early years.

Many of the White Hats went much further in their political careers. Buechner, Bailey and Hannibal’s Harold Volkmer went to Congress. Like Mulvaney, Volkmer had started in the House before the White Hat era, but he became part of their movement. As chairman of the Missouri House Judiciary Committee, Volkmer was the main author of Missouri’s Sunshine Law, pushing the Senate to pass legislation far stronger than senators desired.

House member Hal Lowenstein from Kansas City became an appeals court judge. St. Louis County’s Wayne Goode spent years in the state Senate and now sits on the governing board of the University of Missouri

And the late Jim Mulvaney became a member and then chairman of the state’s utility-regulating Public Service Commission, where he continued his record of being a consumer protection champion.

As always, let me know (at column@mdn.org) if you have any comments. If you would like your comments, or a portion of them, included in a future column, let me know and be sure to include your full name in your email. Past columns are available at www.mdn.org/mpacol or here.

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