COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) – On June 25, 1993, Martin Heinrich lay on his back beside a road in northern Iowa with a solar panel resting on his stomach.
It was the penultimate day of Sunrayce `93, and the Sun Tiger car built by University of Missouri engineering students was out of juice. With an hour of racing left, Heinrich and fellow student Pat Smallwood became the platform to keep the fragile panels off the roadside dirt as others held them up to gain a few watts of power to reach the day’s destination.
On Jan. 3, Heinrich will take the oath as a U.S. senator for New Mexico. He is one of three University of Missouri graduates who will begin six-year terms in the Senate that day, the largest number from a state-supported school. The others are Sen. Claire McCaskill and former Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia. All are Democrats.
“The only thing I find irritating about Martin Heinrich is that he graduated 20 years after I did,” McCaskill said.
Heinrich graduated in 1995, with a degree in mechanical engineering. McCaskill’s 1975 degree was in political science. Kaine’s 1979 diploma was for economics.
Heinrich was born in Fallon, Nev., and raised near Cole Camp in Benton County. In 1995, he and his wife, Julie, decided to make New Mexico their home while discussing the book “Bless Me, Ultima” at Flat Branch Pub & Brewing. Neither had jobs lined up, but the book’s moving story and the high-technology economy of the state both were draws, Heinrich said.
Heinrich had spent time in the state as a child, he said. “We didn’t know how long we would stay, but in a few years we were tied up in the local community,” he said.
Heinrich’s parents, Peter and Shirley Heinrich, now live in Centralia, where they moved to be close to their daughters, Pat Olsen, the city librarian, and Tish Shealy, owner of Scratchy’s Trading Post.
Shirley Heinrich can rattle off her son’s achievements as Albuquerque city councilman and state natural resources trustee as if she had been in the room when the decisions were made. When he decided to run for Congress in 2008, he expected to take on a Republican incumbent who had defeated every likely Democratic contender. The incumbent instead ran for Senate and Heinrich took the seat.
“Boy, when he went he was full force,” Shirley Heinrich said.
Heinrich will join the Senate after four years in the House. Kaine spent two years as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, four years as Virginia’s governor and four years as lieutenant governor.
Kaine was born in St. Paul, Minn., and raised in Kansas City. A graduate of Rockhurst High School, he moved to Virginia to attend law school after graduating from MU in 1979 with an economics degree. His parents live in Overland Park, Kan., and his brothers still live in the Kansas City area.
Kaine used a trip home for his 30th high school reunion to organize a fundraiser for McCaskill’s first bid for Senate.
“I pulled together a bunch of my Rockhurst buddies,” Kaine said.
McCaskill, who was born in Rolla and raised in several communities including Columbia, where she graduated from Hickman High School, began her political career in Kansas City as a state legislator.
All three lawmakers said their experiences attending MU have helped shape their attitudes as public officials. There are schools that can boast a larger contingent of senators there are six who attended Harvard as undergraduates but a state school has a larger diversity among its students.
MU was very different from the insular Rockhurst, Kaine said.
“On my dorm floor, freshman year, there was every type of male imaginable, all races and all different economic backgrounds,” he said.
Economics professor John Kuhlman, who included attendance and participation in grading, helped shape Kaine’s attitude about public money from the first day of class, Kaine said.
“`There are a whole lot of Missouri taxpayers who support this, and I am going to make sure you are here,” Kaine recalled Kuhlman saying.
McCaskill, who waited tables at Bobby Buford’s, said the trio from MU shows the value of public higher education.
“You can’t graduate from a school like the University of Missouri without understanding how important it is that it receives public funding,” she said.
Heinrich’s job on the Sun Tiger was to design the suspension. Engineering instructor Rick Whelove remembers the first team and the problems they solved to compete in the race. Heinrich stopped in Whelove’s office earlier this year during a visit to see his family.
“I boast on him as the guy who was right here in the same classrooms and now is going to be a senator,” Whelove said.
McCaskill said she wants to bring her two new colleagues to Columbia for a basketball game or Homecoming next fall. When they get together in Washington, D.C., Heinrich said he’d like to serve Shakespeare’s Pizza. He worked at the iconic pizza place as a delivery driver.
Kurt Mirtsching, Shakespeare’s general manager, remembers Heinrich with hair past his shoulders. Heinrich was chosen as one of the “Best Dressed Political Candidates” this year by Esquire magazine, which described him as having “David Duchovny meets Bobby Kennedy-esque good looks.”
“He certainly has grown up and gotten all pretty,” Mirtsching joked.
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