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Capitol Perspectives: The Quitters

Phill Brooks
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Every January after a general election, I’m fascinated by those who will be leaving office after years, sometimes decades, of service.

Some finish with a flurry of work. Some just fade away. And a few just give up and effectively quit before their terms expire.

The only Missouri state official leaving office this January, Robin Carnahan, faded away in her final days as secretary of state. On her last day in office, she even skipped the inauguration at which her successor was sworn into office as the state’s chief election official.

Carnahan’s withdrawal from public life actually began two years earlier after her defeat for the U.S. Senate. After that, Carnahan rarely made a public appearance in the statehouse.

I sympathize with those looking at the end of their careers in public office. For some, it has consumed enormous levels of energy, time and commitment.

Years in public office can create a sense of self identity. It can define what you are. A few senior legislators have confided to me the difficulty of adjusting to private life after leaving office.

There’s another problem for departing state officials. Some of their staff leave early to take advantage of new opportunities. Some will join the official’s successor with the resulting shift in loyalties. Carnahan lost her top spokesperson and then the replacement before her term in office had ended.

One of the most egregious examples of a quitter was Joe Teasdale after his defeat for re-election as governor. Teasdale all but abandoned his job and was rarely seen in the statehouse after the November election.

It was a particularly bad time for a governor to walk away. The state was facing one of the worst budget crises I’ve seen. Months before the election, Teasdale had pushed through the legislature a spending plan well beyond what the state could afford.

By the election, if not earlier, it was clear that deep cuts needed to be made in the rate of spending by state agencies or the state literally would run out of money before the budget year ended.

But Teasdale was not around to deal with the problem after his defeat.

His absence led to one of the most memorable acts of statesmanship Missouri has seen in more than a generation.

Gov.-elect Kit Bond stepped in and called together Teasdale’s cabinet.

Bond told Teasdale’s department directors of the deep cuts that he would have to make in a couple of months when he took office.

With no legal authority until January to order spending reductions, Bond advised the agency officials that if they voluntarily reduced spending immediately, it would spread out the cuts over a longer period of time and thus have a less dramatic effect on the agencies and on the citizens they serve.

It worked. They followed the governor’s advice.

Bond effectively had taken over a couple of months before getting sworn into office.

It was a demonstration of the value of a law passed just four years earlier that creates a transition office and staff for a governor-elect between the time he is elected and when he takes office two months later.

It is designed to provide a newly elected governor with the resources to put together his staff, organize a cabinet and to begin work on the budget that the governor will have to present to the legislature just a couple of weeks after taking office.

In Bond’s case, it was that transition staff that helped facilitate dealing with the budget crisis before his formal inauguration.

Another memorable transition period was the few months Roger Wilson was governor after the death of Mel Carnahan in the fall of 2000.

Wilson had no time for a transition. The lieutenant governor found himself with the power and responsibilities of governor just hours after Carnhanan’s fatal plane crash.

Far from being a caretaker, Wilson unveiled an expansive plan to take advantage of the Capitol’s neglected Missouri River overlook with a major Capitol-office addition. It was to be named in Carnahan’s honor.

While the idea went nowhere in the legislature, it helped keep Carnahan’s demoralized staff busy.

Wilson called that one of his major jobs for his brief few months as governor, to provide comfort for a staff deeply affected by the death of their governor and his top aide, Chris Sifford. They had been like an extended family and you could almost touch the pain of loss among the staff Wilson inherited.

– Phill Brooks, KMOX Jefferson City Bureau

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