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Capitol Perspectives: Rural Dominance in Mo. Legislature

Phill Brooks, KMOX Capitol Bureau Chief
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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. - One of the more fascinating legislative patterns I’ve watched over the decades has been the dominance of rural Missouri in the state’s General Assembly — particularly in the Senate.

Back four decades ago, rural legislators firmly were in control.

They were a pretty conservative lot, more interested in limiting government than expanding it.

Highways was the one exception. An adequate highway system in rural Missouri was almost sacred. Those rural folks watched over the Transportation Commission like a hawk, making sure that rural Missouri was not getting short changed in distribution of highway funds.

A harmony of interests like highways has been a key factor in unifying the rural block of legislators. Whether a senator is from rural southwest Missouri or the rural northeast, the culture and economic interests are pretty much the same. That, most definitely, is not the case for their metro colleagues who are divided by urban-suburban splits as well as cross-state rivalries.

The rural domination was personified by Norman Merrill. A farmer and school teacher from rural northeast Missouri, he rose to become the first person to hold the Senate’s top leadership position, the president pro tem, for three consecutive terms.

Merrill shared an attribute I’ve seen in a number of rural lawmakers. With laid-back personalities and almost a rural twang to their voices, they often are under estimated. Simple words and country stories belie a depth of political skills, sophistication and determination that can catch the metro politicians off guard.

Merrill’s election to a third term as Senate president pro tem was a perfect example metro forces getting caught off guard.

Initially, Merrill had lost the Democratic caucus nomination for pro tem. That should have been the end of it. And, at first, he accepted the one-vote defeat within his caucus.

But when he discovered that the liberal, metro-area wing of the Democratic caucus intended to remove rural Sen. Nelson Tinnin as Education Committee chair, Merrill reacted with a vengeance.

It was not just that his friend would lose his chairmanship, it also was all the talk coming from the metro Democrats on plans to make the Senate more responsive to urban Missouri with a liberal agenda. They had gone too far, and were to pay the price.

Plotting in secret, Merrill and his rural allies put together the votes to deny the job to the Democratic caucus nominee, Phill Snowden. But they never let Snowden or his allies know their plans.

On the opening day of the 1981 legislative session, Snowden had his family attend to watch over the chamber from the visitor’s gallery for what should have been an almost formality of a vote for his ascension to the Senate’s most powerful post.

As he heard the votes go against him, Snowden was so caught by surprise that he broke down in tears sitting at his chamber desk.

That Republicans voted against Snowden was not the biggest surprise. It was that a majority of Snowden’s own Democrats had rejected him, one of the metro members of the caucus had switched.

That metro support that Merrill and other rural lawmakers enjoyed has been a persistent puzzle for me.

Republican support was understandable, they shared the conservative, limited-government values of rural Democrats. But one of Merrill’s close allies and closest friends was one of the Senate’s most liberal members — Kansas City Democrat Harry Wiggins. Another was St. Louis city Democrat John Scott who went on to succeed Merrill as president pro tem with Merrill’s endorsement.

Over the years, the visibility of the rural dominance in the Senate has faded. With Republicans gaining control of the chamber coupled with the steep drop in the number of rural Democrats, the continued conservative bent to the Senate now is seen as a factor of party rather than rural control.

But the rural aspect of those past decades when the Democrats were in power has left a deep legacy for the state.

It is a reason, I think, why Missouri’s Transportation Department is burdened with so many more miles of rural highways and roads than it has funds to adequately maintain.

Law enforcement is another example of that rural legacy. Rural legislators consistently and successfully fought creation of a statewide law enforcement agency. Rural local sheriffs did not want state police force stepping into their turf.

As a result, the state lacks a central law enforcement agency. While the Highway Patrol perform some non-highway law enforcement duties, Missouri has nothing like the Kansas Bureau of Investigation with broad powers to pursue criminal investigations.

Unified, underestimated, crafty and persistent — those are among the attributes that have helped maintain a dominating role in Missouri’s legislative process. It has made the Missouri Senate such a fascinating place to observe.

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