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Capitol Perspectives: Political Courage

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Political courage. That’s the phrase that came to my mind as I watched the Senate’s top GOP leaders cast the deciding votes that killed the gun-rights bill.

It was an act of courage I have rarely seen in my decades covering Missouri’s General Assembly.

Realize how politically dangerous it is for a Republican to vote against what is promoted as a gun-rights measure. It can be a career-ending issue in many rural areas of the state.

But both Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey and Senate Republican Floor Leader Ron Richard said they were motivated by warnings from law enforcement officials that the bill would hamper police in working with federal agencies to go after criminals.

“I think I took one for every law enforcement person in the state of Missouri,” Richard told reporters when asked if the two leaders essentially had fallen on their swords.

But as a couple of sources suggested, I think there might have been more to it. Their vote was described to me as an act of sacrifice to protect their fellow Republicans from having to vote against the gun bill to keep it from becoming law.

If so, what a contrast with the House. There, Republican leaders forced a vote on the tax-cut bill that put Republicans voting against the bill in political jeopardy.

A business-connected organization had warned that Republicans voting against the tax breaks for business would be targeted in their next campaigns. Despite the threat, 15 Republicans voted against the bill.

It was clear that the tax-cut bill did not have the votes, but House leaders pushed for a vote anyway — exposing those 15 Republicans. “Thrown under the bus,” was how one described it to me just hours before the vote was taken.

There’s another fascinating aspect to this story about that block of defiant, renegade Republicans and the influence of education in rural Missouri political life.

In a news conference shortly after the House vote, Gov. Jay Nixon credited his victory to the warnings he had sounded about the cuts that would result in funding for education.

“When you go messing with their [Missourians'] schools, you know, messing with their kids future…The people of Missouri stand up,” Nixon said.

Although Nixon had flown across the state sounding the warning about education, it was in rural Missouri were those warnings seemed to have the greatest impact.

Just look at the districts of those 15 Republicans who voted against the bill. Not all, but most came from rural towns — areas like Dallas County, Advance, Nixa, Republic, Canton, Cedarcreek, Maryville and Versailles.

I wondered if the failure of House leaders to recognize the depth of opposition among those Republicans was like something I saw before when a Republican leader did not fully understand the deep ties rural legislators have with their local public schools and school officials.

In 2007, Republican Gov. Matt Blunt was pushing for a school voucher bill that effectively would provide funds to parents to move their kids from public to private schools.

On the surface, it would have seemed like a slam dunk. Republicans controlled the House and the House GOP leadership supported the plan.

When it came time for a vote, Blunt appeared on the Republican side of the House chamber to demonstrate his support. But there he watched fellow Republican Maynard Wallace, the House Education Committee chair, rise to attack his Republican governor’s plan.

Wallace represented rural southern Missouri. He was a former local school official.

I still remember the passion with which Wallace argued about the importance of public education in preserving a sense of local community. It was from that speech that I got a better understanding of this special relationship public schools have with their rural communities.

It’s more, I think, than just the influence rural school leaders have over local legislators. From Wallace, I got a sense that it also involves the greater community role local schools play in rural towns. They’re an essential and major component of what constitutes community to a much greater degree than in metropolitan areas.

In 2007, Wallace carried the day. Opposition from rural Republicans contributed to the bill’s defeat.

Republican Blunt lost, just as the two top metro-area House Republican leaders lost in this year’s veto session from a rebellion by a faction of rural Republicans.

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