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Sold! Missouri lawmakers star in auction for Joplin

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 15, 2011 - WASHINGTON - He tried to get U.S. Rep. Todd Akin to bid on two airline tickets "because a senator flies first class." He sold four Cardinals-Royals baseball tickets donated by U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill for $1,000. And he mock-lectured a reluctant bidder: "Are you biddin' or are you flirtin' with me, lady?" For U.S. Rep. Billy Long -- a professional auctioneer who once auctioned off the national debt in the well of the House of Representatives ("Sold at $14 trillion!") -- it was child's play to preside over a charity selloff Tuesday evening in the nation's capital.

But it was the recipient of the proceeds -- the tornado-ravaged city of Joplin -- that made this particular auction memorable for Long, R-Springfield, whose southwest Missouri district includes the badly damaged but recovering city.

"They lost 150 people. They lost 54 percent of their school capacity, 500 businesses, 8,000 homes," said Long. "But they are resilient people. They're not standing around waiting for somebody to come help, they're pitching in and helping themselves."

On Tuesday evening, on the rooftop terrace of a building with a stunning view of the U.S. Capitol, about 200 transplanted Missourians -- members of Congress, lawyers, businessmen, lobbyists and others brought together by the Missouri State Society-- pitched in to help Joplin in a charity auction and fundraiser that raised more than $22,000.

Among the Show-me celebrities seen coming and going:

  • U.S Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who mixed with the crowd along with his wife, Abby, before they headed to the Cardinals baseball game against the Washington Nationals. "I spent a long time today with Joplin's mayor and school superintendent talking about all the challenges they are facing. We need to do all we can to help."
  • McCaskill, D-Mo., who donated four tickets to an upcoming Cardinals-Royals baseball game in St. Louis. "A lot of Missourians work here in Washington, and they were looking for a way to show support for Joplin," said McCaskill. "It's a city's that's going to give the word 'resiliency' new meaning."
  • Akin, R-Wildwood, a candidate for the Republican nomination for McCaskill's Senate seat, who laughed when Long urged him to big for two first-class tickets donated by American Airlines: "Todd Akin, you need to bid on this because a senator flies first class!"
  • Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, who was still jet-lagged after taking part in a controversial congressional meeting with Iraq's prime minister in Baghdad. "Photos of Joplin have been on the front pages of newspapers around the world because of the sheer magnitude of the tragedy. It's our turn to help out."
  • Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, who was worried about the threat of Missouri River flooding in his congressional district but said he wanted to show solidarity with the people of Joplin.

Joplin Mayor Mike Woolston, who was in Washington along with a half dozen other Joplin officials to meet with lawmakers and federal officials, told the Beacon that they were grateful to the lawmakers and the Missouri society for chipping in.
"It means a lot," said Woolston. "I think tonight's proceeds will go to the Red Cross or the United Way, earmarked for Joplin. Asked how Beacon readers can contribute, the mayor suggested one of those large charitable organizations or rebuildjoplin.org.

As for Long, he seemed to enjoy entertaining the crowd as he auctioned off plane tickets, baseball tickets and a Gold Record plaque. At one point he looked at a hesitating bidder and quipped: "It hurts a lot less if you bid faster, ma'am."

Asked if he sees any parallels between his two professions, Long told the Beacon: "An auctioneer's a salesman, and I think in Congress you need to be a salesman, too. You need to sell your side of the story."

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.