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Crowell gets praise - and blame - for special session's stalemate

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Sen. Jason Crowell may not be a household name to most Missourians.

But the Republican from Cape Girardeau is getting a lot of credit -- and blame -- for what passed and what didn't make it through the Missouri General Assembly's meandering seven-week special session, which ended today.

Despite avoiding formal leadership positions in the Senate, during his seven years there Crowell has used the strength of his personality, vigorous advocacy of his positions and strategic legislative alliances to shape major issues in Jefferson City. In helping steer the General Assembly's upper chamber toward making big changes to popular tax credit programs, Crowell was one of the senators who directed the Senate into a mortal collision with the House during the special session. 

Whether it's building a new power plant in Callaway County, redrawing the state's congressional districts, altering state worker pensions, changing the state's presidential primary or reshaping its tax credit programs, Crowell is often at the center of the fight and a key player in moving big bills forward.

He's also adept at killing bills, even ones that seem to have wide-ranging support. 

Stalling legislation is common in the Missouri Senate. But other lawmakers and observers say that Crowell has been especially effective. Even his political opponents concede his skills -- developed over years of unlikely mentorships, extensive research and seemingly countless legislative battles.

"I will say that Jason Crowell's a brilliant young man," said state Rep. Dwight Scharnhorst, R-St. Louis County.

But other House members are especially critical of how Crowell -- as well as other senators -- can use their positions to become the gatekeepers and decision-makers on big bills.

And detractors wonder aloud whether Crowell, 39, has created a Senate that's constantly the graveyard for high-profile legislation.

"I don't think it's positive," said Sen. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, who also called Crowell the "smartest guy in the Senate."

"It's a byproduct of term limits where you have no repercussions if you're going to be out of there anyway," Engler said. "So it's 'my way or the highway.' "

Indeed, Crowell will leave the Senate after 2012. And like many term-limited lawmakers, speculation already abounds about whether he'll run for higher office. For his part, Crowell said he's not focused on climbing the political ladder or pleasing potentially helpful interests. And he added, it's important sometimes for the legislature to slow down to go forward. 

"When I sat down with my mom and said, 'Hey, I want to run for office,' she said, 'Just make me one promise -- make sure that you can look at yourself in the mirror at the reflection that looks back at you when you stare into the mirror,'" Crowell said. "And you know, that's what I try to do. I explain everything. Rarely do I say 'No'. I just say, 'This is the path to success.'"


Crowell spent his entire life in Cape Girardeau, where he was raised by a mother who taught severely handicapped children for over 30 years and a father who worked for a building materials supplier. He also has a younger brother.

"I'm a bigger brother who has the worst thing in the world to have -- and that's a little brother who can beat him up," said Crowell, adding that his brother -- a "tremendous wrestler in high school" -- is an assistant principal at Cape Girardeau Central High School.

Crowell graduated from Southeast Missouri State University with a degree in economics and received a law degree at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He said his time as a Boy Scout and an Eagle Scout deeply affected him.

That's where Crowell said he learned "you're supposed to leave the campsite better than you found it." But he also gravitated toward public service, he said, because another aspiration -- golf -- didn't pan out.

"I also played golf in college and came to the awakening during that time that I was not going to be the first Tiger Woods," Crowell said.

Crowell's political tutelage featured some likely and unlikely mentors. As an undergraduate, he worked for then-U.S. Rep. Bill Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, in Washington, D.C. He also worked in the office of then-Attorney General Jay Nixon, a Democrat, served as a judicial intern for Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White and did constituent service work for then-state Sen. Peter Kinder, a Republican.

Working for Emerson, Nixon, White and Kinder provided Crowell with a chance to "see every branch of government." While working in Nixon's office, Crowell reported to Alana Barragan-Scott -- a longtime aide to Nixon now the director of the Department of Revenue. 

Crowell also said he got an "incredible" amount of interaction with White, even though he was still in law school. At the time when he interned, Crowell said White only had one other clerk.

"I didn't agree with him on 99 percent of the stuff that he does, but it wasn't my job to disagree with him," Crowell said. "I would do the research projects that he wanted and I learned a lot basically outside of my upbringing in his way of looking at things and his analysis and why he ruled the way he did. He always took the time to explain what he was thinking and the logic behind it."

After Republican state Rep. Mary Kasten decided to retire before the 2000 elections, a 28-year-old Crowell successfully ran for a House seat encompassing Cape Girardeau. Crowell became seatmates with another southeast Missouri Republican freshman -- Rod Jetton of Marble Hill who eventually went on to become House speaker from 2005 to 2009.

Republicans were in the minority when Crowell was a freshman legislator, which meant the GOP wielded little influence. But in an interview, Jetton noted how Crowell's skill at advocating his positions was on full display in the early 2000s, even when his chances of success were low.

“It didn't take me long to see that this guy was extremely intelligent," Jetton said, adding that his talents were more on the political side of things. "Crowell followed the whole speeches. He had a little book of every amendment that was going to be offered on every bill that was going to be brought up. He kept all of that every day."

"I think he used to get a little upset when I said, 'Hey, can I look at your book' on the rare occasion that I wanted to follow whatever amendment we had on the floor," Jetton added.

Jetton said that Crowell would often sharply question Democrats, so much so that eventually the majority party stopped calling on him during debate.

"It got to the point where Crowell was standing for hours and hours at his mic each day waiting to get called on," Jetton said. "And they just wouldn't call on him."

Crowell's time in the minority was short-lived. Republicans took control in 2002, and Crowell joined a leadership team as House majority leader that included Catherine Hanaway as speaker and Jetton as speaker pro tem.

Crowell said he was "a 30-year-old punk kid" who was "totally honored" to be entrusted with the position.

The newly minted Republican majority constantly battled with Democratic Gov. Bob Holden from 2002 to 2004, a time period Crowell described as "very tough." Not only did he have to battle with a Democratic governor, but Crowell said he also experienced friction with some Republican members of leadership.

In particular, Crowell and other Republicans sparred with Holden to shape a budget in the wake of a weak economy.

"Many people may have forgotten, but it was everything you see in Wisconsin, everything you see in Ohio was right here in Missouri at that time," Crowell said. "It was a lot."

When Crowell entered the Missouri Senate in 2005, term limits pushed aside lawmakers in the chamber for decades. Crowell was among a batch of new lawmakers with previous House experience.

But Crowell soon decided that he had no interest in serving in leadership, mainly because he said he wanted to "preserve what the Senate was." And even though Crowell said he was "aggressive" in wanting to get things done, he saw the value in slowing things down.

"The House can be run by mob rule; the majority can do whatever the majority wants," Crowell said. "But there is a balance and there is a purpose and there is a special design that tempers that rush and fevered passage. And now, even though we probably have the largest Republican majorities in the history of the state of Missouri, I as one of those Republicans ... find myself being the one who wants to temper and slow down and re-evaluate some of those decisions that oftentimes those majorities want to implement."


Crowell's legislative career hasn't been completely in opposition. He's carried numerous bills with wide support within his party, including legislation phasing out taxes on Social Security benefits and establishing drug tests for people who receive welfare .

But from early on in the Missouri Senate, Crowell wasn't afraid to go against conventional wisdom -- even on an issue involving his alma matter.

Crowell was strongly opposed to Southeast Missouri State University issuing bonds to pay for its "River Campus," mainly because he said the university did not have the revenue to pay off its obligations. He also supported expanding coursework at Three Rivers Community College, even though SEMO was adamantly opposed.

This was unusual since lawmakers traditionally advocate for colleges and universities in their districts.

"I went to war with the university that I'm an alum of, because I thought that they did that in a fiscally imprudent manner that could not stand if every other university did it," Crowell said. "I went after what many people believe I'm supposed to just do -- whatever the university tells me to do.

"It pisses a lot of people off and upsets [the university] to no end," he added. "But I think that it's right for my community and the people who elected me -- not just the 'country club Republicans,' not just the social elites or the individuals who own newspapers that I represent."

Crowell he also said he hasn't had much of a relationship with Kinder, who is now lieutenant governor.

While Crowell has been trying to rein in the state's historic preservation tax credit aimed at rehabbing old buildings, Kinder has been a staunch supporter of the program.

"Peter doesn't call me for advice, and I don't call him for advice," said Crowell, adding that the two disagree on funding for sports stadiums and historic preservation tax credits. "He and I just see the world differently, even though we happen to be Republicans from Cape Girardeau."

A spokesman for Kinder did not return a message asking about the lieutenant governor's relationship with Crowell.

Crowell's propensity to chafe against his own party didn't end with his battle with Southeast Missouri State.

Along with state Sen. Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, now Senate president pro tem, Crowell opposed reconfiguring the state's construction work in progress laws to pave the way for a nuclear power plant in Callaway County. Two efforts to change CWIP in 2009 and this year failed because of Crowell's and Mayer's opposition.

Crowell came out early against a congressional redistricting plan because it placed a big chunk of Jefferson County in the 8th District.

Crowell's opposition was one of the many reasons congressional redistricting took much longer than expected, but a map eventually passed both chambers and over Gov. Jay Nixon's veto. The issue is now in the courts.

Most recently, Crowell was one of the key lawmakers steering the Senate to curb tax credits. In particular, Crowell and other senators were adamant that "sunsets" be attached to credits for historic preservation and low-income housing.

House leaders -- such as Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville -- argued such a move would put those programs in jeopardy if a senator could block reauthorization.

But Crowell said it is nonsensical to expect those two programs to be shielded when the legislature previously attached expiration dates to Medicaid. 

And he contended that "special interests" and campaign contributions played a role in shaping the House position. For his part, Tilley strongly disputed that, noting that he agreed to sunsets as part of a "global" economic development package.

"When you ask me what is my position," Crowell said, "I can continue to hold up a mirror and I continue to push and ask questions and say, 'Listen -- if you can't give me a rational basis for doing this in a rational, fiscally method, then I will do everything I can to stop it. But when we do work those details out, when we do get to that resolution, then I have been an individual who's helped pass things."

Crowell said that he helped in the passage of a tax credit package to lure Bombardier to Kansas City. He also said he supported pairing incentives to keep Ford in a Kansas City-area plant with alterations on how the state allocates pensions.

This special session, though, didn't turn out to be so productive.

"This special session, because the House doesn't want to debate me and the House doesn't want to talk to me -- everyone has tried to exclude me out of every discussion," Crowell said. "It's a cluster."

Praise -- And Criticism

George Connor, a political science professor at Missouri State University, noted that other lawmakers, such as Sen. Chuck Purgason, R-Caulfield, have launched filibusters against high-profile bills. But he added Crowell has been effective because he picks his battles.

"Where Crowell has been more influential, more successful is that he's been smart enough about when to intervene and when not to," Connor said. "Now ultimately, some people might point to his activities in the Senate as being counterproductive. Somebody might want to blame him for not getting a jobs package. Somebody might want to blame him that we didn't get the 'China hub.'"

"I think in general terms, it's how these tactics are used," Connor added. "Crowell is not a stand-up-and-filibuster- and-tick-people-off kind of guy. I think everybody recognizes that he is making legitimate points based on ideology and based on the views of his constituents."

Jetton -- who offered campaign consulting to Crowell when he was still active in politics -- said Crowell combines qualities of former Sens. Harold Caskey, D-Bulter, and Ken Jacob, D-Columbia.

"Crowell is much more like Caskey from an intellectual standpoint, but Caskey was smoother and [more] tactful," Jetton said. "Crowell's a lot more forceful, a lot like Jacob was."

"Because the relationships aren't as they were under Caskey's day, I don't know if you can be like Caskey anymore," Jetton added, referring to how Caskey served during a time when term limits weren't in place. "Caskey's relationships and personal relationships over the years allowed him to do some things that Crowell probably would not do even if he tried."

Engler, the Farmington Republican, added that an ability to attract like-minded legislators contributes to Crowell's effectiveness.

"If you could isolate him, you could stop him," Engler said. "The problem is he always has a group of people supporting the position he's in."

Some lawmakers who have been on the opposite side of Crowell on issues praised him in interviews with the Beacon. For instance, Sen. Mike Kehoe — a Jefferson City Republican who handled the CWIP bill this year — found Crowell to be skilled.

"Jason's very passionate about any issue he's involved in," Kehoe said. "And that makes him someone you need to be prepared to deal with and know your facts. Because he certainly will know his. And anything that he's involved in, he's in it -- all in it."

Sen. Eric Schmitt, a Glendale Republican who sponsored a range of incentives to cement a "China hub" at Lambert Airport, said he's maintained a "respectful relationship" with Crowell.

"Every senator decides how they amend bills or how they handle bills," Schmitt said. "That's his prerogative. He's a state senator and can handle legislation the way he sees fit. I'll handle it the way I handle it. And Sen. Crowell is a friend and we'll continue to work together to try to move the state forward."

Others weren't as positive.

"I think my ultimate reaction is I'm perplexed at why he is chosen to sort of take certain pieces of legislation hostage and steer them in different directions," said House Majority Leader Tim Jones, R-Eureka.

Jones -- who will likely succeed Tilley as House Speaker in 2013 -- said he didn't understand why Crowell has been given "the title of de facto Pro Tem of the Senate."

"And maybe in a vacuum, each of these items he thinks he's doing is good for the state," Jones said. "But I think as a whole ... the way he has taken control of so much legislation, I think it's ultimately destructive for the operation of the Senate. And it's ultimately harmful to the very important agenda items in the state that if you took an up or down vote amongst both chambers, you'd probably have a majority in favor of."

On the House floor earlier this month, Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, said it was "irrational and inappropriate" to allow "a few narcissists in the Senate to negate the work of 163 members of the House of the Representatives." When asked if he was referring to Crowell, Kelly said "you observe the process -- you can rise to your own conclusions."

"It's the Senate's problem to deal with the fact that they allow a tiny minority of people to disrupt the good of the state of Missouri over and over and over again," said Kelly.

Kelly was one of the sponsors of a bonding initiative for higher education capital improvement projects. Crowell was one of the senators who played a role in that plan's demise.

Kelly, who previously served in the Missouri House in the 1980s and the 1990s, said it was "extremely uncommon" for senators to block bills during his first stint in the legislature.

"People only filibustered on issues of great importance," Kelly said. "And the same person didn't do it over and over and over again. They just didn't allow that. They dealt with it informally... The Senate has got to get control of its process. It's not just [tax credits]. The power plant died in the Senate. The elections bill died in the Senate. Data centers are dying in the Senate. The Senate just won't deal with legislation."

Tilley too has been critical of Crowell. During the redistricting fight, Tilley said "with all due respect, he may run the Senate but he doesn't run the House." And earlier this month, Tilley said he thought it was "destructive when one person can determine what the will of the body is when there are 33 other senators."

Tilley added that he doesn't think its "good public policy" for one or two people to steer the Senate's course. But Jetton said that's just the way the Senate operates.

"What you have to think about is he is elected, he is a senator and you have to deal with him," Jetton said. "You can get mad or you can stomp or try to win. Or you can put a hand out and work with them."


The "$64 billion question," Jones said, is why Crowell is doing what he's doing.

"I have actually asked myself the same thing -- what is the endgame? What is the goal? Does he have a higher purpose in this?" Jones said.

Some lawmakers and political observers interviewed by the Beacon agree that coming out against popular tax credit programs, slowing down congressional redistricting and forestalling a massive construction project like Callaway II aren't exactly ways of moving ahead in Missouri politics. And Crowell, for his part, said he "doesn't care."

"It can be Ameren, it can be Lloyd Smith and the Republican Party and [U.S. House Speaker John Boehner] and all the congressional delegates," Crowell said. "That's not who I work for. That's not who sent me to Jeff City."

Crowell -- who told the Southeast Missourian earlier this year that he had made "no concrete decisions" about running for statewide office -- said his objections during redistricting "had nothing at all" to do with wanting to run for the 8th Congressional District House seat.

"I have been running from Congress since I turned 20," Crowell said.

Often, Crowell said, people seeking higher office have to compromise on their principles to get ahead.

"Each and every individual that is elected to office is inevitably put in the position where they have to answer this question: 'Do you work for the special interests that may help you move up to the higher level?' " Crowell said. "You may be just the special interest's boy in the General Assembly and do everything that you say. And they may very well reward you with a Senate seat, a congressional seat or the governor of the state of Missouri and all the money that comes with it."

"Do you want to be that person?" Crowell continued. "Or do you want to be the person who was elected by the people that sent you up there, have an honest ongoing dialogue with them and do what you think is right?"

Still, Connor said Crowell may be positioned as an "anti-establishment" figure if the political bug bit in the future.

"He may have a crystal ball. He may have an Ouija board. He may have a Magic 8-Ball," Connor said. "Maybe his stands on these issues -- like tax credits and so on -- is the foundation of the future Republican Party and ... maybe he is self-interested because he sees where the Republican Party is going to be in five or 10 years."

In the meantime, Crowell said many of his goals after he's term-limited out of the Senate are more personal than political. Crowell -- who said he let politics "kind of run my life" for past few years -- this month married Casey Hertenstein.

"Cape Girardeau's a town where everyone knows everyone," said Crowell when asked about how the two met. "The unique thing that happened is we kind of met. She thought I wasn't completely ugly, thought I wasn't completely grotesque and I asked her out and she said yes."

Crowell said he is looking forward to starting a family and figuring out what he "wants to be when he grows up." As for his lasting legacy as a senator, Crowell said he's been honored to serve.

"I've had 12 years," Crowell said. "I'm not ... some of these other people who think the state of Missouri is going to freaking fall off the map when I'm gone. The state of Missouri made it before, it's made it in spite of me and it's going to make it after me."

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.