© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Dempsey carries BIG agenda as Senate leader

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 3, 2013 - If a patron ventures into Pio’s on the right day, they’ll discover the longtime St. Charles eatery’s cozy ambiance, rich history and – perhaps – one of the most powerful lawmakers in the state of Missouri.

Every Monday, Tom Dempsey – a Republican senator representing St. Charles County – assists with the food orders at the restaurant that’s been in his family for several generations. For a couple hours each week, he price shops a few establishments so the eatery that’s been around St. Charles for nearly 60 years can serve its patrons.

“Dad’s not a computer guy,” said Dempsey, referring to the owner of Pio’s – Ernie Dempsey. “Getting a cell phone for him was a big step.”

As he walked around the dimly lit establishment with Christmas music as a soundtrack, Dempsey proudly pointed out mementos showcasing the restaurant’s history. He showed a reporter an old menu, featuring a T-bone steak for the amazing value of less than $3.

Besides pitching in at his family restaurant, Dempsey will have a new responsibility after January. He’ll assume the role of Senate President Pro Tem, the highest leadership position in the Missouri Senate. Dempsey is setting an ambitious agenda aimed at bolstering Missouri’s economic climate, transportation infrastructure and education system.

Perhaps more notably, Dempsey will strive to keep peace in a chamber often riven by bickering, inaction and personality clashes. Entering his 13th year in the legislature, supporters of Dempsey say his reputation for facilitation and consensus-building could pay big dividends.

“He’s not afraid to take on tough issues, but he does try to build the consensus of support” said Carl Bearden, a fellow St. Charles Republican who served with Dempsey in the Missouri House. “I think he’s also very attentive to the needs of members and tries to accommodate them any way he can.”   

Rising through the ranks

St. Charles County is one of the fastest-growing parts of the Show Me State. But Dempsey recalls when the county was smaller than it is today.

“I kind of joke that to be from St. Charles, you have to trace your family history back to the turn of the 20th century,” Dempsey said. “I guess they adopted us.”

Dempsey’s grandparents on his mother’s side came to St. Charles from Greenville, Ill., to manage the Strand Theater on Second Street. His father hailed from Birmingham, Ala.

Pio’s originally opened as the Continental Café in 1954, occupying half of a building on First Capitol Avenue. A tavern on the other side burned down in 1958, allowing Dempsey’s grandfather Pio to purchase the entire building. The restaurant was renamed Pio’s Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge.

While Dempsey’s father became friends with many local area politicians, Dempsey himself is the first member of his family to enter electoral politics. Dempsey was intrigued in high school by government and American history courses, an interest that would shape his career choice.

Dempsey at first considered majoring in computer science, a field in which he “tested very well, but didn’t program very well.” He “aced” his final in accounting but ended up dropping that career path after a summer school course didn't pan out. He ultimately earned a degree in political science from Rockhurst University.

Dempsey -- a vice president of commercial lending at First National Bank of St. Louis -- first won elected office in 1998, on the St. Charles City Council. Two years later, he successfully ran for a Missouri House seat. He's one of the last Republicans left in the General Assembly who has spent time as a member of the minority in the Missouri House. Echoing state Sen. Jason Crowell’s sentiments from 2011, Dempsey said being on the other side of the majority in House wasn't always the most pleasant situation.

Dempsey said that in his first two years, he would file bills that never got to committee. 

“If on rare occasions, a bill does get to committee, it doesn’t get a hearing. If you’re lucky enough to where you have a good relationship with the chairman and a get hearing, then you usually get a vote. So I mean, you’re just kind of begging the whole way through if you sponsor a bill. It’s more done by amendment in committee.

“Your best days were watching the Democrats arguing with one another,” he added. “Probably like the Democrats’ best days now.”

But the political tide finally swung to the Republicans’ favor in 2002, the year the party captured both chambers of the Missouri General Assembly. Dempsey became chairman of the House's economic development committee in 2003.

“There were no Republicans to talk to about chairing a committee because there was no one alive who had been in the House who had done that,” said Dempsey, who added some of his proudest moments as a legislator was traveling around the state after then-Gov. Bob Holden signed some of his bills.

Dempsey became House majority leader in 2005, where he scheduled the lower chamber's legislative schedule. His time in leadership occurred during an eventful time in Missouri politics.

Republicans controlled both the legislative branch and executive branch when Republican Gov. Matt Blunt won in 2004. The GOP finally had the opportunity to implement policy goals that had been priorities for years. Among other things, Republicans made steep cuts to the state’s Medicaid program, passed "tort reform," restructured the state’s education formula and altered workers compensation laws.

“We had a 50-year backlog of priorities,” Dempsey said. “With Matt Blunt as governor, we were able to finally start accomplishing some of our goals in restructuring state government. We passed a new education funding formula based on achievement and addressed some of the business climate issues. We had passed the tort reform bill under Holden, but he had vetoed it.

“To get something done, that’s why you’re there – to influence policy,” he added. “To be there as the majority leader and help shepherd that legislation through the House was great to be a part of.”

Trying times in the Senate

In 2007, then-Sen. Chuck Gross, R-St. Charles, resigned from the Missouri Senate to become director of administration for St. Charles County. Dempsey won the special election to represent the St. Charles County-based 23rd District.

Dempsey entered the chamber after a particularly contentious year, when Republicans had used the rare procedural move to end Democratic filibusters.

“Basically everybody was in a very bad working environment,” Dempsey said. “Matt Blunt had about 50 appointments and the Democrats were stonewalling those appointments. We weren’t getting anything done. Everybody was mad at each other. And so, I was just trying to get a handle on things. I wanted to work in a productive Senate.”

Things stabilized after senators from both parties -- including Dempsey -- reached an understanding in which Democrats wouldn’t filibuster legislation if Republicans would not use their majority to shut off debate and force votes.

He spent 2008 playing a “low-key” role in the Missouri Senate. But it wasn’t long before he was in leadership again when he became the Senate’s majority whip in 2009. He then became the Senate's majority leader after the 2010 election cycle.

Being in the leadership in the Missouri Senate – where individual members hold more clout over the course of legislative movement – is much different than the House, Dempsey said.

“You get involved to influence public policy,” he said. “Certainly being a member of leadership in the Senate isn’t what it was in the House. In the House, policy is very much top down. Though there’s a lot of discussion among the caucus, when the rubber hits the road it’s very much the leadership driving policy. On the Senate side, it’s very much bottom up and members tell leadership what a bill’s going to look like.

“To be in the leadership meetings on Monday to have a sense of what the agenda is, where bills are in the process – I just like being in the know,” he added. “And once again, I like trying to work through the different issues, the personalities and trying to have a record that we can be proud of.”

Still, Dempsey’s tenure as majority leader has not been always easy. The past two years have seen interparty bickering, the failure to pass a sweeping economic development bill and, perhaps most notably, high-profile feuds between the Missouri House and Senate.

Dempsey compared being in the legislature with being in the restaurant business. “If somebody has a good experience, they tell two people. If they have a bad experience they tell 10. So it’s the negative things that we remember.”

Dempsey said the impact of the recession, redistricting and term limits, which limit long-term relationships, have made the previous two years “challenging.”

The two chambers even had difficulty crafting a budget earlier this year, which Dempsey described as one of the lowest points of his legislative career. But as incoming Senate Minority Leader Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, mentioned, the Senate pushed through a difficult situation and got the budget completed.

“We take, I guess, shots at the governor because passing a balanced budget os our constitutional requirement,” Dempsey said. “But that’s something that we also talk about, that we look at as an accomplishment. And the reason we do that is because you can look at what’s happening in a number of states across the country. They’re not getting their work done on time. Or they’re not balancing the budget. Or they’re borrowing against their pension systems or some other scheme to put off making the difficult decisions.

“Even in those two years with all these different issues kind of fraying at the nerves, we were still able to meet our obligations and to do so in a way that doesn’t raise taxes and make it harder on people who are living and working in Missouri,” he said.

Thinking BIG

Dempsey rose to the pro tem position without any opposition -- unlike two year ago when state Sens. Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, and Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, literally had to draw lots to decide who would get the job.

That leadership election ended up having major consequences down the road, as Mayer and House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, often didn’t see eye-to-eye on legislative priorities. In an interview earlier this year, Tilley said the fact that Dempsey and House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, have a good working relationship could bring about more legislative cohesion.

"If you guys remember that leadership race between Kevin and Rob Mayer, a lot of it was about how Kevin was too close to me," said Tilley. "I think they found out when you don’t have a good working relationship, it’s not necessarily good for the state. I believe that Tim and Tom Dempsey are very good friends and I think they’ll be able to work together.”

The “new Senate,” to which Tilley alluded, refers to a wave of new lawmakers from both parties. Many new Republican members had fairly low-key careers in the House chairing committees big and small. And some lawmakers that slowed down the process often -- like Crowell and Sen. Jim Lembke, R-Lemay -- aren't coming back to the legislature next year. 

“I’m very excited about the group of people that we have coming in and coming back next year,” Dempsey said. “I wasn’t the only one frustrated with the last two years. So I think there’s a real energy and enthusiasm that we’re going to be a more productive body next year. That’s not to say that we’re not going to have bumps in the road. I think we want to deal with some of the issues that have been left unresolved.”

Soon after he was officially elected as pro tem, Dempsey unveiled the guidelines for an agenda called “BIG": “Building infrastructure,” “Invest in education” and “Grow our economy.”

The agenda include  investing in the state’s infrastructure, examining how the state funds education programs and ensuring Missouri can efficiently compete against other states in the Midwest.

So far, some of Dempsey’s colleagues are impressed by what they’ve seen so far. That includes Justus, who saw Dempsey’s PowerPoint presentation detailing elements of the “BIG” agenda earlier this year.

“I’m excited that we are on the precipice of some unprecedented cooperation,” Justus said. “There’s a real appetite to get things done. And I don’t mean an impatience that we need to shove things down people’s throat without thinking about it. Because that’s not what the Senate is about. But I really have a great respect for Tom Dempsey, and I look forward to working with him.”

Dempsey could conceivably be pro tem until 2016, the year when many state offices, including the governor's, will be up for grabs. Dempsey says he is not interested in concentrating on future ambitious, adding there is way too much work to be done to get off track.

“We’re all part of trying to make a difference for the state of Missouri, and certainly ascending higher in office is certainly a way to do that,” he said. “But right now, I’ve got a big responsibility and that’s my sole focus.

“I want to do some things that are going to change this state and change our position in the state and make us a leader,” he added. “And I don’t want to worry about how that positions me for office down the road."

Dempsey's conscientious approach, said Sen. Eric Schmitt, could foreshadow success down the road.

“He’s somebody that cares about what bills look like and what the consequences are,” Schmitt said. “And he takes the process seriously. In the Senate, that’s a really important thing because there are fewer of you. You represent larger constituencies. And to have point of view is important and appreciated.”

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