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Socially conservative Democrats make their mark in veto override

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept 17, 2012 - By all accounts, it would have made sense if state Rep. Ed Schieffer missed Wednesday’s veto session.

The Troy Democrat recently had knee surgery for a staph infection. He's been on antibiotics and pain pills, and he can’t drive a car. And if the annual veto session would have occurred earlier than Wednesday, he almost assuredly would have stayed away from Jefferson City.

But Schieffer – who dubs himself “a conservative Christian man who tries to vote for Christian causes" – was adamant about being in the House chamber to override Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of legislation allowing various entities to exclude abortion, contraception or sterilization from insurance coverage.

Supporters saw the bill as a way to counteract a provision within the federal Affordable Health Care Act prompting insurers to include birth control in coverage. They also saw it as a matter of protecting "religious freedom" of institutions opposed to contraception.

“I want to tell you, I had a lot of pressure,” Schieffer said. “I had a lot of pressure from the governor’s staff, a lot of pressure from certain unions, a lot of pressure from women’s groups and a lot of pressure from my fellow Democrats. [They asked] me to stay home and use my doctor’s excuse – which I could have done. But I would have not felt right. I made promises to people that I would be there. I fulfilled my promise.”

Schieffer - who was in a wheelchair during the one-day session - was one of seven Democrats who voted to override the Democratic governor’s objection. While term limits and election losses have dwindled the number of socially conservative Democrats over the years, in this instance that segment of the party proved crucial toward overriding Nixon.

The House Democrats who voted for the override were Schieffer, Reps. Paul Quinn of Monroe City, Joe Fallert of Ste. Genevieve, Terry Swinger of Caruthersville, Ben Harris of Jefferson County, Ron Casey of Jefferson County, and Tom Shively of Shelbyville. Rep. Chris Molendorp – a Belton Republican who had voted against the bill back in May – switched sides and overrode the veto.

The Beacon left messages for all seven Democrats, as well as Molendorp. Schieffer, Casey and Quinn called back.

Missouri Right to Life had made Sen. John Lamping's bill a “rated vote,” which meant that a vote against it would hurt a candidate's endorsement chances. In a statement released after the override, the group praised the bill as a way to "protect people and institutions of faith from being forced to provide insurance coverage for abortion or abortion causing drugs against their deeply held religious beliefs."

Dave Plemmons – the chairman of the group’s PAC – told the Beacon earlier that a vote not to override Nixon would jeopardize a candidate's endorsement. With the exception of term-limited Casey, six of the Democratic lawmakers who voted for the override received MRTL's backing.

Critics of the bill noted that there are already statutes in place allowing an entity with religious or moral objections to forgo providing, paying for or providing coverage for abortion.

With that backdrop, it's not that surprising that someone like Quinn would be in the override group. When he first ran for the mid-Missouri House seat in 2006, Quinn defeated a Democratic challenger who supported abortion rights. And he said in an interview that his vote to override Nixon came down to credibility.

“I ran as a pro-life candidate,” Quinn said. “This is a pro-life issue that’s near and dear to all of us. And if I had changed my stance or changed my way of thinking on a pro-life issue, then I don’t deserve to be a state representative. I think your word is the most important issue – in any profession, no matter what it is. If you can’t trust the person when they say what they are, then you can’t trust them.”

Casey said in a telephone interview that his vote came down to the wishes of his constituents and his "deep faith."

"I will tell you that I was contacted by the priests and the church-going faith-based community. I've received [messages] from folks that are angry at me for voting the other way," said Casey, a former county official who added he may run for office again in the future. "But I will tell you at the end of the day, it is well with my soul. And I did what I believe is the right thing to do. I think that when government begins telling what the church what to do, it's a slippery slope straight downhill. And I will not be a party to that."

Casey said that some of the Democrats who had voted for the bill in May met with Nixon and his staff on Wednesday morning. While he disagreed with Nixon on the issue, he said the governor - who like Casey is a Jefferson County native - was someone "who could not have been more of a gentleman."

"I was appreciative of the degree of respect that the governor's office and the governor showed us in that meeting," Casey said. "I did not leave that meeting feeling -- may I used the term -- hog-tied to do what the governor told me to do. He never did that. He was highly respectful toward us, toward me. And I would expect nothing less."

Nixon said at a press conference after the veto override that he was disappointed by the legislature's action, but indicated that it wouldn't be an impediment to working on other issues. He added: “We can disagree without being disagreeable.”

Some in the group – including Schieffer, Quinn and Shively – are facing tough re-election bids to the House in November, while two others – Fallert and Swinger – are running for rural state Senate seats. Harris does not have a Republican opponent this year.

Quinn stressed he would have voted for the override even if he was unopposed. Schieffer – who faces Republican Beverly A. Steiniger in November – did add that a vote not to override Nixon would have effectively ended his political career.

“I told the governor’s staff: If I don’t vote for this, you’re going to have a Republican representative. And I told the union guys the same thing,” said Schieffer, alluding to some unions who had urged Nixon to veto the bill. “I said ‘she will not be friendly to unions. She will not support workers’ rights. And you’re going to be sorry you didn’t have this conservative Democrat up there.”

Splintering opinions

Critics of Sen. John Lamping’s bill say the measure is at best was duplicative and, at worst, would make it more difficult for poorer women to procure contraception.> It's already facing a lawsuit from a Kansas City-area union.

And several Democrats – including state Rep. Jamilah Nasheed – rejected the idea that contraception was in any way related to abortion.

“Contraception is not the same as abortion. Stop playing the game,” said Nasheed, a St. Louis Democrat who won election in August to a state Senate seat, on the House floor. “If you are pro-life, be pro-life, that’s OK. But tell the truth. Contraception cannot induce abortions. In fact, contraception prevent abortion and unwanted children.”

Several other House Democrats who initially voted for the bill in May – including Linda Black of Bonne Terre, Michele Kratky of St. Louis, Steve Hodges of East Prairie and Pat Conway of St. Joseph – voted against the override.

While stating that she is “immovable” in her opposition to abortion rights, Black said on the House floor “if we cut off contraception to women – we’re going to create more abortions.”

“And I’ll never vote for anything that will create that possibility,” Black said. “And I know there may be many people who may be disappointed with me today. But I’m doing what I feel in my heart is right. And that’s to offer women the right to have contraception so that we do not have one more abortion that could be prevented.”

Black and Conway don’t have Republican opponents, while Kratky resides in a heavily Democratic district. Only Hodges – who is squaring off against Republican Neal Boyd – is considered to be engaged in a competitive re-election bid.

In a telephone interview, Hodges said he moved against the veto override after hearing from some of his constituents. He noted that Mississippi County -- where he resides -- has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in Missouri.

"I tell you, we have lots of single mothers in my district," Hodges said. "Not only single mothers, but some of them are working two to three jobs. That's not a term that I throw out lightly. I know my people. I've lived here in East Prairie for almost 50 years. I had a grocery store. I know these people personally. I watched them grow up and them have kids and watched their kids grow up."

"I had several people call me and say 'we really appreciate you doing that - that was a great favor for us,'" he added. "I said 'it wasn't a favor. It's what I felt like was right.' My thinking is if we don't make contraception available through the insurance coverage ... then we're probably looking at more pregnancies, which could later lead to more abortions. Which I am definitely against."

Boyd put out a statement on Friday condemning Hodges' vote, a signal that it may become an issue in the race for the southeast Missouri-based district. But he added he became incensed when a Republican lawmaker approached him on the floor and directly questioned whether the vote would jeopardize his re-election hopes.

"I think that's the trouble with the opposition party," said Hodges, who added he also was dismayed when debate was cut off so quickly. "As long as it's going their way, that's fine. But if it's not, then they want you to play by their rules. And I just think that shows a lack of respect."

Rep. Stacey Newman, D-Richmond Heights, praised Black for strongly believing in her heart “that birth control should not be restricted.”

She said some of her colleagues who voted for the override “were voting more of their districts.”

“I strongly disagree with that, because of birth control used by a majority of women in every single district and every single county,” said Newman, one of three Democratic women to speak against the bill. “I think it became a political vote – I think the bill was a political agenda.”

Because of the override, Newman said Republicans will be “emboldened.”

“I mean, who knows what kind of legislation we’ll see next year,” Newman said. “There will be a right-to-life next legislative session. And I’m just fearful of what that will be. Because we’ve seen the extremes around the country. We do have a gentleman sworn in as House Speaker who has an extreme conservative agenda. And I think this is just a prelude to what we’ll see next year.”

For his part, new Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, said in a press conference after the veto session ended that the vote was close because one Democratic lawmaker he was counting on didn't show up and another changed their vote.

"It was by a razor-thin majority, but the only thing that matters is we got our 109," Jones said.

Franz’s silence makes a statement

There was another reason why the override vote was so close, besides some wavering or absent Democrats.

Two Republicans who lost state Senate primaries in August – Rep. Scott Largent of Clinton and Rep. Ward Franz of West Plains – didn’t vote. Neither Largent nor Franz was endorsed by Missouri Right to Life during their primaries, most likely because they voted for the Missouri Science Innovation & Reinvestment Act.

Franz was present at Wednesday's veto session. He even shook a Beacon reporter’s hand while riding up on a Capitol elevator.

And in an interview on Thursday, Franz said his missed vote was no accident.

“I’d been pro-life and chaired the committee that passed a lot of pro-life legislation. And during my primary race, this group came out very strong against me and said very hateful things,” said Franz, who added that ‘this group’ was Missouri Right to Life.

“And when it came down to this, it’s like ‘what do I do?’ And I just felt like by voting for that, I was just rewarding them. So I decided to just stay out of it.”

Missouri Right to Life has been strongly opposed to so-called “MOSIRA” bill, contending that it didn’t have enough protections to keep money from going to embryonic stem-cell research, which the group opposes. As a result, candidates that voted for that measure didn’t get an endorsement -- including Speaker Jones.

Franz said the group “should either endorse us all because we’re pro-life or stay out of it.”

“It’s one of those things that I’m really apprehensive talking about it, because I don’t want it to appear that it’s sour grapes. Just because ‘well, he said that because he lost,’” said Franz, who narrowly lost to former state Rep. Mike Cunningham, R-Rogersville, in August. “But, you know, over the last eight years you kind of get to see how a certain group is. It’s tough to support that.”

The vote was also close because two GOP lawmakers - former House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, and Ray Weter, R-Nixa - resigned from the House earlier in the summer.


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