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Former legislators extol lost art of compromise

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - During almost two decades together in the Missouri General Assembly, Republican Mike Gibbons and Democrat Joan Bray agreed on little.

Gibbons, R-Kirkwood, is a staunch conservative who served in the state House from 1993-2001 and in the Senate from 2001-2009. As president pro tem of the Missouri Senate, he didn’t hesitate to occasionally use Senate procedures to shut down the opposition.

Bray, D-University City, is an unapologetic liberal who served in the House from 1993-2003 and then the Senate until 2011. Especially in the Senate, she was known for engaging in filibusters to block conservative-backed bills she deemed harmful.

But with Bray sitting at his side, Gibbons told a packed classroom Monday at Washington University that on several issues – such as laws dealing with domestic violence -- they were able to work together.

The key, said Gibbons, was both of them sought the same goal: “How do you find that pathway to make things work?”

“That’s what I would like to see more of,” Gibbons said, referring to the current state of political affairs in Jefferson City and Washington. “Not keeping score or scoring points.”

Opposing legislators can succeed in that quest without violating their core beliefs, Gibbons continued, if they are committed to finding avenues of mutual agreement or compromise.

“I hate the word ‘consensus.’ That means finding the lowest common denominator that everybody can agree with, which means that nothing’s challenged, nothing’s affirmed, nothing’s rejected, nothing happens,” Gibbons said.

Compromise, he said, means “that really liberal Joan Bray and really conservative Mike Gibbons fight like cats and dogs…until either nothing is going to happen or we’re going to have to bridge that gap…and then we find that point of common ground.”

Bray said the process can only work if politicians are interested in true compromise. Many now misuse the word "compromise,'' she said, preferring instead a strategy of “trying to ram (their political views) down everybody’s throat.”

Gibbons and Bray were joined by two other former legislators – Democrat Rita Days and Republican Emmy McClelland – at a university forum aptly entitled “Making It Real.”

For almost two hours, the four regaled a packed classroom with their views of what worked – and what didn’t – during their years in the state Capitol and their advice to the current and future crops of elected officials.

Power of working together

Days, D-Bel Nor, emphasized the importance of average people running for office. She recalled that she had gotten her start as a mother involved in parent-teacher groups.

Days chuckled that former Lt. Gov. Harriett Woods, a Democrat from University City, got a similar start. “She got involved in politics because of a pot hole,’’ Days recalled

In Days’ case, she was recruited to run for the state House, where she served almost eight years (1993-2000), followed by eight more years (2003-2011) in the Missouri Senate.

Days now is the Democratic director of elections for St. Louis County.

McClelland, R-Webster Groves, first got involved in politics when she sought help for her autistic son. After a lengthy tenure as top aide to then-state Rep. Marion Cairns, R-Webster Groves, McClelland succeeded Cairns and served most of the 1990s in the state House.

McClelland said that during her House tenure, Republicans were in the minority. The party’s legislators also were more politically diverse than they are now, she said, prompting Republican leaders to make a point of emphasizing the importance of communication and compromise.

McClelland, who now heads governmental relations for St. Louis Children’s Hospital, recalled a piece of political advice that she suggests current legislators keep in mind.

“You come to Jefferson City with only one thing, your ‘word,’ “ McClelland said. If a legislator gains a reputation for dishonesty, “you are lost.”

Bray, a former journalist, served in the state House when Democrats were in control and in the Senate after Republicans took over. Bray recalled how she paid close attention to the state government’s budget – drafted by the General Assembly and the governor – which she said is the prime example of “where an entity expresses its values.”

Bray now is the executive director for the new Consumer Council of Missouri. She lamented several facts about Missouri politics:

  • The 2008 elimination of campaign donation limits, which she said has made the state “the Wild West’’ when it comes to campaigns;
  • Despite complaints from the public and candidates, “negative campaigns work.”
  • The rise of the clout of lobbyists as a result of legislative term limits.

Gibbons, who’s a lawyer and a lobbyist, emphasized that Missouri does require full public disclosure via the Missouri Ethics Commission of lobbyists’ clients and any spending on legislators, including meals and sports tickets.
And he took no offense at Bray’s observation.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.