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Nixon Names State Senator To Head Missouri Department Of Labor

(Missouri Senate website)
Missouri state Sen. Ryan McKenna, D-Crystal City

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, is reducing his party’s already-paltry numbers in the state Senate by nominating state Sen. Ryan McKenna to become the new director of the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations.

Nixon’s action, announced Friday, also could have an impact on what’s already seen as among the most competitive state Senate contests in 2014.

McKenna, D-Crystal City, is slated to begin work on Dec. 18 to replace the acting director, Julie Gibson, who is to return to her previous post as the department’s Director of the Division of Workforce Development.

“Ryan McKenna’s solid experience, knowledge and leadership skills will help this department continue to expand opportunities for Missouri families and businesses and move our economy forward,”  Nixon said in a statement. “The Department of Labor plays a vital role in our efforts to make Missouri a great place to live, work and do business so I am pleased to appoint McKenna to this important cabinet position.”

McKenna would need state Senate confirmation by early February -- 30 days after the General Assembly reconvenes -- to stay in the job.  But in any case, his departure would reduce the number of Democrats in the Republican-controlled 34-member state Senate to only nine.

McKenna’s 22nd District already is seen as among the few political swing districts in the state.  He is completing his final term and cannot seek re-election, so a battle already is underway between two declared contenders to succeed him: state Reps. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart, and Paul Wieland, R-Imperial.

Both plan to compete in the November 2014 general election. Each also might be expected to compete in a special election, should Nixon call for one to replace McKenna as a result of his new appointment.

Republicans tend to fare better in low-turnout special elections.  But sources say Nixon is not required to call a special election in the 22nd District since November 2014 is less than a year away. That leaves open the possibility that the governor might leave the Senate post vacant until the 2014 election.

McKenna said in an interview Friday that accepting the Labor Department post “was not an easy decision for me.”

“But, you know, I’m looking down the barrel of term limits and basically have five months left, and this is a decision that you can’t turn down when a governor asks you to be part of his cabinet,” McKenna added.

McKenna was first elected to the Senate in 2006 and was re-elected in 2010.  In addition to labor issues, he spent much of his time in office on transportation.  He backed legislation that would have created a one-cent sales tax to fund highway improvements and has been pushing to expand the state’s ban on texting while driving to include adults.

Follow Jo Mannies and Marshall Griffin on Twitter:  @jmannies @MarshallGReport

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.
Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.