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Political Rundown: Getting Power -- And Keeping It

Politics can be a 24/7 occupation, as anyone with a cell phone, computer or cable subscription knows. It's not hard to find political news, commentary or just plain rants. They are everywhere. Sometimes it takes a little more digging to find the context, perspective or background on major issues of the day.

Once a week, our political team would like to share stories that gave them insight into the news of the day or perhaps just some pleasure to read. This week's topics touch on political power -- how to get it and how to keep it.

Power of one

KansasCity Star reporter Jason Hancock penned a recent article about how some members of the Missouri General Assembly are changing their attitudes on gay rights. One major reason, according to Hancock, is Senate Minority Leader Jolie Justus.

Justus – a Kansas City Democrat and the first openly gay member of the Missouri Senate – is the sponsor of legislation to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s anti-discrimination laws. It’s a bill that’s often gone nowhere in the GOP-controlled General Assembly. But that changed last year.

In the waning hours of the session, Justus managed to attach her bill as an amendment to another bill, which passed the Senate with the help of Republican lawmakers – including some, such as conservative state Sens. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, and Wayne Wallingford, R-Cape Girardeau, who has recently been in the spotlight again because of his controversial "religious freedom" bill.

Hancock’s article credits her success in the Senate to Justus’ good relationships with her fellow Republicans. (It failed in the House.) Even people who disagree with her on the issue – such as state Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamar – are willing to talk things through.

Justus talked about this during a recent appearance on the Politically Speaking podcast: “It’s a lot of about personal relationships," Justis said. "The reality is that a lot of those conservative senators who voted yes (on the Missouri Non-Discrimination Act) the last day of session last year, if look at the seating chart, they’re pretty close to where I sit.”

Justus’ emergence as a power player may be part of a broader shift in the Senate. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that she was a battler – especially when Senate Democrats were the last line of defense to stop bills from Gov. Matt Blunt’s signature. Once Jay Nixon became into governor -- and Senate Democrats were no longer expected to filibuster everything -- Justus became key in resolving thorny legislative dramas. (I delved more into Justus’ pragmatic reputation in this 2013 profile.) Now there's an atmosphere that allows the chamber to pass legislation on school transfers with only five "no" votes.

And it may be further evidence that the Missouri Senate is becoming less of the partisan battleground of the 2000s and more of a consensus-building body where personal relationships reign supreme. (Jason Rosenbaum)

Show me the money

Budgets are all the rage at the moment for Missouri officials, and their counterparts in Washington, as they spend the coming couple months crafting new ones for the 2015 fiscal year.

That year is closer than you think. For Missouri, the fiscal year begins July 1. For the federal government, it’s Oct. 1. And those budgets do affect many programs and policies that average people depend upon -- sometimes more than they may think.

In any case, the Washington Post has done the best job I’ve seen of breaking down President Barack Obama’s latest federal budget. The basic breakdown is presented in an visually attractive graphic easily understandable for average Americans who don’t spend their waking hours pouring over such things. The chart makes it clear where most of the federal money actually goes.The story also offers context, explaining which parts of the budget -- and which departments -- are facing the ax and which ones are not.

The big elephant in the room is the Defense Department, with a proposed budget of almost $496 billion. Second, after Defense, is the Department of Health and Human Services, with a proposed budget of almost $74 billion. (Jo Mannies)

What makes Joe run?

Vice President Joe Biden is 71. He's either coming to the end of an illustrious political career -- or preparing to campaign again for his long-time dream of becoming president. In an illuminating and sympathetic profile,"Joe Biden in Winter," in Politico,reporter Glenn Thrush captures the contradictions of being Biden:

"Joe Biden in winter is still basically a happy warrior, but the past couple years have been a struggle for both relevance and leverage — a fight largely hidden from public view, between the presidential dreams he can’t quite relinquish and the shrinking parameters of a job he described to me as derivative, borrowed and 'totally reflective of the president’s power.' "

Over the course of his vice presidency, the expansive Biden has at times felt boxed in by the tightly controlled, and controlling, president and his team. Now, looming over -- one might say, dwarfing -- his presidential aspirations are, of course, those of Hillary Clinton. It doesn't leave Biden with much room to maneuver. Yet, within that more circumscribed space, such as at a car show in Detroit, Biden flashes that gleaming smile, makes those stage-whispered jokes, and polishes his blue-collar street cred. The crowd clearly loves him, but there's a big difference from loving him and voting for him. (Susan Hegger)

A cruel and unusual decision?

Missouri hasn't been a stranger to the national spotlight when it comes to executions in recent months. The state's faced criticism in several national outlets over both the source of its execution drug as well as the legal tactics it employs.

A recent article in the Atlantic dissects the ethics of a recent ruling from the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. As we reported in January, the court said the inmates' lawyers don't have just to prove the state's methods have a high risk of severe pain. They actually have to come up with a better alternative way of executing their clients.

It has far-reaching practical implications for death penalty litigation. Lawyers representing death row inmates can't get a hold of information on the state's methods without meeting that threshold. And the lawyers contend they can't come up with a valid alternative without basic information about the state's methods.

The Atlantic takes a look at the philosophical impact of the ruling. "May a court compel a defense attorney to breach her ethical duties to her client in a death penalty case?" the writer Andrew Cohen asks. "More precisely, when an inmate's counsel is asserting that a state's lethal injection procedure violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against 'cruel and unusual' punishment, should she be required to suggest an alternative?"

It remains very much up-in-the-air whether the U.S. Supreme Court will agree to hear this case. But what's certain is that Missouri's methods are not leaving the spotlight any time soon. (Chris McDaniel)

Power Of Women

It used to be that women candidates would try to ignore sexist comments from their opponents and their supporters. Making a big deal out of it, they feared, would make them look shrill and strident. Not any more. Democratic women candidates are now "turning outrage over sexist remarks into campaign" contributions, writes Amy Chozick in the New York Times. So when Wendy Davis, Democratic candidate for Texas governor, is called an "abortion Barbie," ka-ching; or when then U.S. Rep. Todd Akin compared U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill to a dog playing "fetch," ka-ching. The checkbooks come out.

As Akin knows from his "legitimate rape" remark, women candidates don't have to be the target of a sexist remark to benefit. Any stupid or insensitive remark gets women's anger rising and money flowing. Emily’s List, a PAC supporting pro-choice women candidates, has been successful in raising millions, and it quickly went into action after a state senator in Virginia referred to a pregnant woman as the child’s “host” in a Facebook message.

Perhaps no woman politician stands to benefit -- in money and in mobilizing women voters -- more than Hillary Clinton, should she decide to run. Maybe the prospect of Clinton being able to cash in on every remark about her thighs, her hair, her age will be enough to stop them. (Susan Hegger)

Susan Hegger comes to St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon as the politics and issues editor, a position she has held at the Beacon since it started in 2008.