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Editor's Weekly: Lessons In Compromise From Missouri's Most Liberal Legislator

Sean Sandefur/St. Louis Public Radio.

State Rep. Rory Ellinger's colleagues paid tribute to him last week with quick passage and ceremonial signing of his bill to help breast-feeding mothers. The gesture more than the bill itself symbolizes Rory's legacy as a public servant.

Somehow, despite extreme polarization and a rightward turn in Missouri politics, one of Missouri's most liberal legislators has earned both respect and genuine affection from colleagues of all ideological stripes.

How did this happen?

Sadly, this good news story came to light only because of bad news. Until a few weeks ago, Rory was sailing toward certain re-election from his University City district. Then health problems forced him to withdraw. Now, those problems have been diagnosed as a rare and aggressive form of liver cancer.

If only for a moment, his colleagues seem to have forgotten their partisan bickering and factional disputes. They’ve given Rory a truly extraordinary gift — sincere appreciation.

Though the breast-feeding protection idea had been bottled up for years, they passed his bill within days. Gov. Jay Nixon came to U. City to sign it in a ceremony that drew friends from across the state.

State Rep. Jay Barnes, R- Jefferson City, devoted a lengthy newsletter entry to Rory. “As the most liberal Democrat in a Republican-controlled General Assembly, Rory realized he wasn’t going to win the big battles.” Barnes wrote. “But he also knew he could still make a difference. I served on five different committees with Rory. He was always prepared, always inquisitive, always seeking to improve legislation (even if he disagreed with the underlying premise), and always respectful of others — whether they were a legislator or witness with whom he agreed or disagreed.”

I'm anything but a disinterested observer in telling this story. Rory and I are not only friends but relatives (our fathers were cousins). That personal connection has yielded some clues worth pondering about how a person can forge compromises without compromising principles.

Rory is an ardent liberal, but not a rigid ideologue. Instead, he's a bundle of irrepressible enthusiasms. Rory loves to talk politics — from the intricacies of U. City infighting to the intrigues of Washington. But he can get equally excited about music, art, ballet, history, world affairs and, of course, law. He relishes and has occasionally played a role in litigation of constitutional issues. But the bread and butter of his law practice has been the prosaic needs of families in St. Charles County. In the legislature, he’s remembered that even small points in the law can be extremely important to people such as his clients.

Talk to Rory once, and he'll share a wealth of information. Talk to him again, and he’ll share a book, a movie or a news clip that he thought might interest you further. It's just his nature to be generous.

Rory values principle. In college and later, he worked against the Vietnam War and for civil rights and civil liberties. But he also values friendship and loyalty. When he first ran for the legislature many years ago, his activist reputation made him a controversial candidate. Tom Eagleton, for whom Rory had worked, endorsed him anyway. Rory never forgot it.

Four years ago, Rory finally won a seat in the Missouri House. Friends warned that serving in a chamber so dominated by Republicans might be frustrating, but he was thrilled. He took to the challenge with Eagleton-like zest for balancing principle with political practicality.

Ask about the latest statehouse brouhaha, and Rory invariably responds with praise for his colleagues – Republicans and Democrats alike. They're smart, committed and know their constituents, he says. And he means it.

Rory himself provided the best explanation for why his enthusiasm remained undiminished. Announcing his withdrawal, he said:

“Making good public policy is hard work. We live in a time of partisan polarization, but that is not the entire story. There are people of good will on both sides of the aisle with whom I share values and priorities, and work for the common cause.

“My advice to my successor is that you can make a difference as a member of the minority party if you focus more on what Missourians need and stand on your principles. Seek out areas of agreement to move our laws forward, even a small amount.”

Yes, Rory's vote has mattered — on school funding, gun nullification and other controversial issues. But his personal example may matter even more. At a time when many politicians seek security in ideological purity, Rory has reached across divisions. Unable to accomplish everything, he’s seen the value in accomplishing something. Strangely, Missouri’s most liberal house member will be remembered for demonstrating how to transcend ideology in the interest of making life for Missourians a little bit better.

Margaret Wolf Freivogel is the editor of St. Louis Public Radio. She was the founding editor of the St. Louis Beacon, a nonprofit news organization, from 2008 to 2013. A St. Louis native, Margie previously worked for 34 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as a reporter, Washington correspondent and assistant managing editor. She has received numerous awards for reporting as well as a lifetime achievement award from the St. Louis Press Club and the Missouri Medal of Honor from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She is a past board member of the Investigative News Network and a past president of Journalism and Women Symposium. Margie graduated from Kirkwood High School and Stanford University. She is married to William H. Freivogel. They have four grown children and seven grandchildren. Margie enjoys rowing and is a fan of chamber music.