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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

On the Trail: Richardson sets to once again defy legislative expectations

Richardson hugs his father, Mark Richardson, right after he was elected as speaker of the  Missouri House.
Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio | File photo
Richardson hugs his father, Mark Richardson, right after he was elected as speaker of the Missouri House.

House Speaker Todd Richardson’s legislative career is full of defied expectations.

Before he was elected to House leadership, Richardson helped bring substantial changes to Missouri’s embattled Second Injury Fund – an issue that bedeviled lawmakers for years. And after the misdeeds of his predecessor, the Poplar Bluff Republican rose to the speakership much earlier than anybody expected.

Now, Richardson’s first year of speaker will try to dispel the conventional wisdom that lawmakers can’t be productive during an election  year– especially one that will transform the leadership of Missouri’s government.

“I think we left a lot of things that were unfinished at the end of last year,” Richardson said in a telephone interview with St. Louis Public Radio late last month. “And I expect those things to be at the top of the agenda. But I get a sense that despite the fact that it’s an election year and despite the fact that there are a lot of other things going on, I expect it to be a very productive and worthwhile session.”

The incomplete items include bolstering transportation funding, revamping higher education programs and adopting policy proposals inspired by the Ferguson unrest. Richardson also wants to pass a robust overhaul of the state’s ethics laws, an endeavor that traditionally failed to pass muster in the General Assembly.

Many lawmakers are optimistic about Richardson’s first year of speakership – even House Democrats who diverge from him on some hot-button issues. They contend Richardson will treat them fairly – and be focused on results.

“Todd is strong man and he’s got a good head on his shoulder,” said state Rep. Tommie Pierson, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors. “I don’t think he’s going to let anything go.”

Second-generation lawmaker

Richardson perhaps received more perspective than some of his colleagues about the rigors of legislative service, thanks to his father Mark Richardson.

Mark Richardson holds his granddaughter, Briley, during his son's end-of-session press conference.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Mark Richardson holds his granddaughter, Briley, during his son's end-of-session press conference last May.

Mark Richardson served in the Missouri House from 1990 to 2002. During his time in office, the senior Richardson served in a Republican minority that had been steadily getting larger as rural Missouri trended toward the GOP. In fact, Mark Richardson nearly became speaker after a number of House Democrats turned against then-Speaker Bob Griffin.

Richardson said earlier in 2015 that his father’s tenure in the legislature left him “with a really strong sense that good people in public office can make a difference.”

“That’s something that some people find hard to believe anymore, which is unfortunate because I do believe that’s still true,” Richardson said. “I do believe that good people in public office can have a positive impact. So for me, growing up in that environment, I was very much left with the sense that public service was a noble goal and something worth pursuing.”

After earning an undergraduate degree and law degree from the University of Memphis, Todd Richardson entered the political fray in 2010 by running for a vacant House seat encompassing parts of Butler and Ripley counties. He somewhat narrowly defeated two other GOP candidates, which was tantamount to election in heavily Republican district. (He was also one ofnumerous GOP luminaries that unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for the 8th Congressional District House seat.)

Richardson proved adept at handling big-ticket bills, including the overhaul of the Second Injury Fund and a measure authorizing a public vote to spruce up the Gateway Arch. These increasingly recognized interpersonal and policy ability likely helped him become House majority leader, a traditional steppingstone to the speakership.

After calling him a “fantastic guy,” former Sen. Jeff Smith, D-St. Louis, said Richardson possesses immense intellectual and public speaking skills.

“He’s not a demagogue,” Smith said. “He’s a thoughtful guy. He showed in his first couple of years in the legislature that he can pass complicated legislation by bringing people together.”

Left to right: State Rep. Paul Curtman, R-Pacific, and House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff.
Credit File photo by Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
State Rep. Paul Curtman, left, talks with Richardson on the House floor.

But after Diehl suddenly resigned after his sexually charged text messages with an intern became public, Richardson became speaker on the final day of the General Assembly’s legislative session. State Rep. Paul Curtman, R-Union, said it wasn’t exactly the best circumstance to ascend to powerful legislative position.

“I think most of the chamber probably felt really bad for him coming in under those circumstances with all the pressure he was facing,” said Curtman, noting that the legislature was also dealing with blowback from the passage of “right to work” legislation. “To his credit, he has handled it with a lot of grace and a lot of strength.”

Even though they’re on the opposite side of the political fence, House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, D-St. Louis, expects Richardson will treat his caucus fairly – which he contends hasn’t always occurred during his House tenure.

“I think the difference is now you’ve got a speaker that’s at least respectful to the minority,” Hummel said. “His father was in the minority. He knew how he was treated – and obviously didn’t like it. And Todd has been good to work with. He’s not going to deviate from agenda. But he will be respectful ... and I think that he will be more inclined to listen to our ideas and hear from my membership.”

Ethics as priority

For Richardson, the most pressing priority is overhauling the state’s ethics laws. If that’s sound familiar, it’s because some of Richardson’s predecessors promised to focus on that issue – and failed to produce any meaningful changes.

Richardson examines a computerized seating chart.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Richardson examines a computerized seating chart on his first day as House speaker.

“I think for too long we’ve talked about ethics reform and not actually gotten anything done,” Richardson said. “And I want to have a very intentional strategy very early in session to make sure that we put the legislature in a position to actually deliver substantive, meaningful ethics reform to the governor’s desk. I think it’s something that’s important for us to do for two reasons: One, I think it’s the right thing to do and I think it actually improves the environment in Jefferson City. But I think secondly, I think it helps the public’s perception for the institution – which is important to what we do.”

To avoid that less-than-successful result, Richardson wants to pass “single-subject” bills. That is important legally, since multi-faceted ethics bills have been struck down for having too many disparate ideas.

Among other things, Richardson wants to curb lobbyist freebies, bolster personal financial disclosure reports and prevent lawmakers from immediately transitioning into lobbying.

“I think if we tackle these subjects individually, it removes a lot of the excuses that have been used to kill these ethics bills in the past,” Richardson said. “I think it makes it easier for the House and Senate to ultimately end up on the same page on some of these issues.”

Hummel said curtailing lobbyist gifts and closing the “revolving door” have merit. But he added that campaign donation limits have to be included within any ethical overhaul. (This may be the last year to pursue that issue legislatively, since none of the five major candidates for governor -- including likely Democratic nominee Chris Koster -- supports campaign donation limits.

House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, D-St. Louis, leads the Democratic end-of-session press conference as state Rep. Karla May, D-St. Louis, looks on.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, D-St. Louis, says any ethics overhaul without campaign donation limits amounts to "ethics lite."

“Anytime you have someone that’s writing a million check to one candidate, you’ve got a perception that the legislature or the elected officials are bought and paid for,” Hummel said. “Yes, I understand the difference between buying someone a cup of coffee and giving them a million dollars. And for the majority party to pretend that a million dollar campaign donation is no different than buying a cup of coffee is ridiculous.”

Richardson said he’s “certainly open” to donation limits “being part of the discussion” over ethics. Whether it has enough support among Republicans to pass is a very open question, since many GOP lawmakers contend donation limits have historically proven to be ineffective at curbing large amounts of money from getting to candidates.

“I’m not closing the door to anything here,” Richardson said. “I want to make sure we’re focusing on the things that I think are eminently achievable, and those are the same things we kicked around for a couple of years – and those are some of things we talked about before. If we have members that want to talk about those issues and discuss them, then we’ll let the legislative process take its course on them and see if there’s a will in the body to do it.”

Can Richardson avoid pitfalls?

While the speaker’s position is extremely powerful, it call also be quite burdensome. For people who become speaker, Smith observed that “all your jokes become funnier, you get better looking and everybody wants to be around you.” 

Former House Speaker Steve Tilley
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Former House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville

“That can be very intoxicating and you begin in a lot of cases to believe the hype about yourself,” Smith said. “No one has said no to you for a long time. If you want to get on a private plane and go see a golf tournament somewhere, there’s somebody to help you do that.”

Former House Speaker Steve Tilley observed last year that most people who ascend to the office come in with a lot of promise and positive press – but then end up making missteps and enemies.

“It almost is a different universe from what the average person has to deal with,” Richardson said. “And if you don’t stay grounded with the people you love and your family, it really, really can be difficult for anybody.”

Still, Tilley said that, while Richardson may not be able to avoid every type of pitfall he encounters, he likely has the tools needed to succeed in the difficult job.

“I want him to know that he will make mistakes, he will slip up from time to time – and you just have to do you best,” Tilley said. “But I believe he’s unbelievably talented. … His dad was unbelievably talented, and Todd is as talented as they come. ... But I think he’s got unbelievable potential.”

Richardson is expected to be speaker until after the 2018 legislative session. What he does after that remains to be seen, although he terms out of office the same year that state Auditor Nicole Galloway will be running for re-election and when U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo,, could be engaged in a competitive bid for a third term.

For now, Richardson is focused on the task at hand. He quipped last year that “for the time being, I will remind myself that I do have a lot more friends than I had a month ago.” And to avoid the problems that bedeviled his predecessors, Richardson said his focus is “to stay grounded and remember the reasons why you decided to get into public office in the first place.”

“[You have to] remind yourself on a regular basis that we all get the chance in a term-limited environment to do this for but a little while,” Richardson said. “At some point, I’ll be moving on to something else. And all of these people that are my friends today – some of them I’m sure will continue to be my friends. But a lot of them won’t care nearly as much as what I think a few from now.”

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics. 

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