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Politically Speaking: Sen. Pearce on the uproar at Mizzou -- and lamenting limitless campaign cash

Sen. David Pearce
Marshall Griffin I St. Louis Public Radio
Sen. David Pearce

On the latest episode of the Politically Speaking podcast, St. Louis Public Radio’s Jason Rosenbaum and Jo Mannies use the magic of radio to welcome state Sen. David Pearce to the podcast for the first time.

The Warrensburg Republican has entered his final year in the Missouri Senate, as term limits will prevent him from running for re-election.

Pearce chairs the Senate Education Committee, which is arguably the legislature’s most important body that deals with education-based policy. Before he was first elected to the Senate in 2008, Pearce spent three terms in the Missouri House.

Known for his genial demeanor and bright red sports coats, Pearce has embarked on one of the most unusual political journeys in recent memory to get to the Missouri Senate. He became his electoral career by unsuccessfully vying for a state House seat when he was 26. Years later, he won an open House seat that had become vacant thanks to term limits. 

Pearce previously resided in a Senate district that was represented by Sen. Chris Koster, who served as both a Republican and a Democrat in the Missouri Senate. On the day Koster announced he was leaving the GOP, he also announced he wouldn’t run for another term in the Senate – giving Pearce an opportunity to run in the 31st Senatorial District.

Pearce is known for wearing a bright red sport coat on the Senate floor to honor Central Missouri State University. In 2009, then-Sens. Scott Rupp and Kevin Engler joked that he looked like Ron Burgundy for the film "Anchorman."
Credit File photo by Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Pearce is known for wearing a bright red sport coat on the Senate floor to honor Central Missouri State University. In 2009, then-Sens. Scott Rupp and Kevin Engler joked that he looked like Ron Burgundy from the film "Anchorman."

But Pearce had to outflank two unusual challengers: The first was Rex Rector, a former state representative who challenged Pearce in the GOP primary. The second challenger was Chris Benjamin, who served as a top aide for then-Speaker Rod Jetton. Benjamin announced in 2008 he was switching parties to run in the Democratic primary. (Benjamin was also Pearce's campaign manager for his Senate race.)

Even though 2008 was a terrible year for Republican candidates, Pearce beat Rector by a reasonably high margin and easily defeated Benjamin in the general election. But things got even more complicated for Pearce four years later when he was drawn into a mid-Missouri-based Senate district that included very little of the 31st District. He then faced then-state Rep. Mike McGhee, an Odessa Republican who received big contributions from retired financier Rex Sinquefield. In the end though, Pearce decimated McGhee in the GOP primary and easily defeated a low-funded Democratic opponent in the general election.

Here’s what Pearce said during the show:

  • Lawmakers are not happy with the University of Missouri system over a host of issues. That includes how administrators handled protests over the racial divide at the University of Missouri-Columbia and Mizzou’s connection to a Columbia branch of Planned Parenthood. “And you know, it just seems like every day it’s another thing – can’t we get a break?” he said.
  • Pearce, though, isn’t sure that the four-campus University of Missouri system should expect major budget cuts. “I don’t see that there will be a major reduction in funding,” he said. “But I do think if there are certain programs or certain positions are still there, it would not be inconceivable to zero those things out and take them out of the budget.”
  • After two failed attempts to change the school transfer law, Pearce expects that the issue may gain traction when there’s a new governor. None of the major candidates for that office has drawn a line in the sand to oppose “voucher bills” as Gov. Jay Nixon did in 2008. Nixonvetoed a 2014 version of a school transfer law overhaul, primarily because it contained a provision allowing students in unaccredited districts to transfer to non-sectarian private schools.
  • Pearce says his support of repealing campaign contribution limits in 2008 was the worst vote he’s made in his legislative career. He added that any discussion of reconfiguring ethics laws without talking about limiting donation limits is incomplete. “And you know, we’re spending so much time talking about ethics reform,” he said. “We’re worried about if a lobbyist takes me out for a cheeseburger, but we don’t care if that same lobbyist or some group gives me a million dollars.”

Follow Jason Rosenbaum on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Follow Jo Mannies on Twitter: @jmannies

Music: “Love Spreads” by The Stone Roses

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