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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: Loose ends from another wild visit to the Missouri Capitol

File photo | Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
The Missouri Capitol Building at dusk

I usually start off this column with a snappy quote, noteworthy anecdote or a rather tenuous connection to a 50 Cent song.

But after experiencing a very, very, very eventful week in Jefferson City filling in for St. Louis Public Radio’s Marshall Griffin, I thought it might be worthwhile to trot out some loose observations that might have fallen through the cracks:

Nature vs. nurture

Ever since House Speaker John Diehl, a Republican,and state Sen. Paul LeVota, a Democrat, resigned last year, this reporter has asked many of the state’s politicians a rather difficult query: Does the environment of Jefferson City cause good people to do bad things, or are voters electing bad people to Jefferson City? It’s a question that became pertinent after GOP lawmaker Don Gosen stepped down last week.

Rep. Don Gosen, R-Ballwin, resigned suddenly from the Missouri House on Wednesday.
Credit Tim Bommel I House Communications
Rep. Don Gosen, R-Ballwin, resigned suddenly from the Missouri House last Wednesday.

After all, there’s been a lot of talk about how the environment of Jefferson City is corrosive and causes relatively normal people to lose focus of their lives. It’s a rational explanation because a system can be changed: Lawmakers could curb lobbyist gifts, cap campaign contributions or restrict the legislator-to-lobbyist pipeline, which in turn would alter Jefferson City's "anything goes" reputation.

But this approach only works if someone makes an assumption that good people are going to Jefferson City and being corrupted because of a dismal environment (which almost certainly happens). If voters are electing people to office with deep-seated character flaws, then how can lawmakers or the voters stop an already-compromised person from doing bad things? It’s not as if candidates are going to voluntarily showcase personal failings during an election they are trying to win.

While on the House floor, I chatted about this topic with Rep. Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield. He provided me with this response:

“Voters are the ultimate check, but often that check is on the back end,” said Haahr. “The other thing is, it’s hard to get people to run for office. I mean, you have to leave your geographical area of the state for five months a year. If you have kids, it falls very heavily on your significant other. So often times, the voters have limited choices they can select from when picking from someone.  "When you have just a few people that you have to pick from and often you don’t know those people directly, it’s hard to have an idea which ones have the best ethical background."

For what it's worth, Gosen told the Associated Press that his affair had little to do with Jefferson City's culture or environment. Rather, Gosen said his time away from his family was a bigger factor.

Coincidences abound  

Gosen happened to resign the day numerous St. Louis TV stations were in Jefferson City. They were covering a committee hearing on bolstering the use of body cameras and testimony from the Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority’s executive director over a scuttled football stadium proposal. Talk about timing.

The bookworm from Franklin County

During debate on legislation to slow down the “revolving door” from legislating to lobbying, Sen. Rob Schaaf asked Sen. Dave Schatz if he’d read several books that promoted such an idea.

Schatz, a critic of a “cooling off period," briskly responded, “I’ve read some books.” The Sullivan Republican’s chief of staff soon confirmed that the utterance was accurate.

Coburn in the Capitol

Soon after interviewing Gosen, this reporter almost literally bumped into former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, in the hallways of the Capitol. He was in Jefferson City pushing the idea to call a convention of states, which is essentially a process to consider constitutional amendments that bypasses Congress. (Click here to read more about it.)

Former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn was in the Capitol Wednesday to promote an "Article V" convention. It's an idea that's gained traction with conservatives like Coburn -- and some left-of-center activists that want to alter the national campaign finance system.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn was in the Capitol Wednesday to promote an "Article V" convention. It's an idea that's gained traction with conservatives like Coburn -- and some left-of-center activists that want to alter the national campaign finance system.

Coburn wants to use this process to place constitutional curbs on the federal government’s size and spending.

“And so with $143 trillion in unfunded liabilities, $19 trillion in debt, fiscally that’s what’s happened to every other Republic that died over fiscal issues,” Coburn said. “And that’s where we find ourselves. So if we want to fix that, Washington certainly isn’t going to fix it. So it’s time for Missouri to fix it.”

One Missouri lawmaker who knows quite a bit about a convention of states is Sen. Jason Holsman. The Kansas City Democrat is co-president of the Assembly of State Legislators, a national group that’s trying to write rules for a convention of states gathering.

He said the convention of states process – also known an “Article V” convention – could be used to deal with seemingly intractable issues like campaign finance or term limits.

“Most people on the political spectrum agree that we have a problem,” Holsman said. “We believe that Article V was designed in the constitution to address that problem. It was a little bit of a time capsule that was left for us by our founding fathers – break glass in case of emergency. I think that when we look at these serious issues that D.C. is incapable of fixing, we’ve come to the point where we’re looking at breaking that glass.”

While jokingly mentioning that he likely differs from Holsman in the ultimate outcome of a convention of states, House Speaker Todd Richardson says specific resolutions may end up getting debate time in the General Assembly’s lower chamber.

Coburn’s advice

It’s not a huge secret that this reporter has a soft spot in his heart for Oklahoma. After all, my Polish great-grandparents made Ponca City their home during the 1930s – a fact I’ve mentioned to people like former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, U.S. Rep. Tom Cole and, of course, Coburn.

Credit Wikimedia Commons
Coburn says President Barack Obama has every right to nominate the late Antonin Scalia's replacement on the Supreme Court. But the Oklahoma Republican doubts the Senate will confirm the president's nominee.

But after waxing nostalgic for a bit, I asked Coburn about looming fight in the Senate to fill a Supreme Court vacancy. Despite his conservative reputation, he had had a good relationship with Barack Obama when he was a member of the Senate.

“I think the president can appoint anybody he wants,” Coburn said. “Unless they’re about to appoint somebody like [GOP U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah] or somebody like that, which they’re not about to, the politics of it are it’s never going to happen until there’s another president. It ought to be a part of the debate about where we go. What will happen is this will become a campaign issue. And it should.

“Appoint who you think you want,” he continued. “He has the power to appoint. Confirmation, Senate consent, is the balance that our country is built on. And if they’re not going to consent, they’re not going to consent.”

Coburn also said he’s not endorsing anybody for president. But he added he’s not casting his ballot for Donald Trump.

Pinkel power

Describing all of the problems that have befallen the University of Missouri recently would require a particularly lengthy paragraph. But one thing that tickedoff  a few lawmakers is how former football coach Gary Pinkel received a three-year contract after he retired.

Credit Mallory Daily I St. Louis Public Radio
Sen. Gary Romine, R-Farmington, says lawmakers are upset about former MU Football Coach Gary Pinkel's decision to support his players' boycott during protests over race relations.

For instance, Sen. Gary Romine said lawmakers were unhappy that Pinkel supported his players' decision to boycott a football game during protests on campus. The Farmington Republican said it appeared Pinkel was “rewarded” for supporting the protest.

The football players, of course, were supporting Jonathan Butler’s hunger strike, which came about after a number of racially biased incidents on the Columbia campus. When asked why the football players’ protest was wrong, Romine replied: “Because it infected the entire school.”

“It was not honored by the administration,” Romine said. “The administration should have had an input. If they had said, ‘This is acceptable,’ it would be a different story. But for them to put the entire system in jeopardy, that’s what created the problem.”

Sen. Paul Wieland, R-Imperial, mentioned on Wednesday he may issue a complaint against Pinkel, similar to the one he wrote up about embattled MU communications professor Melissa Click.

Romine said he was disturbed by how Rep. Courtney Curtis, D-Ferguson, noted that Mizzou's racial climate hasn't changed much in the past 10 years or so. "It's very frustrating that they went through a process and they're getting ready to do another climate evaluation as they call it to determine what the environment is like," Romine said. "At some point, we've got to do something instead of talking about it or continuing the mistakes."

The #FreeJason back story

Finally, I’d like to take this opportunity to tell the full story about how I got stuck in a Missouri Capitol elevator. While I abhor being part of "the story," this particular tale of woe was a humorous aside to what was otherwise a very serious week.

Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, show moral support for St. Louis Public Radio reporter Jason Rosenbaum on Monday, February 15, 2016. Rosenbaum got trapped in a Capitol elevator for about 20 minutes.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, shows moral support for St. Louis Public Radio reporter Jason Rosenbaum on Mo., Feb. 15. Rosenbaum got stuck in a Capitol elevator for about 20 minutes.

It all began after I picked up a key from another reporter in the Capitol basement. My next stop was St. Louis Public Radio’s Jefferson City office at the very top of the Capitol building. When I got to the basement elevator, I noticed that a member of Gov. Jay Nixon’s detail was holding the door open. That usually means the governor is close by.

Sure enough, Nixon soon appeared and walked toward the elevator. He courteously let me ride up with him, and he was kind enough to engage in a very pleasant conversation with me. When he got off at his second floor office, he jokingly promised to make “outrageous” news during my four-day stint as a capitol reporter. (He didn’t, by the way.)

But the trouble began as he and his security detail departed out of a side elevator door. As soon as that door shut, the elevator didn’t start moving. Despite pressing several buttons, nothing happened. For the first time in my on again/off again tenure as a Missouri political reporter (which includes roughly five years reporting in the state Capitol), I was trapped in an elevator.

(Before anybody gets any ideas, I want to dispel unequivocally the notion that Nixon purposely entrapped me in the elevator. From what I was told, this particular lift has broken down repeatedly.)

After pushing the a button asking for help, a Capitol police officer summoned an elevator repair man. I was released from captivity after about 20 minutes, a period of time which I spent Tweeting about the experience:

Politicos and colleagues from across the partisan spectrum rallied to my defense:

The experience was also mentioned several times on the Missouri Senate floor. Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder called the Tweets and Vines “most informative.”

I would to take this opportunity to thank the Missouri Capitol police for their quick work and friendliness. And I’m also sincerely appreciative that Missouri’s governor didn’t get trapped as well, although it would have been a great opportunity to record an impromptu episode of Politically Speaking. 

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.