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The Old Hand: Ken McClure

May 12, 2005
By: Ben Welsh
State Capital Bureau

Ken McClure

The Old Hand

By immediately surrounding himself with experienced government hands, 34-year old Gov. Matt Blunt's first round of appointees drew him comparison to President George W. Bush, another Republican executive with political lineage who reached high office before spending much time inside politics.

Blunt, however, stayed even closer to home. He hired someone who is not only a fellow Springfield native and friend of his father, US Rep. Roy Blunt, but also his childhood Sunday School teacher.

At the head of Blunt's cabinet is Chief of Staff Ken McClure. While only 54, McClure has to be considered an old lion in today's Capitol, bringing deep governmental roots to a building where term limits have forced out the old guard and keep a steady stream of fresh faces flowing into the legislature.

Blunt was a toddler when McClure began his career in state government in 1974. He served as deputy director in the Missouri Department of Economic Development and as a public utilities regulator before leaving state politics for a lucrative jobs running city utilities in his hometown.

After advising Blunt during his successful campaign last fall, McClure stepped in to lead the new governor's transition team, which helps fill cabinet and staff positions.

Then, just as Dick Cheney became Bush's vice presidential choice after leading the search for a candidate in 2000, McClure ended up Blunt's chief of staff, the top administrator in the governor's office. It's the same job McClure's younger brother Rich held during Gov. John Ashcroft's administration.

McClure left his job in Springfield to assume the $112,000 position, telling reporters he was taking a pay cut.

In the era of term limits, when lawmakers are shorter on expertise and institutional memory than those of the past, the well of experience provided by someone such as McClure is invaluable. And the effect only be amplified with Blunt, who spent only two years in the Missouri House before a term as secretary of state served as a springboard to the state's broadest and most powerful office.

Blunt supporters contend that he stands on his own two feet. But just as the vice presidency is seen as a source of power during the Bush-Cheney administration, it's the same with post of chief of staff in the Blunt era.

When Sen. Chuck Graham (D-Columbia) ran a filibuster blocking a name change for Southwest Missouri State University into the early morning hours on St. Valentine's Day, it wasn't Blunt but McClure on the phone negotiating a compromise with University of Missouri System President Elson Floyd, who called off Graham.

Deciding who exerts the most influence on the governor is a popular parlor game at the Capitol precisely because there is no clear answer. McClure declined to be interviewed for this story, but opponents frustrated by Blunt's power freely speculate about whether McClure is in the driver's seat. Several Democrats have even suggested sarcastically that legislative hearings should perhaps be relocated to the governor's office.

"What we have is a legislature run by the executive branch," Rep. Yaphett El-Amin (D-St. Louis) said after a series of weekend phone calls from the governor's office revived a stalled Republican plan to change how Missouri funds its public schools. "And I don't get those calls."

Republican legislators who have worked closely with the governor's office, however, say they sense nothing out of order.

"At the end of the day," said Sen. Chuck Purgason, who carried Blunt's Medicaid cuts through the General Assembly. "Gov. Blunt takes in all the advice from his staff and makes the decisions."