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God's Lobbyist: Larry Weber

May 12, 2005
By: Ben Welsh
State Capital Bureau

Larry Weber

God's Lobbyist

After five hours of heated debate that saw Republican senators pleading with a fellow party member to end his push for a ban on stem-cell research, Sen. John Greisheimer (R-Washington) rose to the floor of the Missouri Senate.

"It's sad that we're fighting among ourselves, and its' sad that it's come to this," Greisheimer said during the April 5 debate. "This is tearing apart the whole pro-life movement."

Showing the sort of unvarnished anger seldom seem at the statehouse, where most public statements are either couched in euphamism or flourishes of shopworn cliche, Greisheimer cut loose. The Republican majority had remained united behind the leadership of Gov. Matt Blunt on early every issue since his election, but the proposed ban on stem-cell research, opposed by Blunt and the science industry but supported by religious interests, threatened to divide the party.

Greisheimer unleashed his anger over the public split and questioned the motives of the lobbyist pushing hardest for the ban, Archbishop Raymond Burke's man in Jefferson City: Larry Weber.

A former lobbyist for Attorney General Jay Nixon, Blunt's presumptive Democratic opponent in 2008, Weber is one of the most prominent lobbyists at the Capitol. Was he, Greisheimer asked, pushing the stem-cell band to divide Blunt's base and boost Nixon?

Listening in from the Senate gallery, where floor debate is piped in over electronic speakers and senators, lobbyists and the press hobnob in a dimly lit lounge adorned with posh sofas and oil paintings, Weber couldn't believe his ears.

"I think he was possibly motivated by his personal frustrations," Weber said later, dismissing the accusation. "Some of the things he said were just factually incorrect."

A presence at the Capitol for nearly 20 years, Weber served as the Senate staff attorney and as a lobbyist for Nixon and the state Supreme Court before becoming leader of the Missouri Catholic Conference in 2000.

He said the pressure he exerted in favor of the stem-cell ban, which died that night after its sponsor, Sen. Matt Bartle (R-Jackson County) finally relented, came from an authority greater than politics.

"By working with the Catholic Church in this capacity, everything I'm doing in an official status directly relates to my faith," said Weber, an ordained deacon. "People talk about living your faith. Not only should I do it, I have to do it. It's my job. There are some people who are challenged -- probably in their own life by their own faith -- challenged to act in accordance with those principles.

"With that thought in mind, when I see people tense up, I think Jesus was right [about how to face to challenges] 2,000 year ago. We try to explain it to them. Not only what the teaching is, but why we think it will advance the good of all people in the state of Missouri."

Well before he took over the St. Louis Archdiocese, Rev. Burke had earned reputation for directly pressuring lawmakers, particularly on abortion. He and other Catholic leaders have even threatened to withhold communion from politicians who vote against them on abortion, something they've declined to do to those who oppose them on issues such as the Iraq invasion or the death penalty.

That's a message Weber is paid to carry in Jefferson City, where he has pushed legislators on both sides of the aisle to adopt some of the strictest abortion regulations in the country.

"There is a hierarchy of good, a hierarchy of evil. The first and most basic right is the right to life itself. For a person to deny a person or class of persons that right to human life is very inherently, very intrinsically evil and needs to be addressed immediately," Weber said. "That's why I think we hear the strong language we do. These issues are very black and white from a Catholic point of view.

"Although there was a difference of opinion [about the war]. It's just not as black and white."

At the national level, Republican leaders in Washington, D.C., are enduring criticism for blurring the line between church and state. In Missouri, where politics and religion -- especially Catholicism -- have always intersected, it has long been difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins.

Weber, who's lobbied for both God and government, is walking proof.

But with polls showing a strong divide between many American Catholics and the church hierarchy on issues such as contraception, scientific research and women's role in the church, their struggle with the faith can now be heard in the rebellions of their elected representatives.

"Just because the Catholic Conference says it doesn't mean that I with it," Greisheimer, a self-proclaimed "cafeteria Catholic," said. "I love my church. I'm proud I'm a Catholic. But, again, I don't agree with them on 100 percent of the issues."