Posted 12/06/2013: When I had an option in August to pick whether I wanted to work at KBIA in Columbia or Missouri Digital News in Jefferson City, I knew where I wanted to work. I wanted to report on state government issues for MDN. I knew the Missouri Legislature would not be in session, but that was okay. Rather than embarrassing myself in front of lawmakers at the Capitol, I could embarrass myself over the phone!
Without question, I got thrown into the fire immediately when I (volunteered) to go to St. Louis and cover Texas Gov. Rick Perry's visit. He was there to promote Texas' business climate and encourage Missouri legislators to pass HB 253, the income tax cut bill. That night, I interviewed House Speaker Tim Jones. I was the very first reporter to talk with him after Perry finished speaking. We had a productive conversation about the tax bill and I told I'd see him again in a few weeks. Sure enough, 2 weeks later, I talked with him the day after lawmakers voted not to override Gov. Jay Nixon's veto of the bill. I sat down with Jones in his office for a one-on-one interview. He attacked Nixon and Attorney General Chris Koster for waging an all-out war on the bill and that their campaign did persuade some of his members to change their original vote. Towards the end of the interview, I asked him about his future political plans since he is term-limited out of office in 2014. "I am very interested in returning the Attorney General's office back to the people," Jones said. So my very last question to him was: "So are you telling me you're going to run for Attorney General in 2016?" His answer (in full): "That is my intention. We have not made official announcements yet, but we are definitely exploring that office very carefully." I was the first person in the state to have him quoted as saying that. I'm freaking proud of that and will remember that forever. My lessons learned from the first 4 weeks: 1) be persistent, 2) listen to politicians and if they say something interesting, FOLLOW UP ON IT! You just may get an exclusive scoop.
The next month and a half went by quickly. Most of those Thursdays at the Capitol were slow news days, but that was okay. I figured there would be some of those days eventually. However, on October 31st (HALLOWEEN!), things got interesting. Senate Majority Leader Ron Richard released the draft of his new Second Amendment legislation on his Twitter page. (Yes, that's how lawmakers do it in the 21st century). When our TA came into the office and said "who wants to cover this?," I immediately raised my hand because there are two issues I know a lot about given where I'm from: guns and taxes. I read the bill and then called Sen. Richard. He returned my call an hour or so later and wrote a radio wrap. I later called Rep. Stacey Newman, a staunch advocate of preventing gun violence. I talked with her for a good 10 minutes and she said this was an "election year ploy." Lessons learned from mid-September to the end of October: 1) slow news days happen. Deal with them. 2) Always volunteer to cover topics or bills that are in your "wheelhouse." That way, you can produce a better story given the knowledge that you have.
November was even slower than October. I didn't cover many things and I even took a personal day in mid-November.
News broke in late November that Boeing was considering building their new 777X plane in north St. Louis. Nixon had been meeting with Boeing executives and the pace of talks moved pretty quickly. So on Black Friday of all days, Nixon issued a proclamation calling lawmakers back to Jefferson City to pass incentives so Missouri could lure Boeing. The Senate passed the bill on Wednesday and the House passed the bill on Friday. How bout that! The legislature took only five days to pass a major bill! Anyway, while others were working on that story, I worked on covering some of the bills that have been prefiled for next session. That all came to a halt when Phill told me Gov. Nixon was meeting with House Democrats on Thursday afternoon in the Capitol basement. I went down there and was the ONLY reporter down there. Nixon's press secretary came up to me and said "it looks like you're the only one down here. We'll set up just a bit down the hall and you can ask your questions." Wait... me? One-on-one with the governor of Missouri? OK THEN! Nixon exited the meeting and sure enough, we walked down the hall and set up shop. One of his aides said "We only have time for one question." My thoughts on that statement: "Oh yeah? Watch me!" Sure enough, I asked Nixon 2 questions and even got a response to a third question as his aides and security whisked him away from me. Lessons learned from this week: stay down in the Capitol basement and you just might get to talk to the governor by yourself. (Granted, he had 6 aides and 3 security guys around him, but who's counting?)
I am coming back next year to cover the legislative session. I cannot wait to see where the stories take me and who I'll get to talk to and what stories I'll break. Until next year, so long everybody!
This month, I have been mentally preparing myself to cover the 2014 session. I've been thinking about what chamber I want to cover more, what legislators I already have relationships with (quite a few, actually), what issues I know a lot about, and how many late nights I will have to endure. At times I know it won't be easy, but I relish the challenges ahead.
I did follow the presser on Twitter thanks to the wonderful Alex Mallin. My favorite quote from Nixon was when he described Speaker Tim Jones: "He complains about everything." Sitting in my car, I literally LOL'd at that comment. I think it's one of the top 5 quotes of the year. Besides that, it seemed like Nixon endorsed gay marriage and he issued an executive order involving gay couples' taxes on the state and federal level. It's a big step for a state that banned gay marriage nearly 10 years ago.
From what I read after those 2 issues, the presser wasn't very eventful, but then again, I wasn't there because I decided to take a personal day at the worst possible time. Oh well.
First, let's start in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli against former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe. The former DNC Chairman ended up winning, but not by the wide margin many predicted. Poll after poll predicted McAuliffe would win by 5-12 points. What made the margin of victory smaller than expected was the horribly botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act, aka ObamaCare, website. Cuccinelli pounced on that and McAuliffe's support for the ACA and it seemed to resonate with Virginia voters. What really doomed AG Cuccinelli was the government shutdown. Hundreds of thousands of federal workers who live in northern Virginia (Fairfax, Arlington) work for the government. For 16 days, they were not allowed to go to work and earn a paycheck. And even if they did go to work because they were deemed "essential," they weren't paid. That angered many voters and McAuliffe pounced on Cuccinelli's ties to the Tea Party. That strategy, along with Cuccinelli's strategy of linking McAuliffe to ObamaCare, worked. It's just that McAuliffe's strategy worked just a little bit better than Cuccinelli's and that's why Terry McAuliffe was elected the next governor of Virginia.
This race has 2016 implications. No, not because Cuccinelli or McAuliffe will run for president. This race was significant because Virginia is now a purple state, or a swing state. It is now one of the eight or nine states that help decide who the president of the United States will be. Obama won the state in 2008 and 2012, helping cinch both his wins. Virginia has 13 electoral votes. The state's southeastern part around Norfolk and Newport News votes Democratic and so do the Washington D.C. suburbs as mentioned before, but the rest of the state (the rural areas) are reliably red. Remember, a few population centers have more votes than many rural communities. Republicans have to be conscious of that if they want to win Virginia in 2016 and regain the White House.
Let's move on to the Garden State where Gov. Chris Christie easily cruised to reelection over who Jon Stewart called "a no-name Democrat." The no-name Democrat is state Sen. Barbara Buono. She lost by 22 points to Christie. OUCH! This was an expected win for Christie and he basked in the spotlight on Wednesday. He had a press conference in a town that they nickname "little Havana." He said Republicans can't just go to the places were they're "comfortable;" rather, they have to go to the places where they're uncomfortable and where most people don't vote for them. He's right. Christie is widely expected to run for president in 2016. He would be the "moderate" candidate as compared to Sens. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul, all likely 2016 candidates. He can help Republicans win in the swing states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Virginia, and Florida, but will Republicans nominate a "moderate?" Despite handing Christie a very easy reelection, New Jersey residents aren't even confident that he can win his home state in 2016. News organizations did exit polling on Tuesday and found New Jersey voters prefer Hillary Clinton over Chris Christie in a hypothetical 2016 matchup by a 49-43% margin. That isn't exactly a surprise in blue New Jersey, but Clinton over their own governor? Now that is a surprise!
I know the 2016 presidential election is 3 years away, but after getting hammered in 2012 and getting hammered in the government shutdown fight, Republicans have to figure out what they need to do in order to win the White House back in 2016. Nominating Christie may help, as conservative darling Ann Coulter has said, but that doesn't mean GOP primary voters, who decide the party's nominee, are going to vote for Christie.
That didn't stop Richard and other House and Senate leaders on pressing forward to get a new gun bill introduced in the next legislative session. Soon after the veto session, they released a joint statement saying work on a new Second Amendment bill would begin immediately. Sure enough, we got a copy of the new bill yesterday. On Halloween, no less! The new bill contains much of the same nullification language that the previous bill did. "All federal acts, laws, court orders, rules, and regulations, whether past, present, or future, which infringe on the people's right to keep and bear arms as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 23 of the Missouri Constitution shall be invalid in this state, shall not be recognized by this state, shall be specifically rejected by this state, and shall be considered null and void ab initio and of no effect in this state," the bill says. That's pretty cut and dry. Other aspects of the bill say a doctor can't inquire as to whether his or her patient owns a firearm, and it lowers the minimum age to carry a concealed weapon to 19.
I talked with Sen. Richard and he repeatedly expressed to me that the bill is stronger than the previous one, but was stripped of the aforementioned problematic language. I pressed him on the nullification part of the bill and he said the bill would be upheld in federal court. Rep. Stacey Newman, D-St. Louis County, disagrees. She called the bill flatly unconstitutional and said the bill is "designed to sell weapons." She also said the courts would first look at the nullification language.
I really don't get the Republican Party's obsession with gun nullification. Passing constitutional gun-friendly bills is fine, (I come from Texas. I'm used to it) but passing a bill with 19th century language in it is not professional and is beneath the integrity of this legislature. They know the law. A good number of legislators are attorneys. Nullification language does not fly. We fought a war over it. The North won, the South did not. States are passing bills making it easier to own a firearm. That's fine. Those bills are constitutional. This bill is not. It is a direct violation of the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution and would get struck down in a federal court.
I come from the nation's most active death penalty state. We execute people for a living in Texas. It's just a common occurrence to hear about the state killing 1 person a month, or 2 people in a month, or 3 people in a span of 3 weeks. Usually, Texas executes 13-15 inmates a year. As previously mentioned, Missouri has executed 68 inmates in 24 years. It takes Texas 4-5 years to do that! Texas has their execution procedures down to a T. They know exactly what's going to happen 7 days before the execution and they have strict protocols in place to see that every procedure is properly followed. I have only one problem with the way Texas executes inmates. In 2011, an inmate ordered this for his last meal, according to CBS News: two chicken fried steaks, a triple-meat bacon cheeseburger, fried okra, a pound of barbecue, three fajitas, a meat lover's pizza, a pint of ice cream and a slab of peanut butter fudge with crushed peanuts. Then, a prominent state senator "raised hell" about this and requested the Texas Department of Criminal Justice end the last meal practice. They complied and for two years, nearly 30 inmates have been served what every other prisoner gets on that day. I don't care how outlandish the last meal request is. Let them have at least some dignity before they are killed. The last meal practice should be restored in Texas.
Over the last month or so, Missouri has tried to figure out how to execute two inmates. One was set to die this past Wednesday, October 23 and one is set to die a week before Thanksgiving. Because of European Union regulations banning shipments of drugs that could be used in executions to countries that support capital punishment, the EU threatened to stop shipment of Propofol to the United States. The drug is a popular anesthetic used in hospitals around the country. Missouri said they were going to use a large amount of Propofol to kill the inmate who was supposed to be killed two days ago. After uproar from a prominent anesthesiologists organization and the EU, Missouri decided to delay the execution until they could figure out another way to kill him. This week, the state announced they would use pentobarbital to kill the inmate scheduled to be executed before Thanksgiving. The drug causes death by respiratory arrest. The drug is used by some states to kill inmates on its own. No other drugs are used. A lethal dose is administered and that's it.
It's not like Missouri doesn't have states it can call to help them solve their execution problems. They could easily pick up the phone and call Gov. Perry's office in Austin, or Gov. Kasich's office in Columbus, or Gov. Scott's office in Tallahassee. I think part of the reason why the MO Dept. of Corrections is afraid to talk to media outlets like MDN is because they're scared to reveal their incompetency. If they were to talk to someone like me, I think their incompetency would shine through.
When a state wants to execute an inmate, they better make sure they have a set system of protocols, including the most important component(s): the execution drug(s)! The last month or so reveals that Missouri has no idea what they are doing and that they should stop trying to kill people until they figure it out.
Why was the bill not taken up earlier? That is an easy question to answer and this theory is supported by many journalists and politicians alike. The bill that would've reopened the ENTIRE government was not brought up because Tea Party members in the House prevented the bill from coming to the floor. They would not accept any government funding bill that would fund Obamacare. Many of them said they were sent to Washington to repeal the law and even after this knockdown, drag out fight, they vow to continue to fight to repeal the health care law. Ted Cruz led the defunding fight, a fight which many moderate Republicans said was a losing one from the start. They called it a "tactical error," and that was just one of the more nicer things said about Sen. Cruz. Rep. Peter King, R-NY, ripped into him, saying he was the only one responsible for the government shutdown. The polls seem to agree with King. The GOP took a very hard hit politically in this fight. Their poll numbers fell faster than hail in a thunderstorm. Their public image took a hit as well and they are the ones being blamed for the government shutdown. It just wasn't a good 2 weeks to be a member of the Republican Party in Congress.
The question to ask after this debacle is... Was it really worth all the pain? My answer: NO. People couldn't visit national parks, veterans couldn't visit their own memorials until members of Congress organized a photo op with them in front of the memorials so they could make themselves look good. Also, the VA couldn't process the mountain of veteran's disability benefits that it had only begun to dig out of. Finally, hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of federal workers were furloughed, costing the country $24 billion in lost productivity, according to Standard & Poor's. So, no, all the kabuki theater and political posturing in Washington was not worth the pain the American people endured for 16 days.
I knew Gov. Nixon was in the Capitol on Thursday. I ran into one of the troopers who protects Nixon in the Capitol basement. Also, the elevator I used to take back to the 1st floor came from the 2nd floor and the only way to hit the 2nd floor button is if you have a key because that leads into Nixon's office. However, it still came as a surprise when Kalish came in and said the governor was right outside our door.
Phill always says Nixon's administration has been one of the least press friendly administrations he's ever covered in 40+ years of working at the Capitol. Now I see why he says that. The Arch is what symbolizes St. Louis. It's the monument everybody recognizes and wants to go up to the top of, unless they're afraid of heights. Right now, it is closed because of the government shutdown, but Nixon now has the power to use state money to reopen the park that contains the Arch. Will he do it? That's a legitimate question that needs to be answered immediately. It needs to be answered immediately because the St. Louis Cardinals open the National League Championship Series (NLCS) tonight in St. Louis against the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Arch is just blocks from Busch Stadium. I'm sure many Dodgers fans in town for the games haven't been to the top of the Arch, and maybe even some Cardinals fans haven't either. C'mon, Gov. Nixon, what is your answer? Will fans be able to enjoy the most iconic St. Louis monument or not? That's all we want to know.
I parallel Gov. Nixon's unwillingness to answer the tough questions with my home state's governor's unwillingness to answer the tough questions. Gov. Rick Perry is notorious for going on Fox News to answer softball partisan questions. He's also known for flying around the state and doing public appearances touting these new jobs coming to Dallas, or this new business relocating to Austin, or whatever. However, I rarely see him do press conferences and one of the reasons he doesn't have to is because Texas is such a red state, if he chose to run for another term in 2014 (which he hasn't), he would probably be reelected, notwithstanding Wendy Davis. Also, the Texas Legislature only meets in January-May every odd numbered year. He's presided over 7 regular sessions and something like 13 special sessions, but he rarely appears and takes questions from the Capitol press corps. Everybody knows he who is because of his failed "oops" run for president, but in Texas, you don't see him appear often on local TV stations.
I don't like it when governors aren't open, or at least appear to be open, to the press corps. It puts them in a bad light and gives them a bad reputation with the people whose jobs it is to cover them. Will Wendy Davis or Greg Abbott be more open to the press in Texas in 2015? Will Chris Koster or whoever the GOP nominee for governor is be more open to the press? One can only hope.
On Monday night, when I finished watching WWE Monday Night Raw, I flipped over to two of the greatest channels known to man... CSPAN and CSPAN2. Yes, I'm serious. In terms of great theater, posturing, and over the top rhetoric, you can't beat those two networks. When Raw ended at 10:05 CT, the government was 55 minutes away from shutting down for the first time since late 1995. This particular government shutdown was caused by the House Republicans insisting President Obama delay implementation of the Affordable Care Act, aka ObamaCare. Obama and Senate Democrats didn't budge, so the government shut down at 12:01 a.m. ET Tuesday morning. As the clock struck midnight in Washington D.C., Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) lamented that this shutdown didn't have to happen. Yes, Mr. Leader, you are right. This didn't need to happen. It is beyond childish for legislators, most of whom are 50 years or older, to not come to an agreement to keep the United States government open! It doesn't border on ridiculousness; rather, it is the definition of ridiculousness.
All throughout this week, House Republicans passed bills that reopened only certain parts of the government. Again, Senate Democrats and President Obama objected because they insist for them to accept any government funding bill, the ENTIRE government must reopen. So, here we are on Friday morning, October 4 and the government is still shut down. Millions of federal workers are furloughed, some are working without pay (IOUs) and yet, members of Congress are still getting their paychecks, which total nearly $3,400 a week! You're probably asking yourself, "they get paid that much for doing almost nothing?!" Yes, yes they do. I agree. It's total crap. To their credit though, many lawmakers are donating their paychecks to charity or are just not accepting their pay at all. That is a positive step.
What will it take to reopen the United States government? I don't know. This shutdown may go on until we reach the debt limit on October 17, and that is not a game to be played at all. That has much more dire consequences for the global economy than the U.S. government shutting down. Hopefully it doesn't drag on that long, but with the amount of spoiled children in Congress, I wouldn't be surprised if it did.
I do wish I was working here in the spring when the legislature is in session. It would be a lot easier to get a hold of legislators and other organizations that have a stake in what lawmakers do, but I shouldn't lament about the situation. It is what it is and I should deal with it. After all, the first 4 weeks this semester were fun because we previewed the veto session from every angle and the day after the session ended, I broke the story that Speaker Jones will run for attorney general in 2016 and I interviewed some of the "Flimsy 15" legislators who changed their vote on the tax cut bill.
Who knows what moron will make news in the coming months before the legislature comes back in January for their regular session? Maybe something of major consequence to Missouri will happen between now and early December. I don't know what will happen, but I do know we'll be there to cover it.
Playing the "legislative waiting game" is not fun. I'm at the mercy of legislators having time to talk with me and who knows if they're in court (some are attorneys), at work, or doing whatever else they're doing. It doesn't help that I'm working at the Capitol during the fall of a non-election year. They don't meet with regularity in the fall anyway, so that doesn't help. Last Wednesday will probably be the only time they will all be in the Capitol at once. But that's the way Missouri politics works.
Overall, I was happy with the story I did about some of the 15 members meeting today in Ozark. The news broke near 3 p.m., so I was glad I was able to talk with three legislators in a short amount of time, knock out a Newsbook, and do two radio spots with good soundbites. Sometimes, that's just the way news works.
Missouri Digital News is produced by Missouri Digital News, Inc. -- a non profit organization of current and former journalists.