Ex-Missouri lawmaker Jet Banks dies

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

ST. LOUIS -- J.B. "Jet" Banks, a once-powerful, well-tailored Democrat who served three decades in the Missouri Legislature before his colorful political career was unhinged by health issues and a tax felony, has died. He was 79.

Banks, a sharecropper's son whose service as state Senate majority leader made him Missouri's highest-ranking black elected official, died Sunday at a Las Vegas hospital's emergency room, authorities in that Nevada resort city said Monday.

Clark County (Nev.) Coroner Michael Murphy said Banks appears to have died of natural causes, though he could not be more specific.

"Sen. Banks' death represents the passing of an era and the loss of an influential leader in Missouri politics," Gov. Bob Holden said, calling Banks an effective, persuasive "self-made man."

J. Bernard Banks won a state House seat in 1969, seven years before capturing the District 5 Senate seat. He spent eight years through late 1996 as the state Senate majority leader, the chief traffic cop for legislation. No other black person had achieved an office so high in Missouri's legislative hierarchy.

Banks resigned in December 1999, citing health problems. About that time, the diabetic politician was hospitalized for pneumonia and chest pains and said doctors wanted to perform heart surgery.

Banks' leaving the Senate came three months after he pleaded guilty to filing false state income tax returns for 1994 and 1995, a felony that netted him five years of probation and a court-ordered 300 hours of community service.

By pleading guilty, Banks admitted he overstated his investment in an airport limousine company.

Campaign investigation

The charges stemmed from an investigation into a campaign finance report filed by Banks, which had errors totaling $100,000. At that time, the Cole County prosecutor said the law made it difficult to prove that Banks made the campaign finance errors on purpose.

Banks was not prosecuted in that case, though the information led to an inquiry of Banks' finances.

While on probation, Banks was barred by state law from holding any elected or appointed office.

Banks was born a sharecropper's son in Southeast Missouri's Bootheel, but his influence rose through the years in St. Louis' black community.

"He was always for the underdog, for the minorities," said State Sen. Harold Caskey, the Butler Democrat who served as the Senate's assistant floor leader while Banks was that chamber's majority chief.

"I think of all the senators, he represented his constituency best of all. He understood their needs and responded. His people came first."

Banks at times resorted to theater to make his case. In 1995, he strapped toy six-shooters under his suit coat to mock backers of a measure that would have legalized concealed guns.

"There's nothing more important to the people I represent" in St. Louis, Banks pressed then, suggesting that crime in his hometown "is as rampant as raindrops when it's raining."

"I pity you if you walk into St. Louis if we put more guns on the streets then there are now," he warned. "Your life is going to be in danger, and you better take out more insurance."

In the 1970s, Banks also shepherded legislation merging Harris-Stowe, a historically black St. Louis college that was financially struggling, into the state higher education system -- an achievement Caskey cast as "one of his finest hours."

"There would not be a Harris-Stowe State College had it not been for Jet Banks," said Henry Givens Jr., the college's longtime president who also credits Banks with expanding the school's degree offerings from one to a dozen. "He will be sorely missed. This is a tremendous loss."

Similar laments came from the other side of the aisle, where Steve Ehlmann -- a Republican who once countered Banks as the Senate's minority floor leader in the late 1990s -- credited Banks as the guy who "kind of kept everybody loose, kept everybody on his toes."

Case in point: Banks once plunged the Senate into a procedural predicament by offering an amendment while filibustering an abortion bill and then leaving the building -- effectively stalling debate for a while.

"The best senators are the people who know the rules and can use the rules -- no one held that against him," said Ehlmann, now a St. Charles County associate circuit judge.

State Sen. Maida Coleman, a Democrat occupying Banks' former 5th District seat, on Monday called Banks' public service "the type of career that stories are made out of."

As the Legislature's fashion plate, Banks at times changed suits several times a day -- what Caskey called "just his way of being flamboyant."

"That was his trademark. He'd put on a fashion show," Caskey said, recalling that Banks' wardrobe -- from green leather suits to all-white duds topped off by a matching hat -- left no detail unattended, right down to a matching handkerchief.

"It was quite a show. We'd look forward to it every day," Caskey said.

Survivors include his wife, Anita.

Funeral arrangements were pending with St. Louis' Austin Layne Mortuary.

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