Rep. Ron Richard chosen as 2009 Missouri House speaker-designee

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Richard will serve in training for the next 16 months under House Speaker Rod Jetton.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Missouri House Republicans have chosen Rep. Ron Richard to take over the chamber's top position in 2009 -- assuming he wins re-election to the House, assuming Republicans hold onto power and assuming new lawmakers abide by the wishes of their predecessors.

Those numerous assumptions highlight the novelty of the House Republicans' decision Wednesday to elect a speaker-designee.

Typically, political parties have nominated a new speaker only after winning a majority -- an event that, in this case, would occur in the November 2008 election.

Instead, Republicans tapped Richard to serve in training for the next 16 months under House Speaker Rod Jetton. He then still would have to be officially elected speaker by the full House in January 2009.

Richard, of Joplin, defeated Rep. Allen Icet, from the St. Louis suburb of Wildwood, in a secret vote by House Republicans that Jetton described as "a very hard-fought speaker's election."

The GOP currently holds a 90-70 majority over House Democrats, with three vacancies.

Jetton, of Marble Hill, said he expects Republicans to lose three or four seats in the 2008 elections, which would still leave the GOP with more than the 82 seats needed for a majority.

"If we don't keep the majority, it's kind of a moot point," acknowledged Jetton, who assured that he would remain in the top post until his term ends.

Two other House leaders, who like Jetton are prohibited from seeking re-election by term limits, already have moved on.

Speaker Pro Tem Carl Bearden, R-St. Charles, resigned to go to work for a lobbying, fund-raising and public relations firm. House Majority Leader Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, won a special election last week for a vacant Senate seat.

On Wednesday, the House elected Rep. Bryan Pratt, R-Blue Springs, to take over as speaker pro tem. Pratt defeated four other Republicans to win the nomination in a closed caucus meeting Tuesday night.

Rep. Steven Tilley, R-Perryville, took over as House majority leader Wednesday after defeating Rep. Tom Self, R-Cole Camp, in the Republican's Tuesday night caucus.

Democrats also made a change Wednesday in their leadership.

Rep. Paul LeVota, of Independence, formally took over as House minority leader, though he had been elected to the position by his caucus last July to replace Rep. Jeff Harris, D-Columbia. Harris stepped down from the leadership post to focus on his 2008 campaign for attorney general.

Jetton said the election of a speaker-designee so far in advance should hopefully allow a smoother transition for Richard. Several other states, including neighboring Arkansas and Oklahoma, already use a similar speaker selection process.

"It's something that's happening more and more in states that have term limits, because the turnover is so quick and the learning curve is so steep," Jetton said.

Richard, 60, is a former Joplin mayor and city councilman who owns several bowling alleys in southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas. He first was elected to the House in 2002 and currently serves as chairman of the House Job Creation and Economic Development Committee.

Although sometimes abrupt in answering questions, he has a reputation for being straightforward and for working with both Republicans and Democrats.

He was in the spotlight most recently for his sponsorship of an economic development bill. Blunt initially vetoed that bill out of concern it had ballooned to become too costly, but a slimmed-down version ultimately passed during a special legislative session last month.

Richard declined to outline any personal goals for the speaker's office Wednesday, insisting his current role is only a supporting one, not a lead one.

"My goal is to support the existing Speaker Jetton in whatever duties he gives me, whether it's candidate recruitment or fundraising," said Richard, adding: "He's still in charge."

Richard did say that Icet would remain as chairman of the House Budget Committee, which Icet said would be fine with him. Beyond that, Richard said he made no other promises while campaigning for the speaker's position.

Both Richard and Icet had spent months trying to rally support. Republicans said the contest was close, though the final vote was not revealed, either publicly or to Republican caucus members.

A November 1995 Cole County court decision, in a lawsuit brought by reporters for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, upheld the right of legislative party caucuses to close their meetings. The lawsuit had challenged a caucus meeting by House Democrats, who were the majority party at the time.

The decision said the legislative party caucus was not a public governmental body subject to Missouri's Sunshine Law requiring open meetings. Although a quorum of House members would be present for a majority party caucus meeting, the court said that did not constitute a de facto meeting of the House.

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