Party man

Friday, September 28, 2007
Dr. Steven Tilley, left, talked with Anthony Bader on Thursday in Tilley's Perryville, Mo., optometry office. Tilley, who represents the 106th district, was selected House Majority Leader by GOP members. (Kit Doyle)

PERRYVILLE, Mo. -- Keeping busy isn't a problem for Steven Tilley.

Whether he's helping patients in the family business as Dr. Steven Tilley, optometrist, or traveling the state helping fellow Republicans as state Rep. Steven Tilley, second-term lawmaker, he always has a goal. Early this month, he achieved a political objective when GOP members of the Missouri House made him their majority leader after just three sessions in the capital.

Tilley, 36, began his political career helping others get elected. He was campaign treasurer for Kevin Engler of Farmington in 2002 when the Republican Party needed a candidate in the 106th Missouri House District following the resignation of Rep. Tom Burcham. Under Missouri's term limits, Tilley could have expected Engler to sit in the House until 2010.

But when Engler jumped into the Third District Senate race in 2004, Tilley took the plunge in the three-county district.

He rolled up a big enough majority in Perry County to win the Republican primary, then repeated the feat in November.

Even in the midst of that campaign, Tilley was thinking beyond his own race, trying to help his party win. He sent $10,000 from his campaign treasury to the House Republican Campaign Committee, which works to elect GOP candidates in districts across the state.

Raising money and distributing it to other candidates is a well-traveled path to leadership posts in both parties. Tilley's added a busy travel schedule -- he's campaigned in person for virtually every Republican in the House from the Oklahoma line to the Iowa border -- and now has reaped the reward.

"I have worked the district very hard, and I try to put my constituents first and foremost, so luckily I didn't have an opponent so it freed up the time for me to do that," Tilley said.

Tilley studied the methods for gaining influence. His models include House Speaker Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, who traveled extensively when the GOP took control of the House in 2002. "Sometimes you don't have to reinvent the wheel, you just kind of look and see how other people did it, see how it was successful, and I certainly try to do some of those things," Tilley said.

The job of majority leader is like the traffic cop on the House floor. No bill moves unless the majority leader says its time has come. A good majority leader moves the issues important to the party as a whole to the forefront, helps members pass legislation important to their districts and works to checkmate the opposition.

And a good leader, Tilley said, keeps promises. "I am not going to be one of those guys that tells you to your face I am with you and then tries to use every procedural mechanism possible to be against you," he said.

His fellow Republicans have responded. They appreciate the money -- Tilley has donated more than $100,000 to fellow Republicans since forming his first campaign committee and helped them raise hundreds of thousands more -- and they like his style.

"I don't know how he does what he does," said House Budget Committee vice chairman Ed Robb of Columbia. "He has a full-time practice in Perryville, he's in Jefferson City Monday through Thursday during the session, he's very good at raising money and very good at helping other candidates. He is easy to talk to, a very nice person and very well organized."

State Rep. Ellen Brandom, R-Sikeston, said Tilley's command of the legislative process meshed well with his fundraising prowess. "I can't tell you what counts for more," she said. "He was so successful in both areas."

Not long after Brandom decided to run, she received a call from Tilley. "He truly has a real talent in organizational politics, campaign politics," she said.

Tilley was born on a military base in Germany. He graduated from Perryville High School. He's a graduate of Southeast Missouri State University, where he met his wife Kellie, and the University of Missouri-St. Louis School of Optometry. He has two daughters, Kourtney and Korrin, and an easygoing manner that puts visitors at ease. He's not above making himself the butt of a joke.

"Living with my wife and two daughters, I am in the minority every day except when I am in Jefferson City," he said.

As majority leader, Tilley said, he's not going to try to push a personal legislative agenda. And he can get irritated with interest groups concerned only with their issues, regardless of their importance to the party.

Missouri Right to Life issued rankings from the most recent legislative session that counted every procedural vote on the sale of MOHELA assets to build campus buildings. Missouri Right to Life opposed the measure, worried that with the passage of the stem-cell protections of Amendment 2, the buildings would be used to conduct embryonic stem-cell research.

Republicans, on the whole, supported the bill; Democrats opposed it. On the resulting scorecard, many strongly pro-life lawmakers were rated lower that legislators who support abortion rights.

"They made a mockery of the process," Tilley said.

And the way the rankings were compiled will make Missouri Right to Life less influential, he said. "What is disappointing is when Missouri Right to Life, who many people consider to be the leader on pro-life issues in this state, sets up a ranking that misleads the public," he said. "They need to consider that when they do their rankings in the future."

Tilley supported Amendment 2, which was opposed in his district by a large majority. If a disease threatened one of his daughters, and a therapy developed from cloning technology could help, Tilley said he would use it. "It was tough for me to outlaw something I would do to save my own child's life," he said.

Tilley doesn't travel only by car. He's co-owner of an airplane along with lobbyist Travis Brown, who represents 21 clients ranging from AT&T and the American Petroleum Institute to Raytown, Mo. and Monsanto. Tilley said he couldn't keep up the travel pace without the airplane.

Brown loaned the plane to Democratic state Rep. Sam Page of Creve Couer in June to kick off Page's campaign to unseat Republican Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder. Tilley said he doesn't have a veto over who uses the airplane, and neither does Brown.

"Peter knows I support him," Tilley said. "If I hadn't been working the past year and a half doing the things I have done, that would be an issue. But there is no question of my loyalty to my fellow caucus members."

Having a leadership job means Tilley must be responsive to the caucus, representing members' views with the governor and the Senate, said Perry County Associate Commissioner Patrick Naeger, formerly the assistant Republican leader of the Missouri House. But it also means perks for the district, when available, he said.

"He can't be a legislative hog or a budget hog or he will never see that position again," Naeger said. "But his colleagues know there is a bonus being in that position and every so often there is an extra bone that is going to be thrown your way."

Tilley's rise will generate talk about his future, but it is too early to talk about the next political step, he said. "It has been pretty overwhelming to be elected majority leader," he said.

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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