Experience eases GOP's role in Senate

Tuesday, May 21, 2002

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Shortly after Peter Kinder became president pro tem of the Missouri Senate last year, he asked U.S. Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond if trying to run a chamber populated with 34 fiercely independent people would be like herding cats.

"He said, 'No, more like putting frogs in a wheel barrow,'" Kinder said. "That is an apt metaphor."

After two legislative sessions as Senate leader, Kinder's frog-collecting skills are greatly improved. A stoutly partisan Republican when he ascended to the post, Kinder of Cape Girardeau endured harsh criticism from Democrats in his first year.

This year, particularly in the session's last half as lawmakers grappled with budget problems most had never before faced, partisanship in the Senate was put on hold.

"I think we've shown that under the most difficult, challenging circumstances we can work together," Kinder said. "You win some, you lose some, some are rained out. I've suffered all of those fates and learned in the process."

Even some of Kinder's greatest political foes say he made great strides in working across party lines.

"We really saw an about face in the way he dealt with us and the way he went about things," said state Sen. Ken Jacob, D-Columbia.

In becoming the first Republican to lead the Senate in more than a half-century, Kinder had much learning to do. The fact that the GOP took a one-vote majority in the chamber a month into the 2001 session following special elections to fill vacant seats made the learning process all the more difficult.

"Leadership gives you a new perspective and imposes new obligations on you to make the trains try to run on time, gets things done and takes care of 33 colleagues who are in every respect equals," Kinder said. "It's not easy."

Barklage's exit

Jacob points to the February resignation of David Barklage as Kinder's chief of staff as a key turning point in party relations in the Senate.

Democrats made no secret of their dislike for Barklage, a GOP political strategist from Cape Girardeau, during his yearlong tenure as Kinder's top aide. They eventually engineered his departure by raising the specter of a conflict of interest because of Barklage's political consulting firm, which he put on hold while working for Kinder, managed a campaign fund for electing Republicans to the Senate.

"As far as I can tell, when that man is around Peter doesn't do very well," Jacob said. "When he's gone, Peter does much better. Certainly, Peter had a much better year overall than he did last year."

Jacob said Kinder and other Senate Republicans have finally made the transition from their role as loyal opposition to that of majority party.

No decision yet

Legislative leadership terms last for the duration of a two-year General Assembly. Kinder said he hasn't decided whether to ask his colleagues for another stint a president pro tem next year.

"I haven't thought about it; it is too early," Kinder said. "It depends on with all the stresses of the session if they would still have me."

Likewise, Minority Floor Leader Ed Quick of Liberty said he hasn't thought about staying on as the Senate's ranking Democrat. Quick was president pro tem for two full years before becoming minority leader following the GOP takeover.

"We're having a lot of new members coming in next year," Quick said. "I guess we'll have to wait and see what they want to do."

Of course, Republicans must preserve their majority in the November elections for Kinder to even have the opportunity to remain in charge. A net gain of just one seat by Democrats would return them to power.

With 17 senators, including Kinder, midway through four-year terms and five races to be decided in the Aug. 6 party primaries, Democrats are assured 12 seats and Republicans 10 heading into the Nov. 5 general election.

That leaves four Democratic and eight GOP districts left in play.

Because of term limits, nine of those races don't feature an incumbent.

Most political observers, at least at this stage of the game, consider the outcome a tossup, though party stalwarts on both sides are confident they will prevail.

"We are focused on winning elections to take back the majority," Jacob said.

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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