The Missouri Senate Chamber
Thu, 05/20/2021 - 4:32pm admin
“Fulltime” Phelps and the Missouri Senate Showdown- Part 1
One of the more interesting jobs I’ve ever had, and certainly one of the most educational, was working for the Missouri Senate in 1973, as the reading clerk. That year, the upper house of the Missouri General Assembly provided political fireworks, and I got to be an eyewitness to history.
The 1972 election ushered in a number of “firsts.” Christopher S. “Kit” Bond, inaugurated in 1973, became the first Republican governor since Forest C. Donnell in 1941, as well as the youngest governor in Missouri history. And on his coattails, a state representative from Kansas City, William C. “Bill” Phelps, became the first Republican lieutenant governor, since Edward Henry Winter in 1929. Phelps, while campaigning for the office, claimed he would make the lieutenant governor’s office a fulltime position, and he was quickly dubbed “Fulltime” Phelps.
More firsts happened closer to home, with the 1973 legislative term. Willow’s favorite son, Wendell Bailey, began the first of his four terms as a state representative, and the quotable newspaperman/lawyer from Barry County, Emory Melton, secured the first of his six terms in the Missouri Senate.
Senator Melton often made me smile with the wry humor and wisdom he brought to the senate chamber with his Ozark quips. Once, in responding to a senator from Kansas City who sponsored a bill that could impact Emory’s home district, he said, “In Barry County, we have heard of Kansas City, but in Kansas City, they have no idea where Barry County is.”
The previous summer, before I ever met Senator Melton, I handed out election flyers for him at the request of Russell Corn, who had served as the state representative for Howell County from 1947 to 1962 and also as Willow Springs mayor. I was distributing campaign literature for Wendell Bailey, when Mr. Corn rushed out of his grocery store on First Street, and insisted that I also hand out pamphlets for his “good friend” Emory.
Essentially, the job of the senate reading clerk is to read bills out loud in the senate chamber. As part of the legislative process, some bills are required by law to be read in-full and others by title only. Any amendments offered by senators from the floor must be read in detail, loudly enough for all the senators to hear. I felt a bit like the town crier from colonial days.
As part of the interview process to get the job, I had to demonstrate the ability to project my voice while Venita Ramsey, the secretary of the senate, stood at the back of the senate chambers and listened. She apparently concluded my voice carried well enough. Hog calling from my Shannon County days and speech training from Mr. Newby at WSHS served me well.
Amendments from the floor could be entertaining. On a preprinted slip of paper, a senator would write the proposed change to a bill in longhand and signal for one of the ever-alert pages to deliver it to the Secretary, who would then hand it to me to read. I got so familiar with the various senators’ penmanship that I could have been an authenticating witness in court.
In particular, I recall the flowery scroll of Earl Blackwell from Jefferson County. If you ever see a statute from that era that contains the language “all of the laws of the State of Missouri to the contrary notwithstanding,” I’ll wager it is Senator Blackwell’s handiwork.
After the 1972 election, in addition to the offices of governor and lieutenant governor, the Republicans held significant power in the executive branch, with John Danforth as the attorney general and John Ashcroft as auditor. But the Democrats firmly controlled the Missouri Senate, by a margin of 21 to 13. And against this backdrop, a political firestorm smoldered.
The Missouri Constitution has two provisions that are key to this conflict. Pursuant to Article IV, Section 10, the lieutenant governor is president of the senate—in other words, the presiding officer. But Article 3, Section 18 grants the senate the right to determine its procedural rules. With the Democrats in the majority, the senate approved Rule 11 that allowed the president tempore (a democrat) to assume the chair at will.
In spite of the potential for conflict, business in the senate seemed to function in the usual course. Each day, Lieutenant Governor Phelps presided atop the large dais at the front of the senate chamber. At the lower level of the dais, Venita Ramsey, several other clerks, and I sat within arm’s length of the lieutenant governor. I often engaged in friendly conversation with him, before the day’s session started. He always seemed jovial, particularly if one of the clerks brought homemade cookies to share.
But all the conviviality disappeared on June 15, 1973, the last day of the legislative term. The last day of the session in both houses of the General Assembly is jampacked and hectic. While during the early part of the term, matters seemed to proceed at a leisurely pace with much of the activity taking place in committees.
The last day, however, is a scramble, plotted with military precision. The legislators are hard-pressed to complete their business before midnight and the session ends. I even heard stories about the clocks being turned back to squeeze in more time. For the record, I never witnessed that, but my sources seemed sincere.
I have read numerous newspaper accounts of what transpired that day, and none accord exactly with my memory of what happened, but here’s how I remember the events.
That last morning, just before Lieutenant Governor Phelps called the senate to order, Senator Lawrence “Larry” Lee from St. Louis, the Democratic Majority Floor Leader, strolled from his center aisle seat on the back row of the chamber and proceeded up the stairs of the elevated dais where Lieutenant Governor Phelps stood behind the podium. From my seat at the lower level of the dais, I sat within earshot of Phelps and Lee.
The two men passed a few perfunctory pleasantries, and Senator Lee handed the lieutenant governor a list of specified bills that were to be taken up, with the names of the senators to be recognized who were handling them, and then returned to his seat.
Phelps gaveled the chamber to order. Two senators stood to be recognized—a Democrat and Paul Bradshaw, a Republican from Springfield. Phelps recognized “the senator from Green County” who proceeded to take up a bill favored by the Republicans. Not calling on the senators that Democrats wanted had been a recurrent source of annoyance to the Democratic leadership.
William Cason, the president pro tempore, shot a hard glance at Larry Lee, and Senator Lee rushed down the aisle and up the steps of the dais to the upper level. “Governor, you’re not following the list.” Phelps replied, “Go sit down, senator.”
To be continued in Part 2.