IT ALL ADDS UP:
Reform and the Erosion of Representative Government
in Missouri, 1900-2000
Kenneth H. Winn
New York State Building, Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis, Missouri, stereo card by Slingley, B.L., for Keystone View Co., 1904
Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis
Americans have always covered the past with a nostalgic haze. The Founding Fathers created a perfect government and political descendants like Lincoln only made it better. In the past there was no crime, no unwed mothers, children didn’t talk back to their parents, people took responsibility for themselves. In Missouri a century ago the "Gay Nineties" eased us toward the 1904 World’s Fair. Beautiful women strolled in long dresses and fancy hats carrying dainty parasols to protect themselves from the summer sun. Men in funny pants, sporting handlebar mustaches, rode merrily on big-wheeled bicycles. Life was somehow more relaxed, more pleasant. Young couples ducked out of the heat to sip lemonade. The church social gave the community its entertainment and crack-the-whip and red-rover gave children pleasures now lost to Nintendo.
Politics was different too. Our civic culture was our public culture—and our entertainment. In 1900 rural boys went to courthouses to hear lawyers put on theatrical shows. Whole towns turned out to hear a politician give a speech that could last up to three hours. Patriotic occasions such as the 4th of July brought shivers of respect, not "Christmas in July" sales. The thought of putting up with flag-burners never occurred to anyone because none doubted that America was the finest country on earth. God in His wisdom had made it so, and our ancestors, guided by His hand, laid the foundation of our good fortune. In 1900 everybody voted—old, young, rich and poor. In rural areas no one thought it a burden to walk ten or twenty miles to cast a vote. Politics was local and face to face; the politicians knew the people and the people knew them.
And so on.
Unfortunately behind these images, real enough in some ways, is a truth dramatically at odds with how we like to think about the past. Chronic labor violence and endemic farm protest marked the end of the nineteenth century and the rise of the twentieth. Long hard hours of farm and factory work were a norm and child labor, even in dangerous occupations like mining, flourished. Fatal disease and disaster ran rampant through the cities and the countryside, killing many in the prime of their lives. The art of politics was very much the art of corruption. It wasn’t just the wealthy businessmen who corrupted politics—though many of them did—lots of everyday Missourians participated as well. Corruption was a day-to-day thing; small bribes bought small favors. In the big cities and rural courthouses corruption thrived in a manner that Americans today associate with third world countries.
By contrast, at the twentieth century’s end Missourians are healthier, wealthier, and work less hours for their greater wealth than did their ancestors in 1900. Society and politics have never been more inclusive—women, African Americans, the poor, the disabled, and, in growing numbers, gay Missourians are, in varying degrees, far more integrated into the mainstream of Missouri politics and society than they were in 1900. Politically, Missouri has never had cleaner elections, more fiscally honest government, or better-educated legislators, than today. Thanks to reforms at the early part of the century formal democracy has grown as well, with the adoption of initiative petition, referendum, and recall, and the direct election of United States Senators.
This essay is not designed to celebrate the present. Our problems are too obvious for that. Nor is it intended to denigrate the past, for the past is too worthy of respect. History is too messy to put into an ideological straightjacket without doing violence to its integrity. Rather this essay is about the power of Missouri government, the attempts of Missourians to control the abuse of that power, and the effect that reform has had on representative democracy. We have wanted government to have the necessary energy to accomplish the ends we have assigned to it, but not so much as to endanger our liberties or pick our pocket. The response to the irresponsible use of power by politicians has been to check the power at every turn—and that is much of the story of twentieth century Missouri and American politics. Missourians have consistently taken power away from their politicians, undermined their political parties, created a large unelected bureaucracy to administer their government, and, in great numbers, stopped voting. Yet even as representative democracy seems to have diminished over time, most Missourians have seemed largely content with this trend, and should the past be any guide to the future, this trend will continue. In so doing, Missouri citizens, or at least those who vote, have sometimes responded with ham-handed measures that have kept government from performing its legitimate duties with efficiency or skill. Many reforms advocated as the harbinger of enlightened government have, ironically, often lead to greater corruption or have lessened democracy. Still, as clumsy and shortsighted as these attempts at reform may be, the apparently congenital urge to wrongdoing or power mongering by venal or ambitious politicians always leads to a fresh wave of rules and reform.
Missourians have gained much during the course of the twentieth century and they have lost much too. The past does have a pattern and in discerning it we will not only better understand ourselves, but also gain a useful perspective from which we may better understand what is realistic for our politics and what is not.
Missouri Gets Progressive: a Folk Tale
At the century’s dawn, Missouri, like much of the nation, underwent a sea change in its politics. The state was at the forefront of a quarter century of farm protest that culminated in the Populist movement. In 1896 angry farmers found their champion in the presidential candidacy of William Jennings Bryan and were decisively defeated. The public minting of silver was the determining issue. Farmers wanted to mint silver to counteract the long-term deflationary pressures of the era, while most Republicans and "gold" Democrats recoiled in horror from what they regarded as a funny money scheme. At the Democratic National Convention Bryan dramatically declared: "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold." But apparently "they" could. Industrial America had given Agricultural America a severe thumping.
Bryan’s crushing defeat and the gradual ebbing of the Panic of 1893 undercut the agricultural discontent. Pressures for change in the new industrial America were hardly ebbing, however, this time these new forces were stronger, more powerful, and they came from within industrial urban society rather than from without.
In 1900 Missouri was home to one of the most important of the nation’s new metropolises. St. Louis, with more than 575,000 people, was larger than it would be at the twentieth century’s end. At the time it was America’s fourth largest city (behind New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia). Like the other big cities it was justly famous for its filth and overcrowded ethnic tenement slums: the Irish lived in "Kerry Patch," African Americans lived in "Clabber Alley," Italian immigrants on "Dago Hill." A bewildering Babel of voices could be heard from Southern and Eastern Europe and some public schools were conducted in German. Public health was an ever-present concern. Garbage was strewn everywhere. When it rained the mud in St. Louis’ poorly paved streets and even its sidewalks was virtually inescapable. At night one might find prostitutes but, notoriously, not street light. In addition to these, St. Louis was "celebrated" for polluted air and water. Filthy smoke created by the cheap soft coal brought from the nearby Illinois coal fields darkened the day and filled the lungs; and the nation’s most infamous water supply—filthy dark brown water from the Mississippi River, rich with sand and Chicago sewage, poured from the city’s water taps.
Restrained by outmoded ideology in the face of great change and lacking in money, city government was not performing its job. To the extent that needs were met, it was through political corruption. In St. Louis corruption was symbolized by the powerful Irish political boss "Colonel" Edward Butler, a former blacksmith whose rise to power began with his monopoly on the horseshoeing of St. Louis’ streetcar lines. Despite later romanticized accounts, Butler did not have political control of the city and hardly a monopoly on corruption, but he certainly was the city’s best in those particular lines of trade. (Although Butler was a Democrat by profession, St. Louis enjoyed a competitive two-party system, and Butler was quite willing to work with Republicans as necessity dictated.) His minions engaged in conventional electoral bad behavior: they beat up politically incorrect voters, intimidated election judges, stuffed ballot boxes, repeat voted, and moved election polls to confuse supporters of rival political opponents. He controlled the city’s elective government through lucrative bribes as needed, those upon whose loyalty he could always count were termed, "the Combine." His urban base was such that he was regarded, appropriately, as something of a power in state politics.
As big city bosses of the period run, Butler is of about average interest. He had neither the power nor the inventiveness of Kansas City’s Thomas Pendergast, an aristocrat among the nation’s politically corrupt elite. While Butler’s gang may have done this or that, of far greater importance is the crusade they setoff that made an obscure Tennessee migrant to St. Louis nationally famous, then governor, and finally a contender for the presidency.
Joseph Folk came to St. Louis in 1893 to join his judge uncle in a law partnership. A minor participant in local Democratic politics, he gained a measure of good publicity for his work in negotiating an end to a particularly vicious streetcar strike. When approached to run for circuit attorney in 1900 he received the blessing of all factions of the Democratic Party, including Ed Butler. During his campaign Folk said that he would come down hard on wrongdoing wherever he found it. The Democratic bosses paid little attention; they had heard it all before. To their shock, however, that is exactly what Folk did. Upon taking office he first went against those who corrupted the electoral process—men who had, in fact, just used those very methods to help get Folk elected. Intense pressure quickly fell on Folk from people who told him to go after the Republican crooks but leave the Democrat crooks alone. His campaign reached its political apogee when, a year later, he went after Boss Butler himself. On a change of venue to Columbia, Butler was found guilty of attempting to bribe two members of St. Louis’ Board of Health to steer garbage removal contracts to himself. Unfortunately for Butler his effort to dress like a farmer failed to impress Boone County’s hardy yeomen jurors who found him guilty.
Eventually Butler received more sympathy from Missouri’s Supreme Court, who despising Folk, overturned Butler’s conviction, but the Boss’s power was permanently broken. Folk was, in fact, a sloppy prosecutor and often achieved his convictions with the aid of sympathetic lower court judges. His convictions of the politically corrupt were overturned upon appeal with remarkable regularity. But Folk’s crusade won him fame nonetheless. Folk was actually not principally concerned with sending people to jail; he was much more interested in changing Missouri’s political culture.
In the process of prosecuting corrupt politicians, however, he made an important discovery. They all had ties to businessmen—rich ones. Many of the city’s social elite lived in nice mansions in the city’s Central West End. They became collectively known as the "Big Cinch." They owned banks, speculated in real estate, ran corporations, and were powerful lawyers. But here matters got more complicated. Their work gave them extensive business dealings with government. Many of these businessmen were shamelessly greedy, looking for the special privileges that only government could bestow. But the problem was larger than mere knavery. Even respectable businessmen were deeply implicated in political corruption. Work, jobs, and payoffs had to be made to get their goals achieved. Bribes were common, ordinary. Corruption was regarded as perhaps unfortunate, but that was the price of doing business. Everybody understood it, everybody did it, and nobody wasted much time agonizing over it. They may have been caught in a system, but they didn’t complain much. For those in a position to afford such things, the system worked reasonably well.
Joseph Folk’s greatest accomplishment was his challenge to this culture. Corruption had become so established that his wholesale rejection of it was as shocking as a slap in the face. In 1902 Folk brought charges against wealthy Kansas Citian Robert Synder (probably best remembered today for building Ha-Ha Tonka State Park’s famous "castle") for his bribery of St. Louis Municipal Assembly members to create a streetcar monopoly. Synder’s attorney, Henry S. Priest, stated a bit more openly than was prudent the conventional belief that "there are worse things than bribery; bribery is, after all, not such a serious crime. It is a conventional offense…a trifling offense, a mere perversion of justice." Folk electrified Missouri and then the nation with his repudiation of this kind of thinking, famously declaring that "bribery is treason, and the givers and takers of bribes are…traitors…" Folk’s point, which he tirelessly made, was that "boodle," as political corruption for monetary advantage came to be known, undermined representative government and placed all government power and preferment in the service of a wealthy oligarchy. What kind of a democracy did you have when corrupt elections made voting meaningless, and government became the servant solely of those who could afford to purchase its favors? It was not the people’s will being served.
As long as Folk went after notorious figures like Butler and the lesser political thugs who corrupted the political process, he enjoyed widespread support. When he started going after businessmen, he lost it. Much of the local press and the city elite rallied against him. He was accused of ruining St. Louis’ business climate. Some visited him privately, others publicly, and threatened him with ruin or physical violence. He was beseeched for mercy, called a traitor to his party, offered political preferment. Folk’s hour, Progressive America’s hour, had arrived, however, and there was no stopping him. His moment came in no little measure because it was Lincoln Steffen’s moment too, who was poised to become one of America’s foremost muckraking journalists. Working with St. Louis journalist Claude Wetmore, Steffens wrote his famous 1903 essay, "Tweed Days in St. Louis" for the popular magazine, McClure's. The essay, which made Folk nationally famous, became the opening story for Steffen’s classic book, The Shame of the Cities (it would also include a second unflattering essay on the city entitled, "The Shamelessness of St. Louis" when it appeared in 1904).
It did not take long for his rising fame to lead Folk to think about running for higher office. Indeed the presidency was soon on his mind, but he settled for Missouri’s governorship as a necessary stepping-stone. He was helped in this ambition when it became all too spectacularly apparent that the state legislature was as corrupt as St. Louis’s municipal government. For years, a loose group in and around state government known as the "Lobby" had worked on behalf of special interests for a price. In late 1902 a scandal erupted when it was revealed that commercial competitors had purchased legislation banning alum’s use. A Cole County grand jury probing state government corruption in the wake of the scandal concluded that: "The extent of the venality existing among the makers of our State laws is alarming to those who believe in free government…the evidence before us shows that corruption has been the usual and accepted thing in State legislation…Laws have been sold to the highest bidder in numerous instances." Working with Attorney General Edward Crow, Folk, still prosecuting attorney, managed to carve out a role for himself in the alum investigation, which eventually lead to the indictment and resignation of the lieutenant governor and several legislators.
By the alum scandal’s conclusion Folk’s gubernatorial candidacy and subsequent election were almost a certainty. His run for office was, in fact, more moral crusade than campaign. On the stump Folk not only offered the state, but the nation, "the Missouri Idea," that a reawakened civic morality would drive commercialism and grafters out of government, that laws were for enforcing, and that politicians were public servants of a democracy, not the private servants of an oligarchy.
Folk did win a smashing victory, but it was a personal one. The Republicans took control of the legislature and the rest of the Democratic ticket went down to defeat. While Folk was exhilarated, he became a man without a party. During the campaign Folk had engaged in a lot of pious anti-party rhetoric: "if a party cannot get along without rascals, the people should get along without the party." Many Democratic party activists came to hate Folk or "Holy Joe," as they scornfully called him, a man who would ruin his own party for personal advantage. When Folk in his inaugural address declared that there were those who were lying in wait to resume power believing that the ‘Missouri Idea’ was "only a passing virtuous spasm," he was not far from the mark. His administration proved troubled, with Democrats as well as Republicans ready to resist his leadership. He tried to pass a law to virtually eject lobbyists from Jefferson City; attempted to clamp down on the gift of popular railroad passes given to legislators; pushed for a public service commission to control utilities, commercial travel, and communication; worked for the passage of initiative petition, referendum, and recall; for the adoption of primaries; urged that voting be made compulsory; and tried to enforce all laws to their full rigor. In a few areas he was successful, but in most he was not. His inflexible and literal-minded application of the law made him many new enemies, most famously when he closed down Sunday openings of St. Louis’ beer gardens, which traditionally spilled over with respectable ethnic German families on that day. The scandalized Germans felt themselves under cultural assault with the criminalization of their traditional recreation.
By the conclusion of his administration, Folk’s political aspirations were not at an end, but his electoral career was. In 1908 he made a primary run for a Senate seat against incumbent Senator Joel Stone, a slick popular former governor who had been embarrassingly implicated as an influence peddler during the alum scandal. Folk lost badly. The traditional Democrats had impatiently laid in wait and Folk had no organization. The parties, for all their faults, were still full in the saddle.
Taking the Initiative
By the turn-of-the-century growing numbers of reform-minded Americans, Missourians among them, were losing confidence in representative government. Their experience with men like Butler and the corrupt political hacks who often filled seats in the legislature, led them to doubt that politicians could or would ever pass legislation they believed was clearly in the interest of the citizens they supposedly served. As Thomas Sheridan, president of the Missouri Federation of Labor put it: "We have permitted the political parties, which were intended to be agencies through which people would express their will through legislation, to pass under the control of special interests that dictate the laws of the state and prevent the legislature from enacting laws in the interests of the people."
The parties and the politicians had lost touch with "The People." If politicians were bad, The People were good. When reformers doubted representative government, they thought its cure was more democracy. If the people’s will was truly allowed its free expression, reformers knew that a statewide prohibition of alcohol would pass, as would equitable tax reform, and women’s suffrage. Union leaders believed it would bring the eight-hour day, end child labor, break anti-strikebreaking ordinances, and lead to the adoption of a workmen’s compensation law. The result was a movement for "direct legislation," that is, what we now familiarly know as initiative petition, referendum, and recall, allowing the people by petition to initiate votes on laws, vote directly on laws put before the people by the legislature, and, upon petition, hold special elections removing from office those who have proved venal or inattentive to the will of the people. Support for the new idea of direct legislation was explicitly anti-politician, and would be strongly echoed again at the end of the century in such movements as those designed to secure term limits. Moreover, it would reform the political system itself by undercutting the dictates of party and the dictatorship of powerful politicians.
The formal movement to secure the constitutional adoption of direct legislation came from the creation of the Direct Legislation League of Missouri, founded in St. Louis in 1899. Bringing democracy closer to the people, however, proved no easy task. Politicians and powerful lobbyists obviously understood this to be directed at curbing their power and either lacked enthusiasm or were downright hostile to putting a constitutional amendment through the legislature. The Democratic Party had the most dedicated proponents of direct legislation, and also some of its greatest enemies, while the Republicans attempted to straddle the issue. Several powerful politicians associated with railroad interests managed to turn back early efforts in putting a constitutional amendment before the people, but a weak bill was passed by the legislature in 1904 and offered for a popular vote. The result was a disaster for the direct legislation movement. For the first time in the national effort, the people, by a wide margin, rejected initiative petition and referendum. In reality, although the election had a heavy turnout, comparatively few citizens actually voted on the amendment. Many people did not understand what the poorly advertised amendment proposed to do. There was, moreover, a sharp division between the urban and rural areas. These measures were solidly supported in the cities, but were viewed with suspicion in rural Missouri. In 1907 new Governor Joseph Folk, revived the issue and a new stronger measure was again put before the people the following year. This time the amendment went on to victory. Supporters of the measure put special effort in gaining adherents in rural areas, and although they did not secure the support of a majority of rural Missourians, the enormous support for initiative and referendum in the urban areas ensured that the proposal passed handily.
The result hardly proved a panacea for Missouri’s political ills. Even the most moderate of supporters of direct legislation must have been shocked at the lack of difference its adoption made. The first attempt to use initiative petition came in 1910 when statewide prohibition and improved tax support for the University of Missouri came before the voters. Both were solidly defeated, as were over the next ten years various efforts at tax reform, alcohol initiatives, train safety and labor, efforts to increase financial support for education, the transfer of police authority in the big cities from the governor to the mayors, women’s suffrage, support for highway construction and road improvements, and workmen’s compensation, among other issues. Finally in 1920 as part of the national movement, statewide prohibition passed, along with an amendment changing the state constitution’s amending process.
Technique, however, rarely guarantees wisdom, even from the people. In 1914 St. Louis Civic League Secretary Roger Baldwin campaigned heavily for the inclusion of initiative and referendum provision in the city’s proposed 1914 charter. Its inclusion in the charter probably helped secure its passage. Two years later, in the city’s very first use of initiative petition St. Louis voters, by three-to-one, approved an ordinance legalizing segregation in the city’s housing. It was a stunning blow to progressives like Baldwin. Faith in the essential goodness of the people was their cornerstone philosophy. Further disillusion was to come during World War I and the "Red Scare" that followed. Baldwin was soon on his way to founding the American Civil Liberties Union.
On the Moral Superiority of Women
If changes to the political process could not make democracy function as it should, suffragists thought women might. Missouri had a long and vital women’s movement. The National Woman Suffrage Association, the first national women’s organization dedicated to women’s suffrage, was founded in St. Louis in 1867. When St. Louis’ Virginia Minor was stopped from voting in 1872 she sued and the case went to the Supreme Court where women learned that the fourteenth amendment did not apply to them. Dramatic struggles continued through the progressive era. In 1916 at the Democratic National Convention in St. Louis, women, all dressed in yellow, formed a silent gauntlet ten blocks long (the "Golden Lane") forcing delegates to walk through their line to enter the convention hall.
Traditionally suffragists based their case for the right to vote principally on equal rights and attempted to embarrass men into giving them the vote by pointing out how shameful it was for a purported democracy to deprive half of its citizens of the right to vote. In response, opponents of women’s suffrage often argued, among other things, that women were morally superior, finer beings, who would be debased and degraded by participating in the tough hurly-burly world of politics. In the progressive era, women now readily agreed. Women were indeed morally superior. Men had control of society for too long and had made a mess of it. America’s politicians were scoundrels and corruption was the order of the day. An infusion of moral superiority was just what was needed and it was women voters who would supply it. In the end it was women’s impressive contributions to the war effort in World War I that gave substance to their arguments and, finally, created sufficient support to pass a women’s suffrage amendment to the constitution. In 1919 Missouri Governor Frederick Gardner called the Missouri legislature into special session where it ratified the constitutional amendment granting suffrage by overwhelming margins, making Missouri the eleventh state to pass it.
Unfortunately the infusion of morally superior human beings into the political process failed to elevate Missouri politics. The idea that women would vote scared the daylights out of some men, who saw in it the end of the Republic. By contrast, many women saw in it the Republic redeemed. Both, of course, were vastly wrong. As one disillusioned Missouri suffragist put it in the 1920s: "It was said for years that when women had the power to vote, conditions would be improved. Some women even went so far as to say that woman suffrage would bring in the millennium." Alas, the consequences were more earthly. Women either voted the way their husbands did or did not vote at all and the vast majority who did participate in politics did so only by voting. But perhaps these expectations were merely premature—a gender gap between women and men’s voting patterns began to be noticed in the late 1970s.
In the Progressive era, both Missouri and American politicians had a great belief in the efficacy of technique. Progressives attempted to use new methods to revitalize nineteenth century ideals of democracy, but that world was irrevocably gone. Rule changes, they hoped, would lead to an end of bossism and corruption. The people were good, and if they were given a greater voice, evil men would be driven away. The electoral panaceas of the age: primaries; initiative, referendum, recall; the direct election of senators; and women’s suffrage have all proved to be durable parts of the American political landscape, but if they have proved useful, they fell considerably short of the results of which their backers dreamed—and some had future consequences that would have often appalled them. Technique, however, remains central to the political faith of Missouri’s (America’s) politicians. Adopting rules to combat evil is tempting because it is far more easily accomplished than addressing the root cause that created the evil in the first place. Technique does have a role; it is just a small portion of the story. Many people want it to be the story itself. Importantly, however, the techniques—the Progressives employed were designed to undermine the politician’s power, and that of his party, and in this lay the way of the future. In the meantime, the failure of progressive hopes, alas, was quite evident in Kansas City, where everything, including the rules, was up-to-date.
Missouri’s Most Important Politician
The politician with the greatest effect on Missourians during the twentieth century was Thomas J. Pendergast. Harry Truman may have broadly shaped American life in the Cold War, but his friend, Tom Pendergast, shaped the everyday life of thousands of Missourians, first in Kansas City, then across the entire state. Indeed, the reworking of much of Missouri government came in the wake of his fall from power. Perhaps only Franklin Roosevelt, who fed hungry Missourians and taught them to think differently about their government, had a larger impact. Even then, Roosevelt worked hand-in-hand with Pendergast—until he helped break him.
Few Missouri politicians have appreciated the importance of technique quite like Pendergast, and none have equaled him in ensuring that technique achieved the desired result. Since the turn of the century political observers have bewailed the decline of voting. Pendergast’s ability to turn out the vote was phenomenal. Not only did many of the poorest people in Kansas City vote regularly, but did so frequently at each election. Indeed, in some wards voter turnout often approached one hundred percent, when it did not exceed it. Even more miraculously, the dead would rise at each election in numbers that would astonish an expectant Christian. These dead, however, were of a decidedly Democratic persuasion. As one wag put it at the time of the 1936 election, "Now is the time for all good cemeteries to come to the aid of the party." In rigging the vote Pendergast pioneered little new territory. His minions switched ballot boxes, mobilized the flop-houses, beat up voters supporting machine opponents (with or without police assistance), used machine employees for election judges who filled out vote tallies in advance, and similar sorts of shenanigans. Not that their opponents did not give them trouble. As one tired machine worker complained: "Some of these damn Republicans marked their ballots so hard it was all I could do to rub them out."
Like other successful machines, however, Pendergast’s success was based on more than electoral dishonesty and physical intimidation—many people enthusiastically supported it. The Pendergast machine was, in fact, as much an economic machine as a political one. Supporters by the thousands got government jobs, and during the Depression, in particular, those jobs came highly valued. Sometimes government service began and ended with the picking up of a paycheck. Preferred businesses received lucrative city contracts and tax breaks, and most businessmen, like it or not, found they could get along with Pendergast well enough—and they might as well like it, because if they did not, they might find their property taxes suddenly going up.
Pendergast liked to think of himself as a self-made man, but he had a good deal of help along the way. Born in 1872, the youngest in a large family, Pendergast was helped first and foremost by his much older brother Jim who created the Pendergast machine (eventually known as the "Goats" in contradistinction to its principal rival faction, the "Rabbits.") When Tom succeeded to Goat leadership upon his brother’s death in 1911, the Goats were really no more than an important faction within city politics. It was Tom’s organizational genius that led to its domination of Kansas City and then Missouri.
Although he began paying more attention to middle class concerns in the 1920s, Pendergast derived his broad base of support from careful attention to the poor and those in need of special assistance. Pendergast provided the traditional boss’s Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for the poor; provided money to those who needed help with medical bills; got coal to the cold in winter; and gave food baskets to the hungry.
As Pendergast put it: "What’s government for if it isn’t to help people? They’re interested only in local conditions—not about the tariff or the war debts. They’ve got their own problems. They want consideration for their trouble in their house, across the street or around the corner—paving, a water main, police protection, consideration for a complaint about taxes. They vote for the fellow who gives it to them. If anybody’s in distress, we take care of them—especially in the poor wards. If they need coal or clothes, or their rent is overdue, we help them out—in and out of season. We never ask about politics." What made all of this even more effective was Pendergast’s organizing skill: "I know all the angles of organizing and every man I meet becomes a friend. I know how to select ward captains and I know how to get to the poor. Every single one of my ward workers has a fund…and when a poor man comes to old Tom’s boys for help we don’t make one of those—investigations like these city charities."
Pendergast’s real power came after the adoption of a reform city charter in 1925. He surprised everyone by supporting the plan, which had been aimed at curbing his power and those like him. Pendergast, however, shrewdly saw that reformers had handed him a governmental structure that could complete his domination of city government; and upon its passage he quickly took advantage. Mastery of Kansas City quickly led to mastery of the state. His ability to turn out winning margins in Jackson County in excess of 100,000 votes gave him the ability to decide state elections. He had become a power to reckon with.
1908 Main Street, Pendergast's office
Robert M. Wedow Collection, in Western Historical Manuscript Collection -Kansas City
Pendergast dispensed his favor from a modest headquarters at 1908 Main Street. As Federal Judge Merrill Otis noted, a long line of supplicants seeking office beat a trail to his door: "To this Mecca came he who would be governor, he who would be senator, he who would be judge and he who was content to be only a keeper of the [dog] pound." By the 1920s Pendergast’s "money-honest" ally James Reed was already a U.S. Senator. In 1934 he added his favorite, Harry S Truman, to the Senate. In 1932 he had added the governor to his collection. With only weeks before the election, Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Francis Wilson, died unexpectedly. Judge Guy Park, an obscure Wilson family friend, emerged, with Pendergast’s blessing, as the new nominee. In Park, the boss found his perfect cipher. As Park would prove, any Democrat could have beaten any Republican in the dark Depression year of 1932. Even so, after his election Park gratefully turned over much of the state’s patronage to Pendergast. Pendergast’s domination of Park’s administration was such that the governor’s mansion soon became known as "Uncle Tom’s cabin." Franklin Roosevelt, who had received strong Pendergast support in the presidential election, recognized political reality and by-passed Park, turning over federal patronage in Missouri to Pendergast as well. It was, in fact, a Pendergast crony who became responsible for handing out all of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) jobs in the state; half of these jobs went to Kansas City, making "Tom’s Town" a dynamic force in the Midwest.
By 1936, Pendergast’s mastery of the state seemed nearly complete. That year millionaire apple-grower Lloyd Stark, like others before him, came hat-in-hand to seek the Boss’s blessing for the gubernatorial nomination. He received it and won election, but shortly thereafter things turned sour. While Pendergast was traveling abroad during the election, his followers engaged in activities that took election fraud to new heights. Their boldness was simply too much, and set off federal criminal investigations that would gradually debilitate the machine. More importantly, as investigators began looking into the machine’s selection practices, Stark, who dreamed of a presidential nomination, decided to challenge him. With Stark’s defection, the Roosevelt administration withdrew its patronage from Pendergast and shifted it to the governor. A showdown between the two men took place over a Supreme Court election, pitting a Stark incumbent (who had delivered the deciding vote against Pendergast’s position in an insurance case) against a Pendergast-selected challenger. It ended in a highly visible defeat for the old Boss. Shortly thereafter it became known that Pendergast had brokered a corrupt deal between the state’s Director of Insurance and insurance companies concerning a long-running rate dispute involving the rights of shareholders. While Pendergast himself did nothing illegal in fixing the deal, he neglected to report his exorbitant fee on his income taxes, money which he desperately needed to pay off his enormous gambling debts. Like a mobster, he was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to fifteen months in jail. Ill at the time, he never seriously reentered politics. With his machine broken and harassed on every side, it survived only as a minor faction.
Non-Partisan Government (sort of) Comes to Missouri:
The Judges Go First
Pendergast is responsible for the most innovative judicial development in Missouri history during the twentieth century—the Non-Partisan Court Plan. In 1849 the rising tide of Jacksonian majoritarianism succeeded in transforming judicial appointments into popularly elected positions. In an attempt to liberate judges from the control of party bosses, beginning in the Progressive era, nominations came from the people in primaries rather than from party conventions as they had in the past. Despite this attempt to transfer nominations from the party bosses to the people, a strong current of dissatisfaction with the partisan manner of selecting judges remained. This dissatisfaction came to the fore in the wake of a power struggle over judicial appointments to the Supreme Court between Tom Pendergast and Lloyd Stark.
Governor Llyod Stark and Tom Pendergast
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, photo courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri, Columbia
In 1937 Governor Stark appointed James M. Douglas to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court. After his appointment, Douglas delivered the deciding vote in an insurance case in which Pendergast was deeply involved. Although tradition held that incumbents were to receive party nomination after their appointment to the Supreme Court, Pendergast, angered by Douglas’ vote and now openly challenged by Stark, decided it was time to bring the governor to heel and recruited James Billings of Kennett to run against Douglas. Many of the state’s most prominent Democrats, including all statewide officeholders, and the many Missouri WPA workers, sided with the boss and supported Billings. Former Governor Guy Park called Stark a party-wrecker and an ingrate and likewise campaigned for Billings. Stark, for his part, took to the road, touting a vote for Douglas was a vote to end bossism. As so often in the past, Pendergast delivered his 100,000-vote majority in Jackson County, but it was not enough. St. Louis made up the difference and outstate Missouri added an additional seventy thousand votes to Douglas’ majority. It was a calamitous defeat for the Boss.
And it was all very unseemly. The powerful effort of a corrupt boss to control the nomination of a judge for the state’s highest court brought all of the discontent with partisan judicial election to the surface. Critics charged that partisan election of judges was elective only in theory. Local political machines, like Pendergast’s were really handpicking judges. The whole process was degrading and off-putting to potential candidates. Even after election, judges were subjected to political pressures. Their jobs hung not on the legal integrity of their decisions, but on their partisan popularity. Big cities, in particular, were too large for people to personally know judges, so it was even easier for machines to control decisions. The desire to insulate the judiciary from the insidious side of politics soon developed into a proposed "Non-partisan Court Plan."
The proposed plan established a commission system: one commission would review applicants for positions on the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, and there would be one for each participating circuit court system to review applicants for the St. Louis and Kansas City circuit courts, which were required to belong to the plan. (Other counties could join the non-partisan plan at their own request and, to date, Clay, Jackson, and St. Louis counties have.) The commissions would be composed of lawyers selected by other lawyers and by citizen appointees of the governor. Aided by a judicial officer sitting ex-officio, a commission would select three qualified applicants from a general pool and forward their names to the governor, who would then select one of the three. After at least one year’s service the new judge would go before the people at a general election for a yes or no on retention. Further votes on retention would come up every twelve years for appellate justices, and six years for circuit court judges. Advocates of the plan claimed that this method would combine the best features of the appointive and elective process.
From the day of its proposal to the present many politicians have strongly disliked the Non-partisan Court Plan. Upon its first introduction in the legislature as a constitutional amendment it died a slow death without an open opponent. Undaunted, proponents led by the Missouri Bar, took the proposed law through initiative petition before the people, where it won a solitary victory, as six other companion amendments went down in defeat. Its victory at the polls flushed out the plan’s opponents and in 1942 they began working through the legislature for its repeal. Partisanship played no small part in the attempt. Elected Governor in 1940, Forrest Donnell took immediate advantage of the plan to name five Republicans to the bench. While the principal charge against the plan was that it was undemocratic, the real complaint of some might have been that it was unDemocratic. The campaign was rough in tone. In midst of a war with Hitler, the plan’s opponents declared it to have been "borrowed from Nazi Germany," and called it "fascism’s entering wedge in America." Others suggested its sponsors wrote it so that powerful lobbyists could more easily control the judicial process. Outstate voters were told, by contrast, that it was a "city slicker" plan, concocted for the benefit of city lawyers. (Most subsequent opposition to the plan would notably come from the cities.)
The plan’s "good government" supporters fumed at such allegations, but they need not have worried. The referendum vote in 1942 demonstrated even stronger support for the plan than did the 1940 vote. Despite voter approval of the plan, twice in two years, opponents refused to give up. During the 1943-44 Constitutional Convention, they worked hard to keep it out of the new constitution. They again lashed out at its abrogation of democratic principal—people should have the right to choose their rulers, judges included, and those same judges should be accountable to the people. Instead of being ashamed that judges were involved in politics, critics should celebrate that all officials should come before the people. Convention delegate Frank B. Williams, himself a judge, spoke fervently on behalf of judicial election: "That may be the old horse and buggy way, but we got some good judges. Place the responsibility on the party. Let them vouch for the men they put up for judge." Critics argued that those who bemoaned political influence in the selection of judges would find judicial selection under the plan as political as ever, but with only a small number of people—political lawyers and financial interests—influencing the selection. If one feared partisan selection, one should now fear the governor. As Senator James Reed said, "One is very naive, very ignorant, who does not know that Governors always have been and always will be influenced by political and selfish considerations in making appointments."
Indeed, it quickly became apparent that the only thing non-partisan about the plan was its name. Not only did Donnell manage to appoint all Republicans to the court, but Democratic Governors Phil Donnelly and Forrest Smith who followed—neither of whom made any bones about their rejection of the non-partisan principle—named all Democrats. What the plan had done was transfer judge making from powerful local elites to the hands of the governor. "Boss" influence was gone and so were bitter judicial elections. At the same time, the elective principal proved virtually meaningless—only two justices, one a Pendergast crony, have lost their jobs since the plan’s adoption. Indeed, this fact has been used as proof that the plan results in the selection of good judges.
While the judges selected under the plan look pretty much like the middle-aged political lawyers who preceded them, the plan suited the legal profession because the chosen judges fit well with the bar’s drive for judicial professionalization. While the governor ultimately makes the choice, lawyers are largely able to block the appointment of those they feel are unfit for the bench. At the same time judges have liked the system because it offers relative job security and relieves them of the burden of raising funds, campaigning, and unseemly political strife. On the whole the non-partisan plan has proved popular. By 1992 thirty-six states had adopted the Missouri Plan in some form.
In the early 1990s, however, the plan showed it still had vigorous opponents. But as in the past, it was the political community, not the legal community, which disliked it. Between 1985 and 1992 Republican Governor John Ashcroft named all seven Supreme Court justices, all of whom were of an age that seemed to guarantee a conservative cast to the court for decades to come. As Ashcroft’s term approached its end, the plan was again under fire as undemocratic and narrowly partisan. Drawing particular ire was the governor’s appointment of his chief of staff, Edward "Chip" Robertson, a young man of thirty-three with no judicial experience. It galled critics that politics went into judicial appointments, but to attack the plan, or call for a vote against incumbents, was denounced as a violation of the holy "non-partisan" pact on judicial appointments. Some people in St. Louis and Kansas City strongly criticized the plan as undemocratic for allowing the citizens of outstate Missouri to choose their judges, while forbidding their choice in the state’s two largest cities. African American leaders charged that this rule particularly discriminated against the black community, because only in St. Louis and Kansas City were African Americans concentrated in sufficient numbers to make it possible for a black lawyer to be elected judge. At the same time feminists objected to stacking the judicial system with conservative pro-life members. Despite the plan’s recent critics, it survived once again and the mood passed. As the century ended, Ashcroft’s Democratic successor, like those before him, showed no difficulty in choosing whom he wanted for court vacancies.
It has been the habit of critics, principally elected politicians, to rail about unelected bureaucrats holding power. There are more of them to rail about all the time. During the course of the nineteenth century more and more jobs became elective. In the twentieth, the tendency has been to transform elected offices, such as appellate judges and the State Superintendent of Schools, into appointive positions. But the most salient feature of twentieth century government—in the face of social need, greater government efficiency, the correction of economic malfunction, or social controversy—has been to create new non-elective bureaucratic organizations, run on a non-political basis.
Department of Revenue, c1960
Missouri State Archives, Commerce and Industrial Development Collection
In 1900 Missouri’s state government bureaucracy was quite small by any standard. Seven hundred and fifty state employees served 3.1 million Missourians. By 1998 there were over 89,000 people serving 5.4 million—one state worker for every 61 Missourians. State workers currently make-up 1.6 percent of the Missouri’s population. These figures include the people who staff our state universities and colleges, our mental hospitals and prisons, maintain our roads and our forests, as well as the traditional office-workers. Growth has characterized state government during the past century, and without regard to party dominance. While government tripled in size during the Progressive era as the state began discovering the virtues of boards, commissions, and experts, the absolute numbers still remained small. Perhaps the most impressive growth rate of the century came during the 1920s when the number of employees increased 181%, climbing to 6,126 employees by the decade’s end. During the Depression years, where one might logically expect to find great state government growth, the number doubled again and wartime proved no break in the pace in the 1940s. During the first half of the twentieth century the numbers of state employees increased on average well more than one hundred percent each decade. While the speed of government expansion slowed in the 1950s, the parade of new state employees marched on, growing by 44%, only to explode during the flush times and heady optimism about government during the 1960s, increasing 100% in size yet again. By decade’s end 63,800 worked for state government. There it rested—sort of, anyway. In the 1970s government employees grew by a mere 4.2%—the lowest in the century. During the 1980s and 1990s the pace perked up a bit, growing by 14.7% and 17.8% respectively. While Americans may complain about bureaucracy, its growth has been the central thrust of government through the course of the twentieth century, and given the growing needs of an increasingly complex society, that growth is likely to continue.
By 1900, however, it was becoming clear that partisan politics stood in the way of government efficiency. With the rise of the Progressive era came the cult of the expert. Rather than "any man," a pillar of the concept of rotation in office, a number of state jobs began requiring people with professional backgrounds to accomplish the work desired. At the same time, there were certain subjects too hot to handle, or better handled by muting party divisions. By custom, the Public Service Commission, founded in 1913 to regulate utilities, was established on a bipartisan basis. The Conservation Commission, concerning a once highly contentious field, was legally established on a bipartisan basis in 1936.
Yet these limited innovations aside, government was still run through a spoils system. Government workers were expected to be active political partisans. Jobs were won and lost according to whatever party or party faction was in power. The prospect of unemployment, as departments were typically swept clean after a party changeover, gave government workers whatever political motivation might have been missing from partisan conviction. Employment was based on the ability to get formal recommendation from party officials. Even up to 1984 some elected officials required employees to state their partisan affiliation, which was published in the Official Manual of the State of Missouri. Employees were believed to owe their employment to their bosses or their party and were expected to turn over a portion of their salary ("the lug") every month (typically five percent, or perhaps less, depending on the significance of the position). This long established practice began to die out as the merit system slowly spread, but it continued with non-merit employees into the 1970s, finally ending in 1978 when it became illegal.
This practice was generally accepted by employees, if not always with enthusiasm. Typically the money went into the campaign reelection fund, which presumably helped everybody keep his or her job. Funds also went for flowers for the sick or to help someone in need, and sometimes, straight into the politician’s pocket. That "Holy Joe" Folk received lug money from the Democratic Party greatly annoyed many party regulars. The logic that made it necessary for millionaire Lloyd Stark to exact lug money from state workers during the Depression was not always appreciated. State government workers were often pressured in to giving money and support to candidates favored by their boss. During the fierce struggle over the 1964 Democratic gubernatorial nomination, patronage workers in the Department of Revenue, for example, were pressured to support political establishment-favored Lieutenant Governor Hilary Bush over upstart Secretary of State Warren Hearnes at the price of their jobs—at least until the matter became embarrassingly public.
But as state government grew in size and the tasks in complexity, it became increasingly clear to many that a labor force based on partisan principles was harming state government’s ability to serve Missouri’s citizens. Reformers argued that the spoils system threw government into chaos with each change of administration. The process was wasteful and inefficient. Experience, institutional memory, and professional skills were thrown to the wind—and it was not just with party changeover; it often occurred when members of the same party assumed office. Intent on building up their own machine of loyal followers, newly elected officials removed incumbents. Being a Democrat or a Republican was not always good enough; one had to be the right kind of Democrat or Republican. The insecurity of public life may have proved exciting for those with much to gain, but many talented people with no taste for political maneuverings detested it. Too often this left government to party hacks.
Even so, the creation of a non-partisan merit system came in slow, halting steps to Missouri, disliked and vigorously challenged by politicians at every step. A patronage system allowed politicians to appoint, discipline, remove, or direct state employees in any manner they wished. Patronage is power. Those who could give it had a great deal of influence. The governor whose patronage was the greatest could use his ability to give jobs as both a whip and bribe to legislators to get them to do his bidding.
The beginnings of a non-partisan merit system were imposed on Missouri by the federal government. In 1938 the national government made non-partisan administration of the State Unemployment Compensation Commission (and shortly thereafter, the Social Security Commission) a condition for the state receipt of federal funds.
During the 1943–44 Constitutional Convention, Missouri politicians finally addressed the issue themselves. The arguments for or against the adoption of a state merit system knew no party. Republicans and Democrats ardently lined up on both sides of the issue. The debate over the merit system went along much the same lines as that concerning the non-partisan court plan, and many of the same people who opposed one opposed the other. This time, however, those who opposed the depoliticalization of state government were more successful. To embrace the merit system would be to embrace the overthrow of the party system. Patronage was the glue that held the parties together and political parties were the glue that held democracy together. Why would merit employees, they asked, feel any loyalty or need for obedience to their own bosses? Democrats and Republicans can be voted out of office, warned one Republican, but civil servants cannot. The "servants" who composed a permanent government might become our rulers. Delegate Frank Boyden Williams, a Democrat, thought along the same lines, saying, "If we want to maintain two party government, if we want to make secure the government of the United States against the eventuality of the dictatorship, which is one party government, then we should not put this sort of thing in the Constitution of Missouri." Former Governor Guy B. Park, also a convention delegate, declared, "I believe in party patronage…It is the right of those elected by the party to put in their friends and supporters." Ultimately, he said, how well the party gave good government to the people would determine how long they—and the people they appointed—would hold power. In the end, convention delegates decided that the merit system would apply only to the state’s eleemosynary and penal institutions, but they granted the General Assembly the power to extend the merit system to other state agencies as it deemed proper.
Senator Horace Raymond Williams
Missouri State Archives, Publications Division
To say that many members of the legislature responded unenthusiastically to that invitation is something of an understatement. Far from wishing to extend the merit system, as the constitution allowed, some legislators were actively hostile to its introduction into the penal and eleemosynary system, as the constitution required. A number of senior Republican senators, in fact, made a last ditch effort to avoid the process all together. Republican floor leader H.R. Williams declared, "I am tired of hitting mugwumps. State employees should be real Democrats or real Republicans. To keep up the political parties you have to give them the jobs. This country was built up by political parties, not by crackpot social workers, who come in to get the gravy when the job is done. There is no bay-horse sense in that. Instead of picking these employees on the basis of the number of hours of college credits they have, they should be picked on the basis of the number of hours they have devoted to political party work. When anybody applies for a job, he ought to be asked whether he is a Democrat or Republican, and if he says he is neither, his application should be thrown out of the window."
In the face of such resistance the extension of the merit system proved not immediately feasible. Gradually, however, the merit system was slowly expanded until, at present, it covers approximately 35,000 government workers (about thirty-nine percent of the workforce) across six state agencies and in parts of three others. The further depoliticization of the state work force seems inevitable in light of a 1990 United States Supreme Court ruling in an Illinois case, that political affiliation could not be used by government officials to hire, promote, or transfer employees, further insulating them from partisan political control.
The growth in numbers of employees pointed to a larger reality: the state’s acceptance, across the course of the twentieth century, of responsibility for a greater range of duties. The promotion of the public welfare has always been accepted as an appropriate government activity, but during the course of the twentieth century it gradually became pursued on a scale not previously contemplated: the creation of economic prosperity for business, labor, and agriculture; rules to see that economic interests pursued goals fairly; protection of women and minorities from discrimination and the promotion of the economically disadvantaged; construction and maintenance of roads; public safety; the education of Missouri’s young, from kindergarten through college; consumer protection; health protection; care for the poor, the old, the young, and the physically and mentally disabled; punishment of criminals; care for the environment; and the promotion and maintenance of the state’s heritage and culture. Each of these broader missions contained many missions within them: ranging from the encouragement of tourism to the management of information technology. To run the government itself required two of the largest government operations: the Office of Administration and the Department of Revenue.
While bureaucratic growth was not only inevitable, but also encouraged by governors pushing their agendas, the manner in which it grew proved a continuing frustration to the state’s supposed chief executive. Nineteenth-century Missourians had been fearful of a strong executive and had hobbled the governor at every turn. In the aftermath of the Civil War, a pointedly weakened governor was allowed only a two-year term. The 1875 Constitution returned the term to four years, but still left the governor with modest powers by national standards. Unlike the federal government and many states, the executive remained fragmented in six elective offices over which the governor had no control—lieutenant governor, secretary of state, auditor, treasurer, attorney general, superintendent of public schools. During the course of the twentieth century, the executive branch grew like "Topsy"—"hodge podge government," some called it—around a governor who had little or no authority over it. Of growing importance were the rapidly proliferating boards, bureaus, and commissions created by the legislature to deal with specific problems. The governor often had a right to appoint people to run these various agencies, but his control ended there, and they frequently became something of a power unto themselves. The power of supervision, such as it existed, lay not with the governor, but with the legislature, which appropriated the agencies’ budgets. Tangled bureaucratic growth proved a lot like the weather: everybody talked about it, but no one ever did anything about it.
In his inaugural address in 1921 Governor Arthur Hyde, in the name of "economy, efficiency and budgetary control," called for "the reorganization of the various appointive administrative departments and their consolidation under as few responsible heads as practicable." Hyde complained that the creation of this labyrinth had been done "in the name of democracy, and to prevent centralization of control. The process has defeated its own purpose." It had made the governor the nominal head of the executive department, but without any power or responsibility for its leadership. The proliferation of agencies without the governor’s formal control led to their control by an "‘invisible government’ and the boss system, the very object the decentralization sought to prevent." The executive department could be neither coordinated nor made efficient and its current structure led to waste and extravagance. In his 1929 inaugural address, Governor Henry Caulfield called for "the reorganization of the various appointive administrative departments, boards, bureaus and commissions, and the consolidation of their various functions under as few responsible heads as practicable," and noted that the governor had the form of power over the executive department but not its substance. Later governors regarded these as the "good old days." In his January 1945 inaugural address Governor Phil Donnelly declared, "It is time…we begin to consolidate and integrate functions of our State government, and that we stop enlarging and expanding departments, staffs and bureaus."
In February Missourians ratified the 1945 Constitution which attempted to address some of the problems to which Donnelly referred. But in the end the state’s wasteful and inefficient structure with its swollen multitude of boards, commissions, and bureaus remained. Despite high hopes, the convention had created a mere paper reform, simply placing all of the old operations within the construct of a broader departmental organizational chart. Donnelly, back once more as governor in 1953, used his second inaugural address to point out that the "laws regulating executive departments are contradictory, ambiguous, and others overlap." There was a "lack of coordination." He urged the legislature to begin work on these problems to "save the State many thousands of dollars in curtailing duplicated efforts and eliminating needless appropriations."
Following an earlier Senate initiative Donnelly created a "Little Hoover" Commission, named after the Hoover Commission led by the former President, that attempted to streamline the federal government. The twelve member bipartisan commission spent two years studying Missouri government, and devised 122 recommendations to put state government on a more logical, business-like footing. Although the legislature implemented a few of the recommendations over time, the overall result hardly proved a revolution in the conduct of state business. In the meantime forty-four new programs sprang into existence. In 1963 Governor John Dalton created a second Little Hoover commission. Legislative witnesses again noted how "the authority and responsibility of the executive branch are fragmented…efficiency reduced…[and] the public is prevented from holding the elected chief executive of the state responsible for the operation of such functions." Thirty-one bills were drafted in response to the commission’s recommendations and offered to legislators and not one single bill was introduced. The result was to leave things as they were.
By 1968 the executive branch was composed of 107 administrative entities with 87 of those supposedly reporting directly to the governor. State government, as a whole, possessed some 434 programs, functions, and activities. A Missouri Public Expenditure Survey study issued the standard complaint: "The diffusion and fragmentation of the executive branch is evidenced by the fact that there are too many elected officials, there is too much constitutionally mandated organization, there are too many boards and commissions charged with administrative matters, and the governor’s span of control of the executive branch is unwieldy." Despite regular complaints by governors, fifty-seven years after Governor Hyde had requested reorganization, the bureaucratic jungle had only grown.
In 1969 Governor Warren Hearnes secured passage of legislation creating yet another commission to reorganize state government. Hearnes went after reorganization with a passion that divided reorganizationists from non-reorganizationists like a fight between good and evil. The first and foremost problem was administering government as a whole. The clearest need was a powerful administrative tool and the new commission’s first recommendation, made in an interim report, was for the creation of an Office of Administration with authority to oversee the administrative operations of state government as a whole, to streamline its operations, and bring to bear modern management techniques designed to promote efficiency and economy. Hearnes succeeded in establishing the Office of Administration in 1971. (The Senate voted to make this a patronage agency, but gave in during a showdown with the House.) At the end of 1971, the commission delivered its full report advocating the reduction of state government to ten departments, each headed by a single director or board of commissioners to be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. After legislative debate a constitutional amendment was offered to Missourians, which they approved, permitting the creation of up to fourteen departments, the Office of Administration, and the continuance of the six statewide elected officials.
At this point politics took over the government reorganization process. Senate President Pro Tem William Cason put forward a 500 page, seven pound reorganization plan. Initially part of an effort to win the governorship for himself, his plan eventually became central to the drive to assert legislative, specifically Senate, control over the executive through the reorganization process, allowing the legislature to become involved in the day-to-day operations of the executive. Many Missourians, along with legislators, wanted to preserve the state’s tradition of a weak executive and Cason’s bill did just that. Hannibal-area Representative Harold Volkmer offered a bill, thirty pages in length, along the lines reorganizers envisioned, but it was Cason’s that was passed for the governor’s signature. Christopher Bond, who had succeeded Hearnes as governor, vetoed the bill to the general applause of the state media and most of the attentive public who regarded the Senate’s effort as an attempted usurpation of executive authority. Following his veto, Bond called a special session of the legislature to rewrite the reorganization bill and formed a citizen’s committee to stir up public pressure. The result was the Omnibus State Reorganization Act of 1974, creating Missouri’s present form of state government.
At the dawn of the twentieth century state government responsibilities were so negligible the government’s structure did not matter much. As it became more important, change was not effected for a variety of reasons. First, entrenched interests, whether bureaucrats or their special constituents, had a vested interest in keeping their part of government the way it existed. Second, while the problem was obvious to the people directly affected by these dysfunctional arrangements, it remained too abstract for most Missourians. Administrative reorganization is boring. It was hard to capture the imagination of the public at large and that made it hard to capture the imagination of politicians who saw little glory in it. Hearnes’ passion, Cason’s institutional politics, and Bond’s whipping up citizen support, finally spurred action. While some opposed the streamlining of government because it would lead to an overly strong chief executive, unified government policy was impossible and government practice was wasteful until it took place.
But whether something is boring or not has little relevance to its effect on Missouri’s representative government. What is interesting is that while patronage was debated as a democratic issue, the growth of a large unelected bureaucracy mostly was not. What members of both parties debated was how it could be most appropriately modernized and put under "scientific management." As the nineteenth century evolved, more and more positions went from appointive to elective. During the course of the twentieth century, numbers of offices went from elective to appointive, but the real news is how many important bureaucracies and positions have been created during the twentieth century headed by persons who are not directly responsible to the people. Nineteenth-century Missourians would have been unable to fathom the development.
Governor Warren Hearnes campaigning for a second term in 1968
Missouri State Archives, Commerce and Industrial Development Collection
After the attempt to reinvigorate nineteenth-century ideals during the Progressive era through the creation of primaries, initiative, referendum, and women’s suffrage, Missourians were called upon to extend the democratic principle only one time (1965) and that was to permit the governor to have two terms. Governor Dalton had strongly advocated this and Hearnes was the first to take advantage of it. The curious thing, however, is that the argument on behalf of extending the governor’s term was rarely made on the democratic ground that the people should be able to choose whom they wished for governor (at least twice). Rather, proponents argued, the governor needed two terms because it was impossible to master the bureaucracy in a single term and the biennial meeting of the legislature meant he was effectively a lame duck after a single session. At the same time reformers argued for adding a second term to the governor, they suggested there were too many elected officials.
Missouri government today, for all of its size and complexity, is recognized as one of the best and most efficiently run states in the nation. But in the final analysis it is not run with business-like efficiency and never will be. Missourians have chosen fairness over efficiency. Every fiscal transaction brings sheaves of forms designed to leave fingerprints, social justice is a consideration, and rules regulating conduct abound. The successful conduct of business is a gauntlet through which government employees must pass.
The Last of the Big Spenders
Nobody objects to government being efficient and economical, but there is a great deal of objection to it being large and costly, efficient or not. Missourians have a tradition of fiscal conservatism and not trusting politicians with their money. Indeed, the 1875 constitution, which lasted until 1945, is perhaps best understood as a fiscal document aimed at controlling the vices of post-Civil War Missouri government. For most of the state’s history, fiscal conservatism has known no party. Both Democratic and Republican governors have run generally tight-fisted operations, especially by national standards. Throughout the twentieth century, Missouri has chronically ended up near the bottom in terms of per capita taxation. Yet for all of the state’s general conservatism, the debate over the size of Missouri government and its spending could not be more serious or contentious.
That contentiousness is best and most tellingly seen in the passage of the 1980 Hancock Amendment. The late 1970s American economy was mired in "stagflation," an unprecedented condition in which the economy was stagnant while inflation soared. Partly in consequence, a 1978 property tax revolt broke out in California. The revolt soon spread across the country and between 1976 and 1986, twenty states adopted tax and expenditure limitations. In Missouri, the tax revolt was led by Springfield businessman (later Congressman) Mel Hancock. Unlike California, in Missouri the effort was not designed simply to roll back property taxes, but to limit further taxes and the operations of state and local government.
In 1977 and 1978 Hancock, through his Taxpayer’s Survival Association, wrote every Missouri state and federal legislator about the need for tax limitation. When the legislature failed to act, he began an initiative petition drive to force tax limitation on the state. "We tried to work through legislative channels in getting something done," he said, "but those promises were not kept. Now it’s up to the taxpayers to put some controls on government spending." Hancock argued that over the last decade Missouri’s taxes grew far faster than personal income. To bring a halt to what he considered runaway taxation, Hancock authored a constitutional amendment tying state revenue increases to an equivalent rise in personal income.
But it was not just the money; it was also the evil of government growth. Money was the key to stop what Hancock viewed as an out-of-control state government and its insatiable desire for more tax dollars. As Hancock explained it, "I am talking about limiting the size of government. I am talking about stopping politicians buying votes with tax dollars." In Hancock’s view, legislators were fearful of offending any group with a special interest and proceeded to dole out money to whoever asked for it, which kept the growth of government bureaucracy spiraling ever upward. While stopping high taxes was the point, if things continued on their present path bloated government would put free enterprise itself at stake.
The proposed Hancock Amendment quickly had many opponents, but, to the surprise of many, one of them was not the Democratic governor, Joseph Teasdale. Teasdale, facing an uphill battle for reelection against former governor Christopher Bond, endorsed the amendment (even while delivering to the legislature the largest budget in Missouri history). The governor’s support aside, the amendment had very little institutional support. It did, however, have an important ally in the Missouri Farm Bureau. Initially, the Farm Bureau backed the amendment as a way of scaring state legislators into crafting a tax limitation law. When that legislation was not forthcoming, they began to work in earnest.
If not the governor, the Hancock Amendment quickly acquired many other opponents. The proposal barely survived a number of early legal challenges to place it on the ballot. Critics complained of the poor drafting of the law, prophesying (accurately as it turned out) that legal quarrelling over the amendment would go on for years. Others suggested that the amendment would not permit the legislature the flexibility needed to deal with an economic crisis. Some argued that legal restraints on fiscal spending were already in place in that Missouri’s constitution required the state to keep a balanced budget. In 1978 voters approved a constitutional amendment requiring that property taxes be adjusted whenever values were reassessed. At the time of the drive many of the amendment’s critics noted that only six states had lower per capita taxes than Missouri. If Missouri was a low tax state with laws in place to keep it that way, where was the problem? In reality, they said, people were actually mad at the federal government and they were going to kick state government in its place. At base the whole thing struck a blow at the system of representative democracy. As the Kansas City Stareditorialized, "If the state is being run by big spenders, and Missouri has never been noted in that category, the problem should be taken care of at the polls—not by locking representative government in a straitjacket."
Whatever the merits of the critics’ arguments, the voters did not buy them, and the Hancock amendment went on to victory, winning fifty-five percent of the vote. In subsequent years the amendment has worked in some measure as its supporters had hoped. On the other hand, many believe that the law has unnecessarily harmed the effectiveness of state government. But whatever the case, it did not end state government’s growth in the manner Mel Hancock wished. Partly, this was because the vagaries of the law were such that the amendment’s strictness was open to debate.
In early 1993 a Missouri Circuit Court threw out the inequitable funding of Missouri’s schools as unconstitutional. In response Governor Mel Carnahan won passage of the Outstanding Schools Act, a sweeping $310 million measure to reform Missouri schools and their funding. With the act’s passage Hancock had had enough. Alleged loopholes in the original amendment allowed passage of the tax without the vote of the people, so Hancock determined to rectify the problems once and for all with a second initiative petition.
Dubbed Hancock II, the measure, according to critics, offered tax limitation with a vengeance, offering an expansive definition of total state revenues that, they claimed, would have mandated a billion dollar refund and a rollback of taxes which had increased since 1980. Opponents predicted massive disruption of government services if the amendment passed. This time, however, a broad coalition of business, labor, and agricultural groups, including the Missouri Farm Bureau, joined in opposition to Hancock II, and it went down to a crushing defeat by better than a two-to-one margin. In the wake of Hancock II, Governor Carnahan proposed and, in 1996, obtained passage of a constitutional amendment restricting the legislature to raising taxes by no more than $50 million a year without a vote of the people.
Healthy revenues from a strong economy caused the state to break through the Hancock tax lid between 1995 and 1998. This triggered millions of dollars in tax refunds to income taxpayers and spurred several tax cuts, most notably sales tax paid on food and an increase in the personal exemption, to keep state revenues under the lid.
Open Wallet Days
Missourians, like most Americans, have not only worried about politicians spending their money, but about the effect of money on politics. Given the length and depth of this worry it is remarkable how little Missourians had done to control money’s influence until the most recent past. Although concern about the pernicious influence of moneyed lobbyists arose in America before the Civil War, a real fear of lobbyists and their money came only with the rise of big business in the late nineteenth century.
In Missouri that first meant the influence of the railroad lobby. During the nineteenth century, farmers and laborers vigorously protested, to little avail, the abusive practices of railroads who used their monopolistic advantages, often underwritten by Missouri taxpayer dollars. Railroad lobbyists proved adept at staving off regulation. Out and out bribes were not typically necessary. One of the most ordinary practices was the handing out of free railroad passes to legislators. Back in an era before governors campaigned to "get Missouri out of the mud," the state’s roads were often impassible, and boat travel was still common where available. Railroads, by comparison, were swift and comfortable.
In 1895 Governor William Joel Stone called the legislature in special session "to suppress, the practice of lobbying, which has grown into an alarming evil at the capital." Noting the practice of handing out free railroad passes, a legislator openly declared: "I’d rather have [a] block of free transportation than $500,000 to control the legislature." If legislators might refuse an outright bribe, few refused the passes and they proved effective to secure the railroads’ interests. Railroad lobbyists could not only reward, but they could also punish. Those inclined to challenge the lobby discovered that their careers tended to be cut short.
The railroad lobby proved a model for others. As Stone acidly observed: "The bad and long continued example of the railroad lobby has become infectious. Others have fallen under its pernicious influence, until now the agents of more than one special interest are kept at the capitol to ‘protect’ their employers against the representatives of the people. About the streets and hotels they are ubiquitous; they swarm in the corridors of the capitol; they frequent committee rooms and public offices, and are almost as familiar to the halls of legislation as those entitled to seats by virtue of their commissions."
Yet for all of Stone’s bile, the legislators proved deaf to the governor’s demand for reform, and Stone himself turned lobbyist during the hiatus between his gubernatorial and senate careers. In 1900 William Phelps, principal lobbyist for the Missouri Pacific Railroad, tired of Stone’s posturing, scorned the former governor as no less a lobbyist than he was. "We both suck eggs," said Phelps, "but Stone hides the shells." The lobbyist’s remark stuck and was repeated about Stone for the rest of his career. If there was any doubt about its truth, it was removed when his influence peddling was embarrassingly exposed by Attorney General Crow and Joseph Folk in the 1902 alum scandal.
A dozen years later, Folk, then governor himself, attacked lobbyists with a zealot’s vigor, demanding that professional lobbying be made a crime. By that standard, the result was tepid. The prospective criminals, however, found themselves merely required to register with the Secretary of State and file a statement of their expenditures. In addition, they were barred from the house or senate floor. In 1919 the Missouri Supreme Court struck down most of the law on a technicality, leaving only the injunction against lobbyists venturing on to the floor.
And there, through scandal after scandal, failed bill after failed bill, restrictions on lobbying remained until 1965. That year a measure passed requiring lobbyists to register, file a report detailing their expenditures, record any publication in which they had published articles, and specify what legislation they supported or opposed. Failure to comply was a misdemeanor with a $500 fine and a possible jail term of up to a year. By the next legislative session only fourteen lobbyists had registered, and while that number soon grew to 260 in 1967, it was also clear that lobbyists blatantly disregarded the law with impunity. Violators were, moreover, hard to catch and not much effort was put into the chase. The legislature had left it up to the Cole County Prosecutor to investigate lobbying violations. Faced with more serious crimes and hard-to-come by evidence, prosecutor Byron Kinder shrugged off charges of inattention to lobbyist violations, saying, "I’m snowed under and it’s a crummy misdemeanor."
In 1975 the legislature made an attempt to support the law by funding a special assistant prosecutor to investigate lobbyist violations, raising the fine to $1000, and barring any lobbyist convicted of violating the law from returning to the practice of lobbying for two years. The law restricted each lobbyist from spending more than twenty-five dollars per legislator per month. However, in 1982 when the legislature stopped funding the special assistant, Cole County Prosecuting Attorney Tom Brown stopped checking on lobbyist violations. The result was a notorious lobbyist spending spree, but a House Ethics Committee investigation found no impropriety.
During the 1990s lobbyist rules began to get stiffer, setting specific dates for lobbyist reporting, requiring increased details concerning expenditures, and limiting gifts to legislative staff and employees, spouses and dependent children. In 1991 a bill passed that broadened the definition of lobbyist activities to include "executive lobbyist," "legislative lobbyist," "lobbyist principal," and, to which, in 1997 was added "judicial lobbyist." In January 1993 the new bipartisan Missouri Ethics Commission began formal oversight of lobbying activities. Each January and July lobbyists submitted reports on the extent of their activities: how much money they spent, whom they spent it on, and for what purpose. Financial accountability and the possibility of positively linking money to votes were finally possible. By 1994 the number of registered lobbyists rose to 2,168—up from 973 the year before.
In 1997 the law was tightened to include among expenditures tickets to sporting events, museums, and other venues. It also made provision for electronic filing and Internet access to lobbyist reports—although implementation of these last provisions has been delayed. Although regulation has unquestionably lessened lobbyist influence compared to the open wallet days characterizing most of the twentieth century, abuses continue, and even when money and favors are legally accepted, tend to bring representative government into discredit. The most flagrant recent example was Missouri House Speaker Bob Griffin who, in November 1997 was convicted of taking bribes from lobbyists in exchange for using his assistance in obtaining high dollar contracts for groups attempting to influence legislation. Thus, his long, tenure as a powerful Democratic Speaker ended in disgrace.
Show Me the Money
If Missourians worried first about lobbyist influence on the passage (or non-passage of legislation), perhaps the greater fear as the century ends is the effect of special interest campaign donations on politicians. Money is the gasoline that fuels campaigns. While money has been important to political campaigns for better than half of the twentieth century, most campaigning was on a small scale and emphasized candidate appearances in local communities. Most money went for modest signs, posters, and buttons. The rise of the electronic media and its decisive influence on elections, along with the decline of political parties, has made money—and lots of it—important, even in smaller races.
In 1974 Missouri had one of the weakest campaign disclosure laws in the country. Governor Christopher Bond quipped that there was "only enough law to hold the loopholes together." That campaign law, with slight amendment in the 1950s, had been written in 1893. The original focus had been on campaign spending limits, permitting, according to a formula, only so much expenditure per eligible voter. Disclosure of campaign contributions was required only after the election and, even then, true disclosure was easy to evade. There was no way for voters to learn what special interests, if any, a particular politician’s candidacy served. While candidates were eventually required to report their expenditures, they could raise, in theory, as much as they were able, from whomever they were able, at whatever amount they could, and spend it as fast as they could. The sky was the limit.
The Watergate scandal, with its hefty catalogue of campaign finance abuse, brought to a head the growing fear and anger about the corrosive effects of money on the election process. In 1974, Missouri, like other states, began to take a serious look at how its elections were financed. Legislators themselves, however, had little stomach for campaign reform, and the process became highly political. They quarreled over the exact size of donation limits and the minimum size of donation that would be recorded; they fretted over contributions from banks and contributions from labor unions, and the nature of disclosure requirements. With each of these decisions some would gain and some would lose. Moreover, incumbents were well aware that in a system where weak law prevails, incumbents do well—Republican or Democrat. Despite near uniform claims of support for a new finance campaign law by legislators, pressure from Governor Bond, the media, and strong public sentiment supporting new regulation, the legislature failed to pass a law. Taking a cynical view of the proceedings a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter wrote that "the easiest explanation of what happened is that the Legislature actually prefers the secrecy surrounding much of the money in politics, and it never really wanted a law that would disclose where it comes from and how it is spent."
Just days after the failure of the legislature to meet the popular demands for campaign reform, a diverse coalition of citizen organizations that included the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, and the New Democratic Coalition, organized "Missourians for Honest Elections" to force campaign finance reform through the initiative petition process. Working together they drew up a proposed law of breathtaking complexity dealing with campaign disclosure and spending limits. Legislators knew immediately that trouble lay ahead. Even politicians who genuinely supported campaign finance reform, such as Attorney General John Danforth, were troubled by its density and draconian proscriptions. Still, as Secretary of State James Kirkpatrick observed, if the law passed, the legislators would be afraid to amend it for fear of the voters’ wrath. Whether it was good or bad law, campaign finance reform’s time had arrived. Reformers collected in just five weeks sufficient signatures to meet the ballot deadline and voters subsequently passed the law by a smashing four-to-one margin in 1974.
Within months of its passage, complaints against the law began pouring in. Candidates for local school boards and ambulance districts, who spent virtually no money on their races, found themselves filling out financial disclosure forms. Politicians who were also lawyers and doctors had to disclose all sources of income in excess of $500, even though it might violate the confidential expectations of their client or patient. Politically connected party committeemen and women, to their annoyance, found themselves under the new law.
As the controversy heated up, the entire debate over campaign finance fragmented. On a judicial track, the United States Supreme Court on February 6, 1976, issued a decision in Buckley v. Valeo that invalidated federal spending limits on individuals or organizations independent of the candidate, and on a candidate’s donations to his or her own campaign, finding that these restrictions violated the first amendment right of freedom of speech. While spending could not be limited, the court said, contributions to a particular campaign could. Since observers thought the court’s decision only struck down Missouri’s complicated spending limits, the legislature sought to remedy the other supposed defects in the 1974 law. But rather than amend the law, the legislature gutted it. Governor Bond, who had agreed that changes were needed, vetoed the bill as irresponsible. Opponents of tough campaign reform, nevertheless, had an unexpected ally in Judge Byron Kinder, who, citing Buckley v. Valeo, ruled he must throw out the entire 1974 law as a violation of state and constitutional guarantees. The following year in a six-to-one decision the Missouri Supreme Court agreed and the state returned to the basic law first enacted in 1893. In 1978 the legislature, sensing the resilience of the desire for campaign finance reform, passed a greatly watered-down bill that had lax reporting requirements, failed to limit contributions, and lacked effective enforcement.
There matters rested until the disgust over the role of money in the 1992 political campaigns caused the issue to resurface powerfully. Former Secretary of State Roy Blunt declared that, "Elections have become a national disgrace. Taxpayers and potential voters have too often become mere spectators watching political action committees and rich special interests buying votes and elections." Greg Upchurch, who also played a key role in the fight for legislative term limits, joined Blunt to create "Missourians for Fair Elections." In fiery populist rhetoric, Upchurch charged "the political elite is supported handsomely by the big powerful special interests. That ruling class has no desire to change the status quo no matter how loudly the people complain."
Governor John Ashcroft and Carolyn Leuthold of the League of Women Voters meet to discuss ethics reform in Missouri
Missouri State Archives, Associated Press Collection
The state’s newspapers joined the call for campaign finance reform, while doubting the legislature itself was capable of it. As the Columbia Daily Tribune editorialized: "Campaign reform receives more support and less action than any other issue I can think of. It is politically correct to be for more control over the effect of big money in elections, but since change depends on action by those in power, little is done. Whatever the vagaries of the system, one thing is sure: It works to the advantage of incumbents." Or as a St. Louis politician noted, "Missouri politicians generally are reluctant to restrict campaign contributions for one understandable reason: the guy with the most money usually wins."
Pressure on legislators to undertake campaign reform legislation came not only from the media and citizen activists, but from the governor as well. In his 1994 State of the State Address to the legislature Governor Mel Carnahan said, "It is no secret that many Americans have become disaffected and dissatisfied with their political leaders and institutions. One of the chief reasons for this dissatisfaction is that money has become a far too influential force in American government and politics…[T]he truth today is that the system favors those who can best bankroll political campaigns—which, in terms of dollars raised and spent, have long ago crossed the line of reason and decency. If we are to restore trust in our government, we must greatly reduce the influence of money in the political process."
Similarly-minded, Senator Wayne Goode and Representative May Scheve introduced comprehensive legislation in their respective houses that placed limits on both campaign contributions and campaign spending. They hoped to reduce the amount of money candidates could raise and spend, as well as reduce the influence of special interest money on the political system. Included in the proposal was a new stipulation that candidates could not accept contributions during the legislative session. To circumvent questions of unconstitutionality, the proposal also established "voluntary" expenditure limits, but attached penalties for non-compliance. When the legislation passed and was signed by the governor, Blunt’s group shut down their initiative petition effort, satisfied that they had helped to pressure serious campaign finance reform.
Not all, however, were as easily satisfied. A coalition composed of ACORN, Missouri Public Interest Research Group, the League of Women Voters, and the Working Group on Electoral Democracy, calling itself Missourians for Campaign Finance Reform, declared that the legislature was clearly not interested in "real reform" and proposed much more drastic contribution and spending limits. Whereas the legislature’s bill would have allowed up to a $1000 donation for candidates in statewide races, the initiative petition (known as Proposition A) would have allowed only $300—and a mere $100 in Missouri House races. In November 1994 Proposition A was passed by Missouri’s voters with a phenomenal 74 percent of the vote. Heretofore Missouri had been only one of seven states with no spending limits. The stringency of the law turned Missouri into a state with one of the toughest. Only a few years earlier, the legislature’s law would have been considered too extreme for passage, but Missourians had lost faith that their politicians would ever take campaign reform with sufficient seriousness: the size of the vote made it clear that Missourians did not trust politicians to clean up their own act.
The vote may have been decisive, but the courts quickly threw Proposition A out as an unconstitutional abridgement of free speech. At present the United States Supreme Court has agreed to review the law passed by the legislature and will determine whether its limits on contributions are, in fact, constitutional. The Court’s decision has a potential impact on dozens of states, and possibly year 2000 congressional and presidential races as well. Until that time Missouri political candidates are legally guided by the 1978 law which requires full disclosure of the source of contributions, but has no limits on contributions and spending.
Cincinnatus: The Once and Future Citizen Legislator
America’s Founding Fathers feared a permanent class of officeholders—a class too accustomed to power and out of touch with the people. Power-holding should be temporary in nature and, after a period of service, the officeholder should return to the ranks of the people. General George Washington was compared to the classical Roman general Cincinnatus, who left his plow to save the Republic and, once the Republic was secure, returned to his plow. Washington’s subsequent retirement from the Presidency after two terms only added to his mystique and set the pattern for those who would follow. In the early days of the American Republic, citizens, of course, were not expected to pick just anybody as leaders; they were supposed to pick independent men of property that looked a lot like the wealthy lawyer-planters whom they elected president. For all of their theory, the United States, was then and is now, run by career politicians. People like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt all had life-long habits of pursuing power and learned to put it to good use.
By the late 1980s growing numbers of Americans believed that politicians hung on to their positions too long and they did not see too many Jeffersons or Lincolns among them. The power of incumbency, with its advantages of name recognition, and ability to raise money, had become so powerful that approximately ninety-eight percent of officeholders in the United States Congress won reelection. There was a growing belief that the nation was being ruled by "a permanent Congress" and worse, that Congress had become an arrogant, inbred group, who cared little about the concerns of the people they were supposed to represent. A series of scandals involving the House of Representatives Bank and the House Post Office seemed to confirm a growing distaste for federal politicians. Because of the peculiar advantages of incumbency, voting the rascals out was simply not a practical option. Thus the idea of term limits began to grow in popularity.
Much like campaign finance reform, however, term limit advocates found themselves blocked by the United States Supreme Court. In 1995, the Court, in the Thornton decision, indicated that individual states could not apply term limits to their own individual congressmen and women. To do so would require a U.S. Constitutional amendment, which was regarded, at least in the short run, as an insuperable challenge. Term limits for state representatives, however, proved within reach and were perhaps a first step toward national term limits. In 1990 Oklahoma became the first state to enact term limits; other states soon followed.
Gregory Upchurch and Rep. Steve Caroll (D), Hannibal debate proposed constitution changes to limit terms for state legislators, 1992
Missouri State Archives, Associated Press Collection
In 1992 advocates used the initiative petition to bring term limits before Missouri voters. Secretary of State Roy Blunt, who thought all theory against it, but all practice for it, called term limits "a bad idea whose time has come." Term limits leader Greg Upchurch declared: "We are taking one more step toward that vision of a government that truly serves the people rather than serving those in power." Oliver Starr Jr., writing in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, harked back to the concept of the citizen politician, declaring: "Politics was never meant to be a lifetime career. Term limits would force many more legislators to face that reality." On the other hand, former Senator Thomas Eagleton contemptuously dismissed term limits as "a phony political panacea for our complex social ills…It sanctifies the weird notion that in government inexperience will always outperform experience." While St. Louis Republican G.H. "Bert" Walker (President George Bush’s cousin) thought term limits a somewhat crude device, he wrote sympathetically that "the American people have no other way to communicate their frustration with the current system other than issuing this heavy jolt to the political process."
Missouri voters did indeed give it a jolt, approving the measure in 1992 with seventy-five percent of the ballots cast. At the same time they approved term limits for state government, they adopted term limits for federal officeholders (although this was struck down by the 1995 Thornton decision) and, in 1996, also endorsed a state constitutional amendment measure requiring congressional candidates to declare their stand on term limits. Their failure to support specific limits was to be recorded on election ballots. This was, in turn, struck down by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, St. Louis, as a violation of free speech, because it unconstitutionally added qualifications on candidates and wrongly shifted legislative powers from Congress and state lawmakers to citizens.
Despite the voters’ consistent embrace of term limits, the idea remains controversial. Since limits have only begun to take effect in Missouri and will not completely do so for a number of years it is hard to tell what the full effect will be. People who support limits argue that it will mean a return to democracy. No one again will have a lifetime hold on an office and challengers will have a real chance at winning election. It will also allow women and minorities to compete for open seats. Finally, citizen legislators, knowing they cannot make a career out of politics will be motivated by issues and service rather than personal power and gain. They will be in touch with the "real world" of ordinary people rather than the rarified one of career politicians.
Opponents, by contrast, argue that term limits are harmful to democracy. Citizens who disapprove of their representatives already have a way to remove them: through the ballot. It is undemocratic to forbid voters the right to choose who they wish to represent them. Term limits are also undemocratic because its imposition strengthens the power of special interests, legislative staff, and the permanent state bureaucracy whose knowledge and expertise gives them an advantage over inexperienced legislators. Term limits could give power back to a machine or party faction, ultimately making it more powerful than any single officeholder. Moreover, the state will be diminished as able men and women, who serve their constituents well, are automatically removed from office. In the short run, incumbents are actually safer because potential challengers will not wage a difficult and expensive campaign knowing that the office-holder will automatically be forced out within a few years. Institutional knowledge will be at an end in the legislature and, given the brevity of terms, the legislature’s ability to make and oversee policy will be at an end. Finally, some critics believe that term limits are not so much a reform as an irrational tantrum against the abuse of political power, and caution that fear of the power of incumbency is better addressed through campaign finance reform.
Term limits today have made the legislature volatile, as the impact of the new rule is absorbed. Although term limits has its legislative champions, most politicians clearly do not like the idea. While in recent years bills have been introduced into the legislature to make limits more rigorous or comprehensive (to cover all statewide elected officials for example), other measures have been introduced as an attempt to soften their impact. As politicians maneuver, legislative politics has become more fragmented. Politicians with no hope of having a career in the legislature have less reason to get along by suppressing differences. There is less reason to cooperate with others and more reason to grandstand. Instead of "waiting one’s turn" for higher office, the competition has become fierce because there is no time to wait. Others look to the previously despised bureaucracy for job options. In the end, term limits may make Missouri politics more democratic, but in the short run, it has have made them far more rough.
What It All Means
We all bemoan the decline of voting. What kind of a democracy do you have when half of your citizens do not even bother to show up at the polls? There are many reasons, of course, why people do not vote. We know that well-to-do and well-educated people vote, while poor people and poorly educated people do not. We know that registration laws have sometimes posed a barrier to voting, especially to new voters. We know that there was a sharp decrease in voting after the national disillusionment with government in the wake of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. National, state, and local politics have steadily offered people fresh reason for disillusionment if they wish to find it.
These are all topics whose discussion belongs elsewhere. What is relevant here is how we have inadvertently reformed people out of the political process. We have taken the politics out of politics, or rather out of government. Technique, as useful as it is, cannot solve our problems. Instead of quarrelling over rules, politicians need to directly engage the everyday concerns of the voter if they want to reinvigorate democracy. Pendergast got many real voters, in addition to the dead ones, to cast real votes for his machine because it was integrated into the lives of his constituents. Similarly, as bad as things were, the Depression did not cause an upturn in the numbers of voters. The number of voters rose only in 1936, not 1932, when the New Deal connected in meaningful ways with new constituencies. Eventually, techniques such as mail and internet voting, and motor voter registration will make voting more convenient, but if history is any guide, a significant increase in voting will come only when politicians give those who do not vote a compelling reason to do so.
Political parties have been essential to raising large numbers of voters, but they have greatly declined in strength. The vast army of political workers who used to run state government and rouse the faithful at election time are now government bureaucrats who care more about their specific job than who wins an election. For most, their partisanship consists principally of who they believe would make a nicer boss. Caucuses and conventions were communal experiences that built parties in ways that primary voting does not. Party leaders today, moreover, cannot control primaries—at least very easily—and this intensifies an individual "star" system that undermines party unity and discipline even further. Initiative petition, so little used in the first half of the century, has finally become the weapon against politicians that was originally intended. As political parties have weakened, the five lesser statewide elected offices have become much more important as a steppingstone for ambitious politicians. Today statewide recognition is needed to win nomination to high office, where the confidence of party insiders sufficed in the past. This turns officeholders into chronic newshounds, but of far greater importance it drives up the cost of elections, making primaries and general elections expensive. Statewide races that a few years ago took $200,000 to win, now require over a million dollars. Because the candidate with the most money usually wins, there is an intense competition for campaign funds. This has given new importance to strict campaign finance laws and has given traditionally moneyed incumbents an upper hand in political contests. This has, in turn, led to the "permanent government" complained about by leaders of the term limit movement. Term limits are paradoxically offered as an undemocratic manner with which to strengthen representative democracy.
Suspicion of politicians is as American as apple pie; so is looking to them to solve our problems. The character of our leaders is probably better today (certainly no worse) than at any time in the past. For every politico who goes to jail today, there were probably hundreds in the first half of the century who could have gone to jail for worse crimes. It is due to our many reforms that our politicians are better behaved than those of the past, but Missourians trust their leaders a lot less than their parents and grandparents did (although they had less reason). Maybe there are advantages in not knowing so much so soon. Still, we can and will get better leaders.
History is like a river and, with the exception of the famed 1811 New Madrid earthquake, rivers do not run backward. We do not want to go back to the days of Ed Butler and Tom Pendergast. We do not want to go back to government by party hacks—when third rate efforts "were good enough for government work." We do not want our politicians purchased by well-heeled lobbyists, and high office bought rather than won. In the end, we could not go back if we tried. The past belongs to our ancestors, not us.
There is at least as much reason to believe politics in the future will be better than politics today. The challenge of the twenty-first century will be to invent new ways to revitalize democracy, to go on to new forms, just as, for all their faults, our forebearers did in the past. Happily, that task lies with the politician and not the historian.
Kenneth H. Winn, Ph.D., is the State Archivist of Missouri. His recent publications include The Dictionary of Missouri Biography (co-editor).
It is with a profound sense of gratitude that I acknowledge the assistance of the many people who offered me a hand along the way. Secretary of State Bekki Cook invited me to write this essay and helped create the circumstances in which it could be written. Her unflinching confidence in the project occasionally made me wonder about her judgment, but I sure did appreciate it. Although she has an interest in a number of topics I have written about, she has in no way attempted to influence my views and, I am afraid, I must alone take responsibility for them. I am grateful for her support of detached historical scholarship.
1989 legislative session draws to a close
Missouri State Archives, Associated Press Collection
While Secretary Cook made this essay a possibility, the research assistance provided by Christyn Elley and Laura Jolley was indispensable to its creation. While they helped on all parts of the essay, I relied especially heavily on their work on topics of recent Missouri history where there was no secondary literature to help guide me. If I had the opportunity to read many thousands of pages of material in preparing this essay it is because they read through many thousands more. Christyn simply astounded me with her ability to unearth mountains of primary material and provide dazzlingly competent guides through it. Laura labored hard over surprisingly elusive (and inconsistent) government statistics and culled through a great many images to find illustrations for the essay. I do not know how she retained her good cheer through the process, but she did. My thanks also to Fae Sotham of the State Historical Society of Missouri and Ellen Thomasson and Duane Sneddeker of the Missouri Historical Society for guiding Laura through their photograph collections. Johanna Flahive, Daniel Hays, Casey Kayser, Gary Kremer, and Sandra Walls all helped at critical junctures. Christyn, Laura, Lynn Morrow, Laura Wilson, and Karen Winn read the completed essay and saved me from many errors and infelicities of style.
For Further Reading:
This essay rests principally on primary sources, such as newspapers, governors’ messages, government reports, and various archival material. Unfortunately, there has been surprisingly little historical work written on twentieth century Missouri politics. Below, however, are a number of books and articles I found particularly useful and would prove a good starting place for those readers who are interested in further reading.
Carnahan, Jean, If Walls Could Talk: The Story of Missouri’s First Families. Jefferson City: MMPI, L.L.C., 1998.
Christensen, Lawrence O. and Gary R. Kremer, A History of Missouri, Volume IV: 1875–1919. Columbia: University of Missouri, 1997.
Collett, Kay G., "History of the Selection and Tenure of Supreme Court Judges in Missouri," Missouri Historical Review 59 (1965): 439–447.
Karsch, Robert F., The Government in Missouri, 13th Edition. Columbia: Lucas Brothers Publishing, 1976.
King, Stephen Miles, "The Organization and Politics of State Executive Reorganization: A Case Study of the Missouri_State Omnibus Reorganization Act of 1974." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Missouri–Columbia, 1990.
Kirkendall,_Richard S., A History of Missouri, Volume V: 1919–1953. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1986.
Larsen, Lawrence H. and Nancy J. Hulston, Pendergast! Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997.
March, David, History of Missouri, Volume II: New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1967.
Missouri Government and Politics. Edited by Richard J. Hardy, et al. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995.
Peltason, Jack W., "The Missouri Plan for the Selection of Judges," University of Missouri Studies 20, (1945): 11–101.
Piott, Steven L. "Giving Voters a Voice: The Struggle for Initiative and Referendum in Missouri." Gateway Heritage 14 (1994): 20-35.
Piott, Steven L., Holy Joe: Joseph W. Folk and the Missouri Idea. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997.
Piven, Frances Fox and Richard A. Cloward. Why Americans Don’t Vote. New York: Pantheon Books, 1988.
Watson, Richard A. and Rondal G. Downing, The Politics of the Bench and the Bar: Judicial Selection Under the Missouri Non-Partisan Court Plan. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1969.