The Temporary Gentleman from Cole

There’s a rule in the House that members do not refer to each other by name on the House floor. Instead, you refer to a fellow member as either the “Lady” or “Gentleman” from the county of their district or their district number. It seems kind of silly when you first start. After all, in the real world, it’s impolite to refuse to call someone by their name.

There’s a reason for this. In an ego-stuffed forum, the no-name rule against reminds us that government service should never be about the individual. Every time I rose to speak on the House floor, I was reminded by the Speaker that I did so not as an individual, but as the “Gentleman from Cole” – the temporary voice for 38,000 constituents.

I have learned a lot in these eight years.

1.       Politicians Aren’t All Bad

It’s easy for comedians and self-proclaimed outsiders to trash  politicians. To brand the legislature as corrupt, selfish, arrogant, and short-sighted is sometimes true but usually not. In these past eight years, I have met public servants of both parties and across the ideological spectrum in the House who, though I have disagreements on certain issues, have shown uncommon integrity and intelligence. There are more than I can list in a short column, but those who pop to top are former Speaker Todd Richardson, State Senator Lauren Arthur, House Majority Floor Leader Rob Vescovo, Rep. Bruce Franks, and the six original fellow members of the House Special Investigative Committee on Government Oversight: Reps. Don Phillips, Gina Mitten, Kevin Austin, Shawn Rhoads, Jeanie Lauer, and Tommie Pierson.

2.       Term Limits are Terrible for Missouri

Don’t get me wrong: for selfish reasons, I am glad term limits exist. I briefly considered not running for re-election in 2016, but inertia and a sense of duty to finish out the eight years of term limits prevailed. In their absence of term limits, I may have continued serving in the House for years on end.

But term limits have not caused legislators to be more in touch or responsive to their constituents. Instead, I think the opposite may be true. The unintended consequence has become that many new legislators are planning their next move and jockeying against each other nearly as soon as they arrive for a leadership position, higher office, or committee assignment.

It takes three to four years before a newly elected representative who pays close attention to figure out how things really work and gain subject matter expertise. Some members never figure it out, and just around the time that some do and start to think independently, it’s time to leave. Lobbyists and executive branch agencies fill the vacuum of knowledge. Intended to curb special interests, term limits accomplish the opposite. Many lawmakers routinely abdicate the responsibility of legislation (i.e. their job) to lobbyists.

Lobbyists routinely conceive, draft, vet, and negotiate legislation all the way to the end. By my last two years, I became so fed up with these everyday occurrences that I came up with a short catch-phrase to remind lawmakers who is in charge. “We decide! Not the people in the hallways.” I wondered whether this was a longstanding practice, so I asked historian Bob Priddy. His answer: no. Before term limits, lawmakers understood what the bills did and would negotiate them on their own. The first time he heard a legislator refer to “asking the people in the hallway” about an amendment was post-term limits. It was a sign of bad things to come: a reversal of who’s really in charge most days in the Capitol.

3.       Facts Matter in the Real World, But Not Too Often in Your State Capitol

In my third year, I started referring to the House floor as a fact-free zone – a place where either and both sides could get up and literally make things up as they go along with no factual backing, and expect that partisans on each side would simply shake their heads in agreement and push the corresponding vote, whether green or red.

Fact is: neither party has a monopoly on truth or morality. From my desk in the back of the House chamber, I had a front row seat to watching our country and state grow more tribal by the year.   Two things happened this year that really crystalized it.

The first is relatively trivial. Democratic Rep. Sarah Unsicker offered an amendment that would have established a committee to study Missouri’s maternal mortality rate. This is something that should be relatively non-controversial kickstarted. Instead, it kicked-started an acrimonious hour-long debate, and the amendment failed on a nearly party line vote of 49 to 78. (I voted yes solely on the principal that I despised the tone of the debate against it.) I asked thoughtful colleagues on both sides of the aisle, “What the heck just happened?” They had no good answer. Both were put off by it, and one said it was why they “hated this place.”

The second example was more important. The House Special Investigative Committee on Oversight dominated my Spring. If you asked some Republicans, the committee was a witch-hunt. If you asked some Democrats, it was intended to be a whitewash. In fact, the committee members agreed at the start that we would check   partisanship and ideology at the door. Our purpose was to establish the facts – and let the House decide what to do next. That is what we did. In the process we learned that, even at the state level, lies spread faster than facts, disinformation distorts reality, and that some politicians, political consultants, and lawyers would tear down the institutions that make our democracy strong for a short-term gain.

4.       The Soul of Our Country is At Risk

After these eight long years, my principles have not shifted; the climate, however, is now toxic and tribal. In the Trump era, the national Republican Party has become dangerously close to a cult – with followers willing to throw aside policies, foreign and domestic, that had defined the party for decades, ignore reams of outright lies from the leader, and stand quietly aside as basic human decency is tossed away as a fundamental principle of presidential leadership.

I believe legislators have a higher duty than simply winning elections. There are political values for which one should be willing to lose: the freedoms in our Bill of Rights; the belief in absolute truths; the idea that the rule of law is more powerful than any individual who happens to be in charge at that moment. We now live in a society where these basic principles are under attack for the first time in living memory.  What happens next is hard to predict, but it is nearly guaranteed to be a rough two years. The democratic institutions that have made our country what Ronald Reagan called the last best hope of man on earth will be tested. For these reasons, I leave office more worried about the future of our country than I ever thought I could be. And yet, our country has faced far tougher challenges than this – and come out stronger each time. That is why I remain ever hopeful that America will remain and regain its status as the City on the Hill: with shared ideals of freedom and without the false beliefs that those with whom we disagree on ordinary political issues are stupid or immoral. I remain hopeful that, somehow, some way, as it has every time before, the American people will see our way through the current mess and be stronger because of it.

Thank you for your support these last eight years. It has been a great honor and privilege to serve you.

Lighthouse Prep Academy Commencement Address

I was honored yesterday afternoon to give the commencement address to the Lighthouse Prep Academy Class of 2018. Lighthouse Prep is a great little private Christian school in Jefferson City that is doing great work. 100 percent of its graduates are going on to college, the military, or, in one case, a gap year before college.

Here’s the text of the speech, as prepared:

Good afternoon. It was is great to see all of you again. The last time I saw you was impromptu and I spoke perhaps a little bit too long. As you sit here today, your parents are all very proud of you. It is incredibly impressive that your class has a 100 percent success rate in that every person here is going on to college or military service.

But I have news for you. Life is only just beginning. When you go off to college or the military, Mom and Dad won’t be there every day to make sure you do the little things – or the big things – to make you successful. If your life is going to be a success, it’s going to be up to you. Not anyone else.

And so, this afternoon, I want to speak with you about two big ideas: the first is something called GRIT. The second is moral fortitude. Both of these are types of character. And if you have each of these, I guarantee you will be a complete well-rounded success in life. If you lack either of them, you will not.

Let’s start with GRIT. What is grit?

It’s the quality of never giving up. It’s the thing that makes someone persist through a task – even when it gets difficult and even when it gets boring. It means that when you start something, you finish it.

In America, more than anywhere else, if you work hard and show real grit – if you never give up – you will be successful in life.

This is an idea backed by research which shows that students who excel in college and life are not necessarily those who excelled on high school tests. Instead, the people who are most successful are those who are the most optimistic, persistent, driven to success, curious to learn new things, and able to work well with others.

The most successful people in life are those who are able to bounce back from disappointment. Those who fail, and, rather than give up, resolve to do better next time. Those who never accept mediocrity or low expectations.

There’s actually a test for this now – and like any test, it’s not perfect, but I want to share it with you this afternoon.

It was devised by a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania named Angela Duckworth and it’s called the Grit Scale. The researcher who developed the scale put it to the test at West Point – the Army’s college. Incoming freshman to West Point were evaluated by the Army according to what they call the “Whole Candidate Score” which takes grades, physical fitness, and leadership capabilities into account. And they were scored on the self-reported Grit Test. At the end of their summer training course, the Grit Scale proved to be a more reliable indicator of success than the Army’s lengthy and involved measure.  Basically, if you scored well on the Grit Test, chances were very good that you’d be successful in the Army.

So, what is the Grit Test? Here are a few of items on which to evaluate yourself. I hope you find them interesting and resolve to improve your own ratings on these questions. 

  1. I aim to be the very best in the world at what I do.
  2. I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge.
  3. I am ambitious.
  4. Setbacks don’t discourage me.
  5. I stick to ideas or projects for the long-term.
  6. I am a hard worker.
  7. I finish whatever I begin.
  8. Achieving something of lasting importance is the highest goal in life.
  9. Achievement is NOT overrated.
  10. I have achieved a goal that took years of work.
  11. I am driven to succeed.
  12. I am diligent.

There are other questions as well. But these get to the heart of the Grit Scale. Sometimes, the secret to lifetime success can be failure at a young age – but only those failures followed by resolved to do better.

What can you do to improve your score on the Grit Scale? Push yourself beyond your own limits. Set long-term goals with short-term measurements and resolve to accomplish them. Turn that A- into an A. Or the A into an A+.

So that’s GRIT.  From Monday to Thursday January to May, this building is full of people who scare high on the GRIT scale. But I would argue that GRIT is not enough to live a successful, well-rounded life. There’s another quality that’s equally important – and its moral fortitude.

What do we mean by that?

It means the willingness to do what is morally right – no matter if its unpopular, no matter if its difficult, no matter if its embarrassing.

There’s a saying chiseled into the walls of the Senate chamber that hits at this quality. “Nothing is politically right that is morally wrong.” That extends beyond the Missouri State Senate – and public service. It extends to your entire life.

And there’s the greatest source of all for the idea. In Mark 8:36, Jesus asks, “For what shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?”

Success gained through immoral action or for immoral purposes is not true success. It is hollow – and will come to an ignominious end.

Be honest and earnest in everything you do. It may not always seem cool or expedient, but it’s what you must do to live a good life.

GRIT can make you a success on paper. But only GRIT plus MORAL FORTITUDE can make you a true success in life.

I know from what I know about Lighthouse Prep and from the explanations on the program that most and probably even all of you have an above-average level of GRIT and MORAL FORTITUDE as you graduate and leave your parents.

My challenge to you is that you not only keep those qualities. But you grow them. You make them stronger. You go home this evening or sometime later this week and look up the GRIT scale on the Internet. Then print it out. And will yourself to having more GRIT. And I challenge you that, when life gets tough, when you face difficult moral decisions, you think about the moral teachings you learned from your parents and Lighthouse Prep. And you pray for the wisdom to make the right and just decisions for yourself and others. If you do those things, I am confident that all of you will meet the world with great success.

One More Session – and a Legislator’s Place

The legislature convened this week for the eighth and final session in which I will serve as your state representative. It has been a great honor and privilege to be your voice in the Capitol. On Thursday, at the ceremonial unveiling of his official portrait, former Governor Jay Nixon explained that he eventually came to view his job in public service as helping people whom he would never meet, who would never know his name, and who would have no idea he had ever done anything to help them. I agree.

There have been great moments of satisfaction from feeling of a job well done – and moments of gloom from failure. Such is life. Sometimes when I think of the things I’ve learned over these eight years, I think of Bob Seger – “wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.”

As I reflect on my eight years, I noticed something on the House website that puts things in perspective – this week we are beginning the second regular session of the 99th General Assembly. It is the 198th time in our state’s history that this has happened. For those nearly 200 years, our statehouse has been filled with men and women of goodwill – and also a fair share of opportunists, con men, and people whose ambition you could see through a brick wall.

This fall, my son Atticus did a project for a school where he researched the history of our state Capitol. He accumulated primary resources about when and why the capital moved here, and how Sedalia tried to steal it from us. He also interviewed Bob Priddy, who is practically a primary source of his own when it comes to Missouri state history.

Priddy told the story of how Sedalia tried to seize the capital in 1895 via legislative hijacking. One morning early in session, a bevy of people from Sedalia stormed the Capitol by train, where a state representative named John Bothwell introduced a resolution for a statewide vote on the House floor to move the capital to Sedalia – and had it passed through both chambers before the day was through. And just like that, in about half a day, Jefferson City faced losing our status as the seat of state government. It was not to be for Sedalia. Jefferson City organized, and with support from St. Louis retained its status by a wide margin in the statewide vote.

Priddy spoke of Joe Folk, governor in 1905 who rode into office on a string of unbelievable corruption prosecutions; of Tom Pendergast and the Machine; and of State Treasurer Larry Brunk, who, during the Depression, parlayed official state taxpayer deposits into certain banks into personal payments from those very same banks. Treasurer Brunk was impeached by the Missouri House, but his former colleagues in the state Senate could not find the will to convict.  

These are just a few low lights from our state government’s checkered past. And Missouri is not unique. Governments are inherently prone to corruption — both the criminal kind and the softer corruption that settles in over time. Soft corruption happens when a legislator sponsors a piece of legislation just because a lobbyist asked, without knowing anything about the subject or asking any questions. It happens when a legislator grows lazy and makes decisions about votes without reading the actual bill or considering what it does, but just asking who’s for it and against it.  

It also happens when their heart or head tells them a vote is wrong, but they do it anyway because of pressure, inertia, an unwillingness to stick their neck out, or for some favor to be traded later. Instead of doing what is right, the path of convenience and personal advantage is  taken instead.  Of course, it’s human nature to avoid confrontation and to have ambition. The question is not whether it will happen, but how often and whether it will happen on votes that have serious impact on the lives of people beyond the Capitol’s marble halls.  

A colleague once explained the “favor to be named later” idea to me when he tried to flip my vote on a bill. “I disagree with your no vote, but even you can’t say this is a huge deal,” he said. “And, you know, you may have a bill that comes along where someone else might be on the fence, and you’re gonna need their vote. Why don’t you just throw a vote here, and then when your bill comes up, the favor will get returned?”

This is legislative utilitarianism: the idea that good ends justify bad means to get there. It may help clear a legislator’s conscience if they don’t think too hard about it, but it’s just as flawed as utilitarianism anywhere else. Doing something you believe to be wrong (even if it’s just a little wrong) under the belief that it will have a good result on an unrelated issue can justify nearly anything so long as you are an optimist about that potential good result in the future. And it’s addictive. Once you do it once, it’s all the more difficult to resist the logic the next time around.  I feel that I have resisted the temptation more than most, but I speak from experience: these trades are not worth it. Not even the little ones. They whittle away at your soul, and, as Jesus said in Mark 8:36, “For what shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?”

There’s no legislative cure for human nature. So, what is to be done? I think the answer for the individual legislator is no different from the answer in the real world: when delusions of grandeur tempt, where ambition or fear of political consequences threaten, it’s time to take a step back and consider the larger picture. Individually, we are insignificant. Legislators do not have legacies. (Nor do governors for that matter.) As a general rule, people do not remember politicians other than the president. The realization of one’s own insignificance and the humility that emanates is a better antidote to corruption than any law ever passed. Instead of serving oneself and ambition, better to serve the Lord, our families, and our communities.

In my eight years, I’ve seen the worst and the best aspects of human nature: greed, pride, vanity, laziness, and vindictiveness are here every day. And so are diligence, humility, sacrifice, charity, and compassion. The Missouri state legislature, is a place where, in spite of our human weaknesses, when things go right — paraphrasing Gov. Nixon —people of goodwill can work together in service to make great differences in the lives of people who will never meet, who will never know our name, and who will never know we ever did anything to help them.

Decision-Time: Choosing Family and the Real-World Over Politics

It has been a great honor to serve as your state representative for the past seven years. With term limits, I have just one session left to serve – and with those term limits comes the question of what’s next. Over the past few months, I’ve been asked many times whether I will run for the Missouri State Senate. After a long time thinking about it and discussions with Jane, the answer we have reached is no.

I believe that, all too often, people choose the path expected of them without ever pausing to ask whether it’s the right path for them. In making this decision, we thought back to our first campaign, when we were just a family of three and our toddler would cry every time I left the house to knock on doors. Today, we are a family of six – and all of our children are in their formative years.

At this time in our lives, the sacrifices required for a campaign and continued service are more than I wish to bear. Being a good parent requires actually being there and not being distracted. I’d much rather be coaching or watching pre-K to 3rd grade basketball or soccer than doing anything else. For that matter, I much prefer time spent doing anything with my family over anything related to politics.

Fifteen months remain in my term of office. I’ve always believed (and now teach my kids) that you sprint all the way to the finish line, and that, no matter what the score, you hustle every second you’re on the field. That’s exactly what I intend to do over the next 15 months. I will continue to do my best to make our state a better place to live – with the same diligence, vim, and vigor with which I have approached the job over the past seven years.