Rep. Rory Ellinger: Man in the Arena

In honor of Rep. Rory Ellinger, the General Assembly and Gov. Nixon hurried HB 1320through the legislative process over the past two weeks. This common sense proposal excuses breastfeeding mothers from jury service. The speed with which it was passed was due to the declining health of Rep. Ellinger, who was recently diagnosed with cancer.

Rory and I are of different parties and opposite political philosophies. And we’ve probably spent more time debating each other on the House floor than any other members of the House. But ours has always been, I hope, a relationship of mutual respect and admiration.

Rory devotion to community improvement spans decades, beginning with his work in civil rights in the 1960s. In a building where comity and painstaking attention to detail are all too often lacking, Rory was a shining example of what a legislator should be.

As the most liberal Democrat in a Republican-controlled General Assembly, Rory realized he wasn’t going to win the big battles. But he also knew he could still make a difference. I served on five different committees with Rory. He was always prepared, always inquisitive, always seeking to improve legislation (even if he disagreed with the underlying premise), and always respectful of others – whether they were a legislator or witness with whom he agreed or disagreed.

When he served on the committee investigating Mamtek, some Democrats declined to ask tough questions, but not Rory. It was never about politics for him. It was about doing what was best for his constituents and the state of Missouri.

When we served on the Joint Committee on the Criminal Code, Rory showed up for every hearing on a nearly 1,000 page bill fully prepared and ready to dig into the details. As a tireless advocate, he pushed the committee to make more substantive changes in the law. When he was rebuffed, he persisted, he never let it dampen his spirits or diminish his support of the legislation. Instead, he continued to work to improve what was left in the bill.

Rory also knew he could improve our state by seeking out those nooks-and-crannies of the law where a small change might make a huge difference to someone. Then he worked to make it happen. HB 1320 is a perfect example of such a change. Rory identified a problem: breastfeeding mothers should not be required to serve on juries for days or weeks at a time away from their young children. Then he went about trying to fix it.

Another example, though I can’t recall the precise details: Rory had a bill to make a slight change to the composition of certain local government boards. It was non-controversial. As smart legislators do, Rory started looking for places to “hang” his bill as an amendment. Knowing a Republican would have a better chance getting his amendment on to a bill that made it to the governor’s desk, Rory sought  Republican help – and he targeted me. Then, with great patience and persistence, Rory went to work – asking at every reasonable opportunity if I’d put his amendment on several bills I was handling as a sponsor or as a committee chairman. It took probably half-a-dozen tries, but Rory finally won. I relented and took on his bill.

His work was not always in committee or side conversations. Rory was also a frequent debater on the House floor. Typically, a keen observer can accurately predict the result of any vote in the House before it’s ever taken. On big issues (pro-life, tax cuts, budget battles), most legislators know exactly where they stand – and its easy to predict how they’ll vote.

On smaller issues, though, it’s open season. With 100 things going on at any one time, it’s difficult on small bills to marshal the attention of the entire body. While debate occurs, there are other legislators preparing  their own legislation, meeting with constituents, negotiating with other legislators, or any one of dozens of other duties that go into being a state representative.

The most interesting debates tend to unfold on these small bills where things are less predictable. Rory was ready to debate any issue. And though he never rose to speak for the purpose of scoring political points or to see his name in print, he often managed both because his remarks were sincere.

That’s not to say Rory didn’t garner his share of eye rolls or “what is he doing?” moments on the House floor. Rory never quite distinguished between the proper procedure and honorifics of the courtroom versus those of the legislature. He oft referred to the Speaker as “your Honor.” When he rose to make a point-of-order, he sometimes couched it as “an objection.” And he often confused the proper protocol to even start a debate.

But once he reached the substance of an issue, the procedural confusion vanished. I was amazed in our second year in the House together when Rory nearly killed one of these small bills all by himself. As was typical of Rory, his defense that day was on behalf of a group with little political power and not many elected officials willing to fight for them – the surviving family members of prisoners who commit suicide while in jail.

The bill had passed out of committee without much controversy. No one expected much debate on the floor. Then Rory made his case. Fighting against distractions and the general inertia which gives every bill being debated a natural advantage, Rory made headway. He changed my mind on the bill. He must have changed dozens of minds on the bill. By the time he was finished speaking, people were talking, “Can you believe this? This bill’s in serious trouble.”

Before a bill leaves the House, there are at least two votes. There’s a vote on perfection, and a vote on third read. The third read requires 82 votes to move to the Senate. The perfection vote simply requires a majority of the people present for the day. But the majority party almost never wants a bill to pass on perfection with less than the 82 votes required to pass on third read. The logic is that you want to KNOW the votes are there for the next step, not just assume they’ll be there.

A roll call vote was requested, and as the big board opened for voting, just as many reds lit up as green. When the unexpected happens in a vote in the House, it’s fascinating to watch the reactions. Here we had what everyone thought was a non-controversial bill – and Rep. Rory Ellinger pushed it to the precipice of death with nothing more than logic and sincerity.

Republican bills, however, don’t die easily on the House floor. Rory had made a valiant effort, but the necessary votes were whipped up to move the bill along. By a vote of 74-70, well shy of 82, the bill advanced. Normally, the third read vote happens the legislative day after the perfection vote. But clearly, there was a problem with this bill that would require some whipping. We finally went back to it a week later, and it passed with 86 votes.

Rory may have lost those votes, but he won in the end. The bill never made it to the Senate floor for debate and never became law. Of course, this is the type of thing that’s rarely reported. It was a small bill, and there were countless other things happening in the Capitol on that day. But Rory proved, for at least that bill, old-fashioned debate still mattered.

I will always remember and appreciate Rory and his friendly fighting spirit.