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Springfield, MO

Opinion: Legislators can learn lesson on humility from old lawmakers

By: Phill Brooks

Posted online

As I heard and read the attacks by legislators against a couple of their colleagues for social media expressions of hope for a presidential assassination or a lynching, I kept thinking about Danny Staples.

The Shannon County Democratic senator had a reputation for launching into hilarious, long-winded stories. His jokes often centered around his childhood horse, Trixie.

Although entertained by his performances, I began to realize Staples often had a more serious purpose behind his comedy shows.

Sometimes it was to bring humor into the chamber when tensions got too hot. Other times he arose just to give competing senators time to privately work out a compromise.

But in 1994, the playful senator went a bit too far. It occurred during a 1994 joint legislative committee hearing in rural eastern Missouri on locating a new maximum security prison.

The late arrival of Sen. Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis County, prompted a joke from Staples: "I thought he might be stealing hub caps," he was quoted as saying at the committee session about his tardy black colleague.

The racially insensitive comment led to a barrage of criticism against Staples.

"Stereotyping people while we're touring rural Missouri is disappointing," the St. Louis Post-Dispatch quoted Clay as saying.

But both Clay and Staples defused the issue.

The first step was taken when Staples publicly apologized to the Senate in what I remember as a deeply sincere speech. Then, Clay extended a hub-cap olive branch. Mark Hughes, who was the Senate's communications director at the time, told me Clay had stashed an auto hub cab under his Senate desk which he had a doorkeeper take to Staples after his apology.

Staples took the final step when he mounted that hub cap on his Senate office wall and did not take it down until he left office.

Two men from vastly different backgrounds found a way to use humor to highlight both a lesson learned and forgiveness.

Looking back at that Staples-Clay episode has reminded me how different the personal legislative relationships are between the eras before and after term limits. Because of term limits, legislators no longer have enough time in office to develop the close, personal relationships that I had seen at the heart of the old Senate.

More than one member from that prior era would describe to me the Senate as like a family in which personal relationships transcended political differences.

The only way you could describe today's Senate as a "family" would be if you included the adjective "dysfunctional."

In those older days, there often was intemperate rhetoric. Several members regularly consumed alcohol during legislative sessions, a few even drinking while sitting at their desks in the chamber. But like an eccentric uncle, it was treated as within the family and usually tolerated or dealt with in private.

Only once can I remember a senator being seriously reprimanded by a colleague during a public Senate session. It occurred when an obviously inebriated member was warned that his chamber seat would be moved to the hallway if he did not cease his frequent profanity.

How different from today. There are, of course, a couple of profound differences from those days of old.

The social media comments under attack today are of a different magnitude -- Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-St. Louis County, hoping for a presidential assassination, and Rep. Warren Love, R-Osceola, hoping for a long-rope tree hanging of those who desecrated a Confederate monument.

There is another difference. Two decades ago, Staples formally apologized to the Senate. Chappelle-Nadal did not. Instead, before the vote on her formal censure, she told her colleagues that she already had apologized more than once.

Would a chamber apology, humor or a sense of family demonstrated by Clay and Staples two decades earlier have made a difference?

Or does the expression of hope for a presidential assassination or a lynching demand legislative rebuke?

Phill Brooks is director of the Missouri School of Journalism’s State Government Reporting Program. He has been a statehouse reporter since 1970, making him the dean of the Missouri statehouse press corps, and he manages the multimedia website on state government news, MDN.org. Brooks can be reached at column@mdn.org.

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