The decision of Missouri’s legislative leaders to send members home because of the impending snow storm reminded me the last time a winter storm of such magnitude disrupted the legislature.
Like this year, it was the first week in February of 2011.
But unlike this year, legislators back then stuck it out with unexpected consequences. The snow was so heavy that many could not leave Jefferson City or even get to their Jefferson City apartments, hotels and motels. An estimated 120 persons were forced to spend the night in the building.
Emergency workers brought in blankets and cots for them to sleep.
But a group of legislators had another idea.
In the House Lounge — a hearing room outside the House chamber — they spent part of the night playing poker. House and Senate members from both parties participated.
But House Budget Chair Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City, said it was not politically competitive.
“Sit around, talk, just try to pass the time,” he told my reporter, Theo Keith, that night as legislators could not leave the Capitol.
Theo was the only reporter in the building that night. He came to the statehouse after predictions of a monstrous snow storm, despite my efforts to discourage him.
But Theo was a native of Michigan, so he had a pretty good understanding of winter weather patterns including the magnitude of the storm heading to Jefferson City. He arrived in our Capitol office prepared with a sleeping bag and food.
He realized, better than the legislators he covered that night, that they likely would be confined not just to Jefferson City, but to the building. Some time later, I remember a legislative leader who had bragged about his new four-wheel drive pickup confessing that he could not get it out of the statehouse grounds.
One reason I remember Theo’s stories is my pondering if Missouri legislators had been confined to the Capitol overnight this year by snow for an informal bipartisan poker game, like in 2011, would it have changed the outcome of the state’s Health Department director being banned from ever holding the office again.
A filibuster by conservative Republicans blocked Don Kauerauf’s Senate nomination for the state’s highest health position. And then, the legislature’s early departure came days before the deadline for returning the nomination to avoid a life-time ban on the position.
What if a bipartisan group of legislators spent the night confined to Jefferson City in a friendly poker game. Could that have raised the possibility for a compromise to find a way around the life-time ban on the position?
I suspect that would be unlikely.
This year’s snow storm was far less severe that the 2011 blizzard that blocked legislators from even being able to get out of the Capitol building. Beyond that, the ideological divides that have split the Senate Republican caucus are so much deeper than just eleven years ago.
That is one of the reasons why I remember Theo’s stories from the first week of March 2011. It was not just his devotion to covering a story, but also a reminder of an era not too many years ago when legislators found ways to work out ideological disputes.
You can read and even hear Theo’s stories from that 2011 night in the Capitol at http://mdn.org/2011/stories/trapped.htm. The name he used for those stories, “trapped,” is an accurate description of what he described.
Theo now is a Minneapolis-St. Paul TV political reporter covering Minnesota’s state legislature and local government.
(Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970).