About Last Week: Behind the Senate’s Fight Over the Right of Recusal

Gov. Eric Greitens in the Missouri Senate.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – The State Senate ground to a halt Jan. 30 over a confluence of issues coming together to manifest themselves in a six-hour debate over whether a senator has the right to recuse themselves over a potential conflict of interest.

Some stories are too complex to fit in a social media post, and this appears to be one of them. Perhaps the real issue is that Missouri has seen the same erosion of individual senators’ powers that many states with term limits have also seen.

From an unwise forcing of a PQ during veto session over an abortion issue where an agreement was already made, to an equally unwise PQ over a social issue dealing with LGBT rights last year, or different ways the calendar is utilized, the power of senate leadership has continued to grow over time.

Over the weekend, a group of senators decided to utilize a sparsely-used parliamentary tactic of recusal to make a statement. To some, the statement was that, after 10 years, a pay raise of 2 percent was in order; to others, it was a way to make a stand against the erosion of individual senators’ power, while others saw it as a statement that a new coalition of younger members was deciding to make themselves heard.

The weekend before the fight

Some reports vary, but Sen. Jason Holsman, D-Kansas City, was at the crux of the discussions and ultimately led the most dramatic inquiry on the Senate floor in recent memory. From all sides, Sens. Rob Schaaf, Ryan Silvey, and Holsman were the key players in a series of events that led to public infighting in the Republican Party and what could amount to a taping of the breaks in a session that was looking to be full speed ahead.

Sen. Jason Holsman

Sen. Jason Holsman

Over the weekend, senators began to discuss the fact that, with the vacant seat left by Lt. Gov. Mike Parson, twelve members could recuse themselves, meaning the motion to reject their pay raise wouldn’t have the required two-thirds majority it needed to be successful.

At one point, there were 16 members on board or seriously considering recusing themselves on the argument that there is no more clear a conflict of interest than voting on your own pay raise. Many had never considered the concept, but after doing so, they agreed that at its most basic level, they were literally taking a vote that could directly put money in their pockets.

One of the more amazing parts of the drama was that so many senators were discussing such a rare and controversial parliamentary move and apparently no one leaked it to leadership, or if they did it wasn’t taken seriously.

The senators involved in the recusal discussions were Sens. Bill Eigel, Kiki Curls, Jamilah Nasheed, Maria Chappelle-Nadal, Schaaf, Holsman, and Silvey, who all recused themselves, as well as the two who voted no: Sens. Denny Hoskins and Paul Wieland. Sens. Doug Libla, Gary Romine, Dave Schatz, Wayne Wallingford, Andrew Koenig, Jake Hummel, and John Rizzo were also involved in the discussions as well.

Monday afternoon

According to multiple sources, Rizzo and Hummel had informed the rest that they weren’t going to recuse themselves before the Monday session, citing concerns about how the parliamentary procedures would be perceived while the state is facing a budget shortfall. Koenig was in his district Monday night, and it was assumed that both he and Sen. Dan Brown would not be in attendance due to personal family matters.

Even without Hummel and Rizzo recusing themselves, the absence of Koenig and Brown, and the vacancy in the 28th Senate District, leadership would still need 23 of the 31 senators present to pass the motion. It was before the session that Sen. Schatz was not going to help, but even so, Monday afternoon they felt as though they had a hard 11 and a soft 13, that 13 would get softer.

Monday’s session

In a move that shocked every observer, but at its most basic sense strikes most people as common sense, when Kehoe took up HCR 4, half of a dozen senators, one at a time, began to recuse themselves from voting on the measure. The one that most stood out was Eigel, who was the first senator to recuse. He had only entered the chamber four weeks before and had never served in the House. It was an eye-raising statement of independence that surprised most in the Capitol.

Sen. Bill Eigel

Sen. Bill Eigel

Six senators, one by one, stood and asked to be recused from the vote and, as has always been a tradition in the Senate, noted they are allowed to do so. However, as the numbers began mounting leadership and staff began huddling to whip votes and plan their move.

However, it was when Silvey stood up to recuse himself, perhaps the senator with the frostiest relationship with Senate leadership, Republicans began a filibuster over his recusal motion. Two rare things began to happen; first, there was a debate over a senator’s ability to recuse himself over a conflict of interest, and second, Republican senators, some in leadership, were participating in a filibuster.

As the filibuster wore on, it became clear that the pay raise which had to be rejected by midnight Tuesday night was being used as the vehicle for some senators to make a statement.

If the senators failed to vote down the resolution, then the pay raise would have been allowed to go into effect, which would amount to approximately $1,800 for each senator over a two-year period succeeding.

The governor comes upstairs

As the filibuster entered its second hour, Gov. Eric Greitens began to communicate with Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard’s office to voice his opposition to the pay raise Richard was working to vote down. However, at 6:38 p.m., he took to Twitter, saying:

He tweeted again at 6:39 p.m.:

And again, seconds later:

At 6:50 p.m. he tweeted again:

Followed by another tweet at 6:57 p.m., saying:

Now sitting in the pro tem’s office, it was decided between Greitens and Richard that they would bring in senators to speak to the governor while the president of the Senate looked on. Along with the governor and Richard were the Governor’s aides Will Scharf, Jennae Neustadt, and Todd Scott. However, it was clear that the Governor did all the talking.

Senator Wieland was one of the first to be brought in. During the vote whipping being done, he had expressed his reservations about supporting the rejection.

Greitens then asked Wieland a question.

“I know you’re not smart enough to come up with this on your own, so who put you up to this?” Greitens said, following up by telling Wieland, “I can see by your pupils in your beady little eyes that you’re afraid of me, and your hands shaking that you’re not invested in this.”

It was at that point after a series of veiled threats, including that the governor would be in his district, that Wieland replied with a question.

Sen. Paul Wieland

Sen. Paul Wieland

“What are you going to do, waterboard me?” Wieland asked.

After that, Wieland left the Pro Tem’s office and, as he said on This Week in Missouri Politics, went from leaning no to a definite no on the resolution. It marked the first time that governor had ever attempted to whip votes, and he had failed to get the desired result. His second attempt wouldn’t go much better.

While the rest of the senators voting no or seeking to be recused floated between Schaaf and Silvey’s offices, Hoskins was brought into Richard’s office and the governor didn’t hold back on him, either.

Greitens began by telling Hoskins that this was a test of courage and character. It was then that the governor threatened to call out Hoskins in the media. Hoskins told Greitens that he was not going to recuse himself, but vote no. As the conversation became more heated, Hoskins pushed back, saying that he was considering donating his raise to charity.

During the conversation, Hoskins told the governor that it didn’t help the work they had done to change the image of state government when he constantly referred to the Legislature as corrupt, to which Greitens responded, saying that he wasn’t talking about Hoskins.

The crescendo came when Hoskins’ integrity was challenged again. He questioned Greitens about taking nearly $2 million dollars in secret money and the allegations of some form of sex slavery surrounding his largest contributor – Michael Goguen.

It was after a heated end to the discussion, Hoskins left the Pro Tem’ office and decided he was voting ‘no’ on the motion as well.

Senator Eigel was brought in first, and after a calmer but still yelling filled unsuccessful attempt at getting the senator to change his position, it was decided that a change in strategy was in order.

Greitens adjusted his tactics and helped flip imminently-respected Wallingford. After him came Romine and later Koenig, and it was at this point that it became clear that the chances for the senators supporting recusal and voting no were dimming. Most everyone involved pointed to Wallingford’s change of mind as essential to the final outcome, as without him they were down to eleven and had from the beginning felt as though he would stand with them.

However, in a strange twist, as the Senate was working on their issues to come to a vote, many began pointing to statements coming out of the house as mature and statesmanlike.

At 7:28 p.m., Speaker of the House Todd Richardson chimed in via Twitter, saying:

Later at 9:34 p.m., Budget Chairman Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick tweeted:

Those hoping to overrule the pay raise ultimately got their way.

It was around this time that Senate leadership began finding a way to fix their problem. Koenig, who wasn’t expected to be present Monday night, was on his way to the Capitol, highly likely to support leadership and reject the pay hike.

Brown was attending a funeral but was made aware of the situation and left for Jefferson City. It became a matter of time for the members of Republican leadership and their supporters to hold the floor until their 23rd and 24th votes arrived.

As it became clear that leadership was merely waiting on the arrival of their votes, Nasheed, who has been cultivating a relationship with the governor, began informing senators and the governor that she would agree not to recuse herself and vote.

However, there was some nervousness amongst Senate leadership. With Nasheed, they would have had 23 votes, so they still waited until Koenig arrived and committed to the governor that he would be the 24th vote. To be certain, they waited still for the more loyal Senator Brown to arrive to move to a vote.

A win for the underdogs

When the votes had arrived senate leadership began moving to end their filibuster. It was then that the vote was held on Silvey’s motion to recuse himself. It was to be the win that they would take away from the evening.

By a vote of 19-14, Silvey was allowed to recuse himself from voting. The senators voting “yes” were:

  • Chappelle-Nadal
  • Rizzo
  • Curls
  • Romine
  • Eigel
  • Schatz
  • Holsman
  • Schaaf
  • Hoskins
  • Sifton
  • Hummel
  • Silvey
  • Koenig
  • Wallingford
  • Kraus
  • Walsh
  • Libla
  • Wieland
  • Nasheed

The vote was a significant win in the push for greater rights of senators, whether that win is a change in momentum or a simple blip in the radar remains to be seen, but it’s one of the rare signs of independence from Republican senators.

As Holsman knew the votes to defeat the pay raise were in the Capitol, he took to the floor and first inquired of Richard, who confirmed that the governor had used his office to whip votes of senators.

Richard then deflected the inquiry with a quip about former Governor Jay Nixon occasionally doing the same.

Holsman then accused Richard of abrogating his duties of running the Senate to the governor, using the argument that the governor shouldn’t be involved in a procedural motion among senators.

Next, Holsman inquired of Wieland and Hoskins, who said openly on the Senate floor that the governor attempted to intimidate them. It was during the inquiry where Hoskins said he relayed to the governor his view of the separation of powers. Those with a few months of institutional memory will remember then-Rep. Hoskins using a stand to leadership as a key part of his campaign to become House Pro Tem.

The vote

After the dramatics, Nasheed rose to make a few points to take up for the governor.

She began by reminding senators of a common complaint about Nixon, that he was disengaged from the Legislature. She pointed out that while his tactics may have been misguided, it was unfair to criticize the governor for being disengaged then and then be critical when a new governor engages the legislature as well.

She then informed the body that she would like to withdraw her recusal and vote on the pay raise. She ultimately continued her trend of voting to refuse every pay raise, voting to reject the proposed increase.

Also before the vote, Schaaf, a key figure in the uprising, took to the floor and discussed the Senate. Casual observers will note that Schaaf frequently speaks his mind in the Senate, whether supported by leadership or not. Others will remember that the last time a debate over legislator pay was held, he went to great lengths to stop a 12 percent pay raise. His parliamentary moves to prevent the 12 percent pay raise led to the “woodshed caucus,” where his Republican colleagues gathered to take Schaaf to the figurative woodshed and keep from enduring similar maneuvers, which was unsuccessful.

When the vote was held, the pay raise was rejected by a 25-2 vote with six senators recusing themselves. Hoskins and Wieland voted no, while Eigel, Curls, Silvey, Schaaf, Chappelle-Nadal, and Holsman recused themselves.

Another day, another social media war

Many felt that the issue was over, especially since the governor’s side won, and that a Republican governor and Republican senators would end up putting this behind them.

Many credited the man viewed as Missouri’s senior statesman, Sen. Mike Kehoe, for encouraging the senators to reach out to Greitens and patch up their differences. It was successful, as one senator involved asked his staff to reach out to the governor’s staff and ask to visit with him.

However, a little after 3:00 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon, the Governor took to his social media account with no hint of letting bygones be bygones:

Yesterday we saw one of the clearest demonstrations of how out of touch politicians really are.

Politicians in our State Senate spent seven hours debating whether or not to give themselves a pay raise. That’s right: seven whole hours…about a pay raise for themselves.

It was a pathetic display. Seven hours of taxpayer time could have been spent doing just about anything. Maybe they could have talked about how to grow jobs in our state, increase wages, improve our schools, or clean up our streets. Nope. Instead, they talked about the reasons why they deserved more money.

When I heard about this, I went to the Senate side of the capitol and told them what I thought. I told them this was a test—of character, commitment, and courage. They could do the right thing, or they could do the easy thing. They could be with us, the people, and the Senators who were against this raise. Or they could be on the record asking for more money for themselves at a time when Missouri families are struggling.

I’m proud to say that common sense prevailed and the raise was killed. I want to commend the twenty-five senators who voted against it. They held the floor and took on the Senators who were out for themselves. They showed courage and leadership.

Two Senators voted for this pay increase. Senators Paul Wieland and Denny Hoskins betrayed the people they are supposed to serve last night, by voting to raise their own pay. Senators Wieland and Hoskins owe the people an answer. They complained that it wasn’t my place to interfere on behalf of Missourians and that I was a bit too rough with them. Others asked me to apologize and show respect.

Will I apologize that we saved taxpayer’s money last night? No. Many of our public servants in our Capitol earned my respect last night as they fought to kill this raise. Others did not.

We were sent here to fight for the people. And sometimes that fight will be tough. No matter how hard things get, I will never—never—stop fighting for more jobs, higher pay, safer streets, and better schools. I welcome the support and friendship of those who are committed to the same goals.

There were several issues with his statement, beginning with the claim that it was Hoskins and Wieland who were holding the floor for seven hours when it was senators supporting the governor’s position who were filibustering.

However, the governor’s larger point was that Missouri couldn’t afford a pay increase for state employees, much less for legislators, especially when the state has a huge budget deficit, which is an easily explainable position that would be popular with voters and prove popular on social media.

From all looks, it appeared that while Wieland and Hoskins had won a victory setting themselves as apart as independent senators willing to buck leadership, the governor had an argument that would win with the public. However, in the end, many asked what there was to be won by any of them, especially the day after the governor has played a big role in a legislative win?

Greitens’ Facebook post from 3:00 Tuesday resulted in a response from Hoskins’ twitter account at 7:10 Wednesday morning:

Proportional responses and working it out via a workout

Greitens worked hand-in-hand with Richard to reject the pay raise and turn back a bit of a revolt inside the Republican Senate caucus. It seemed like their sometimes tenuous relationship was on as solid of footing as possible.

However, Greitens’ social media activity put Richard in an awkward position. Some were asking how he could lead the Senate and allow the governor to bring social media assaults against his senators, especially in his own party.

Two accounts have Richard explaining to the governor that, while he was ultimately very helpful in winning the vote in his man-to-man conversations, his social media posts were not helpful.

By all accounts, the governor was a statesman on Wednesday afternoon, requesting meetings with Eigel, Hoskins, and lastly Wieland.

The meetings went well, ending in handshaking and commitments to work together going forward. The governor and Hoskins even went on a run together Thursday morning, and it appears that the senators and the governor are on the same page once again.

However, after the meeting, Hoskins took to social media one final time at 5:18:

To clear up any confusion, I did not request a pay raise. The Missouri Citizens Commission on Compensation for Elected Officials, who are appointed by the Governor and the Secretary of State, recommended a raise for elected officials of 2.5%. I voted to agree with the Governor’s appointed commission.

I have voted against all pay increases the past 8 years, and elected officials have received only 1 pay raise the last 16 years. Our salaries are $36k.

I also told the Governor I would donate my $500 net annual pay raise to his charity, The Mission Continues. The commission’s recommendation was not approved.

Moving forward, and four who didn’t

Moving forward, it appears that several senators will have a short fuse when dealing with Twitter attacks from the governor. Romine told KJFF radio later in the week that, “I was insulted by some of those comments, and so were several of my colleagues. I’ve been there five years, and we have term limits in the legislative body, so there are not career politicians in the legislative body.”

“Going forward I’m not going to tolerate anybody criticizing a senator for simply casting a vote of conscience,” Schaaf told The Missouri Times. “Even if I am alone, I will stand up for their right as a senator to vote their conscience.”

As a means of defending their members, the Senate held up four people in the Gubernatorial Appointments Committee, which Richard chairs. The four are Anne Precythe, nominee to be director of Department of Corrections, Carol Comer, the Acting Director of the Department of Natural Resources. Chris Chinn, the nominee to be director of the Department of Agriculture, Sarah Steelman, the acting commissioner of the Office of Administration, and Charles Andrew Juden to be the director of the Department of Public Safety. It was a more significant move than it might appear at first glance, as several senators wanted to move Steelman and Chinn forward, but ultimately all five were delayed a week. They are expected to all be confirmed Thursday.

While it appears that everyone is willing to move forward in a united front as Wieland stated Sunday on This Week in Missouri Politics, an equally important question is this: will this be a turning point for the Missouri Senate?

It’s unlikely that the Pro Tem’s office will revert back to merely an administrative role that it served decades ago, but will there be subtle changes in rolling the calendar, how chairmanships are decided, and how bills are taken in?

Besides the drama, those may be the real changes to be remembered when people ask about Monday night.

An earlier version of this story reflected that Senator Libla spoke to the Governor in the Pro Tem’s office Monday night, this was inaccurate. 

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