With only three weeks left as House Minority Leader, Rep. Jacob Hummel is naturally retrospective. The St. Louis Democrat has led his party to a handful of key victories for his side of the aisle during his stint as minority leader, while the Republican supermajority has consolidated its grip on the Missouri General Assembly. But over the last four years, Hummel has made it a goal for the superminority Democrats to not be an afterthought or an asterisk. Instead, he has managed to take the 45-member caucus and make it relevant against overwhelming odds on tough issues.
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – You would figure Rep. Jacob Hummel for a fighter from the look of his office. While the walls in the House Minority Leader’s office are not bare, they lack the high number of tchotchkes that usually occupy other offices in the Capitol. He has a few framed photos surrounding his desk showing the St. Louis skyline or old-timey shots of the 1904 World’s Fair, and just a handful of mementos on his desk. Aside from that, the office has a Spartan feel – disciplined and lean, but not entirely devoid of personality.
It reflects Hummel’s own personality well.
For the past four years, he has led a caucus lacking much legislative power through trial and tribulation, oftentimes at the whims of Republicans who do not agree with the minority on many issues. Yet, that party has consolidated under Hummel’s leadership and looks increasingly to be in rebuilding mode. Many on the left in the House are still riding high on the defeat of last year’s right-to-work bill, which failed to override a veto from Gov. Jay Nixon last September.
Hummel himself gave the final speech in opposition to HB 116, the bill that would have made Missouri the 26th right-to-work state. It makes sense he would give it. He is a union electrician belonging to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the secretary-treasurer for the state AFL-CIO, and he notes that supporting organized labor got him involved in the political process.
AFL-CIO President Mike Louis said that speech exemplified Hummel’s ability as a public servant and his ability to show his “compassion” on labor issues. But more than that, Louis characterized Hummel as a pragmatic man who could be a champion for organized labor in his dual role as a leader in the General Assembly and in the union community.
“Jake’s been able to work across the aisle when he needs to on both sides of that coin and yet has been a very effective leader the minority caucus,” Louis said. “I’m very pround to ahve him as my office partner in the AFL-CIO.”
However, when he was first starting out, things did not necessarily go easily for him. Hummel replaced a former St. Louis political dynamo in Tom Villa who had served 18 years in the House of Representatives, serving as Majority Floor Leader from 1980 to 1984. Villa failed to win a race for state treasurer that year, but he became the President of the St. Louis Board of Alderman in 1987, served there until 1995, and came back to the House from 2000 to 2008.
Villa’s decades of experience would be tough to replicate for an electrician with no political background.
“He was kind of the dean of the House,” Hummel says of Villa. “Trying to fill his shoes was a difficult thing back home in the neighborhood. People expected a certain thing, and I was not him.”
Hummel especially laments not being able to pull off Villa’s “colorful wardrobe.”
But Villa did his part to advise Hummel, to make him an effective public servant. Hummel says the first thing he learned was to keep his mouth shut, listen and learn the process. He did that for his first two years, filing just five innocuous bills that would not grab too much attention from anyone.
In his second term, though, he got off the sidelines. During that term, the General Assembly did a congressional redistricting that would see Missouri lose a district, most likely a Democratic district owing to the Republican makeup of the legislature.
“I was extraordinarily unhappy with the outcome,” Hummel says. “Like so many things that happened in everyday life, I got angry and wanted to change something and do something differently… and that’s why I started down the leadership path.”
Former Congressman Russ Carnahan got the short end of the stick as the 2nd Congressional District was changed to encompass most of South and West St. Louis County, instead of South St. Louis City and County. Carnahan and Congressman Lacy Clay Jr. fought for the new 1st Congressional District, constituted mainly of St. Louis City, and the latter won.
Hummel alleges those redistricting efforts on congressional and state legislature districts are what have caused such an imbalance in Missouri when it comes not only to Congress, but to the General Assembly; the Show-Me State has just 53 Democrats in the House and Senate while Republicans have 140. It follows a national trend over President Barack Obama’s tenure where Republicans now have control over 68 of 98 state legislative chambers, the most they ever have. Hummel cites a larger effort by Republicans to get rid of campaign finance limits or craft favorable voting district maps as acts that have contributed to GOP dominance. However, he also believes that a vilification of Obama by the right has stood out, saying that there was an “underlying racial motivator” behind such fervent opposition to the president.
“I don’t really understand that, I don’t agree with that, [but] President Obama being in office seems to be very unpopular in certain areas of the country,” he says.
So in 2012, Hummel made a pitch to become the House minority leader, and he won the spot. In 2013, he began serving in that role, and while he has not yet changed Democrats’ luck in the state legislature, he took on added responsibilities and reaching out to Republicans on certain issues that he believes both parties wanted.
Hummel’s approach from a minority and superminority perspective falls under the oft-repeated phrase of “playing defense,” but Hummel and other members of leadership have positioned the party to play ball with Republicans on a myriad of issues where both parties can find common ground. He estimates that around three-quarters of legislation that passes through the House has support from both parties and he says the common portrait of the donkey and the elephant butting heads for dominance is not accurate an accurate one. Hummel speaks and thinks highly of Speaker Todd Richardson.
“He has an open door policy with me,” Hummel says of Richardson. “We talk about issues that affect the legislature on occasion, and I’m happy to work with him on those issues. We’re at completely different sides of the ideological spectrum, but that hasn’t stopped us from working together on issues that are important to the House.”
He has also galvanized the relatively small caucus outside of a few outliers on major issues and by most accounts, he has been an effective leader. Rep. Gail McCann-Beatty, the House assistant minority leader, noted that it was easy to work with him, and that he kept her in the loop on information, which she noted did not always happen to those in assistant leadership positions.
“Even though there’s been times he’s not here, just being able to step in, he’s made that very easy,” she said. “He is open to ideas when we’re discussing strategy, open not just to my ideas, but also other people’s ideas.”
On top of his endearment to his own party, Hummel clearly has the trust of some members of the Republican caucus on some issues, including labor issues, and in those relationships lies the grander play: the play that can be made only by fostering trust built by years of friendship and understanding. However, the move is not some form of strategic mastermind on Hummel’s part, but rather an indication that politics can be highly personal.
The defeat of right-to-work is perhaps Hummel and the House Democrats’ biggest win to date, and they owe it to those prior pieces of legislation, the 75 percent of bills that do not garner widespread fanfare, derision or media attention.
“Some of the relationships we’ve made across the aisle on some of these other bills… I think helped us with that,” he says.
Still, Hummel recognizes his party’s weak position in the Legislature in some areas, notably social issues. Since Republicans took over the General Assembly, Missouri has become one of the most unfriendly states to abortion in the country, a long-running attempt to pass the Missouri Nondiscrimination Act to make sexual orientation and preference protected classes under Missouri’s Human Rights Act in the House and Senate has been dead on arrival for years, and Hummel and other Democrats feel that the currently-contested SJR 39, a “religious liberties” resolution, could further disenfranchise the LGBT community.
However, Hummel also sees social issues as a place where Democrats can make inroads beyond the Capitol.
“I see SJR 39 as one of those tools that can help us,” he says. “The ship has sailed. Marriage equality is the law of the land now, and the majority is on the wrong side of history. If they continue to go down this path, then I think we’re going to start to see a shift.”
Should that shift occur, he will not be at the head of the table to preside over it, but that does not put him out of the game entirely.
His cell phone buzzes on his desk. His wife, noted Gateway Government Relations lobbyist Sarah Wood Martin, has started having contractions for a baby girl they are expecting in the next few days. They have a few names in mind, but Hummel says he cannot spill the beans quite yet.
“If I told you, my wife would probably kill me,” he says.
The two separate parts of his life in a way do not seem so separate. Martin often attends hearings and discusses legislation with lawmakers, so she is often in the Capitol. Yet, the time apart, especially with a new child on the way, clearly causes some internal division in Hummel. While serving as leader ultimately comes with its own responsibilities, Hummel declines to say he suffers more than any other person in the House when they spend time away from their family. He says he and Martin have successfully found a balance, but that during session, the time away is rough. Thursday nights are the most difficult for Hummel. He calls it a juggling act, and it seems like a lot to juggle. The five Democratic wards in his district, the 15 neighborhood organizations he belongs to, his 11-year-old son Timothy’s baseball practice all while preparing for the St. Louis Board of Alderman meeting, which will start Friday morning. However, Hummel knows that other representatives also go through that same struggle.
“Everyone makes sacrifices to be here, and that runs across the board,” he says. “Just because there’s maybe someone serving in the legislature that’s retired doesn’t mean they give up any less time with their family. It’s difficult, but my wife and I have managed to make it work, and I’m sure we will in the future.”
Future is the active word in that last sentence because even after eight years, the prospect of more juggling has not dissuaded the St. Louisian from public office.
Hummel has reorganized his campaign committee and announced that he will run for the 4th Senate District Seat when it is vacated by Sen. Joe Keaveny. Hummel says he respects the role of the Senate, and after legislating for eight years, he wants to take a more active role in the process.
“I appreciate the Senate is a more deliberative body that spends more time looking at some of this legislation in depth,” he says. “In the House, we kind of hammer things through without too much oversight and too much look, and I think the Senate serves its purpose and slows down the process to make sure that good legislation follows, not always to our specifications, but more eye is given to detail, and I think that’s where I can be of help.”
Keaveny is not endorsing anyone yet because many people are expected to run for his spot in two years, but he spoke glowingly about Hummel as a public servant.
“Rep. Hummel is extremely competent legislator,” he said. “He knows how the building works, he works well on both sides of the aisle, he knows how to temper agreements. I think he’d be a very capable replacement.”
Keaveny again stressed that his opinion of Hummel was not an endorsement.
So what does the future hold for House Democrats when their floor leader potentially moves on to greener pastures. McCann-Beatty is the current assistant minority floor leader and an obvious choice to fill Hummel’s shoes as an even voice who already speaks from a position of authority, and she has already made public that she will run for the position. With other House Democratic leaders and veterans like Kim Gardner, Mike Colona, Stephen Webber and John Rizzo running for higher office or leaving due to term limits or other pursuits, the onus may be on other House members to step up to the plate. Alongside McCann-Beatty, the common names floating around are sophomores Rep. Gina Mitten, a fiery St. Louis attorney, and Rep. Jon Carpenter, a small business owner from Kansas City, neither of whom are known to back down on the floor.
Hummel remains mum on his preference, but says that whoever leads the party will put it in good hands because they have acted in leadership roles before.
“Any of those three would do well in this position,” he said. “From the outside looking in, people assume all of these decisions are mine and mine alone and that’s just simply not the case. Being in the room for leadership, those decisions are made as a group. I hope the three of them figure out a structure where they are all in this room, because they are all three, very talented people.
“I think the future of this caucus is bright.”