JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Six weeks before election day, and post-election caucus meetings, the three contenders for speaker pro tem continue to meet with caucus members as part of a final push in a competitive race.
In interviews with the Missouri Times, all three representatives expressed their vision for the future of the caucus and why they’re the best man for the job.
Rep. Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, focused on the work he’s done leading the Emerging Issues Committee through some controversial bills, including SJR 39 last session.
“Obviously, that was in issue that divided not just the legislature, but the caucus,” Haahr said. “My goal from the beginning was to make sure that everybody had a chance to be heard on the issue, that I didn’t favor one side or the other, that we had a very deliberate look at the issue and did our best to move it forward. Obviously, I was for the resolution but hopefully the caucus sees the way I handled that knowing how difficult that was and they can say, ‘Listen he handled this issue like that, he can handle issues that come up on the leadership team and that sort of thing.’”
Rep. Delus Johnson, R-St. Joseph, said he’s been consolidating support for his run since he became majority whip.
“I’ve always felt like I’ve been an asset in leadership,” he said. “I’ve always had an open door policy to all caucus members. I want to continue to serve as their voice at the leadership table and I think I’m a perfect fit for it.”
He cited experience as whip, implementing a new whipping system, to show what he can bring to the table as pro tem.
“I transitioned our whipping system from the old paper system to the new online whipping system that we do, which has really taken it to the next level,” he said. “We’re able to whip bills now instantaneously, right on the floor, and I feel like that’s been an asset not just to the state representatives but to Missouri because we’ve been able to ensure a bill has enough votes on the floor before it ever gets to the floor.”
Rep. Joe Don McGaugh, R-Carrollton, also focused on his work chairing a committee, the Criminal and Judicial Proceedings Committee.
“We take on a lot of issues that directly impact the state, the judiciary and some of those issues,” he said. “I think those are big issues that impact the state quite a bit. I would say even Democrats on my committee know that when people come in, I treat them fairly. We listen to them. But at the same time, I’ve been someone who has worked toward the caucus agenda and toward the caucus priorities.”
All three men said they’d been talking to members of the caucus through in-person meetings, phone calls and letters. McGaugh sent letters from himself and his wife to caucus members. Haahr has a stated goal of visiting all members in their home districts and said he’d visited more than 80 so far.
“Hopefully with those one-on-one meetings I can listen to their concerns, explain my rationale for why I want to do this position and really develop that relationship,” he said. “It’s a lot like that first time you run for office. No matter how many times you see your colleagues in the building, it’s very different to see them in their home district in their element.”
The candidates laid out the plans for their caucus that they’re telling their members.
Johnson said that he wants to update the way members communicate with their constituents in much the same way the whipping system was updated.
“I’m going to build an electronic messaging system for the caucus to send targeted messages to their constituents. I’m working on that,” he said. “I’m also going to have my top priority be rebuilding Missouri’s roads without raising taxes. I think that’s something I’m going to be able to implement sitting at the leadership table.”
Johnson also wants to start a mentorship program for new House members that might want to be in leadership one day.
“I believe it’s very important to mentor the future leaders of the Missouri House of Representatives,” he said. “We need to identify persons in the caucus who want to take the next step into leadership and we need to start helping with that as soon as they enter the caucus.”
McGaugh also mentioned improving communication between members and their constituents.
“I think especially with communication, we have a lot of work to do there, not only to get everyone on the same page, but to get our ideas and successes out to the people of Missouri,” he said. “We’ve got a supermajority of Republicans and it seems like we rely on the media to get our message out there. We’re sort of in the dark ages when it comes to getting out our message and promoting our agenda.”
McGaugh also has a plan to improve communication and knowledge between members from different regions of the state.
“One of the ideas I’ve got would be to divide the caucus into seven regions and then out of those regions elect a regional chairman who then would work with leadership,” he said. “They’d have what I call state of the majority meetings with leadership to discuss what issues are in in their regions of the state. Me being in northwest Missouri, a lot of times I don’t know what the big issues are in the bootheel or around Springfield. So it would be nice as leadership to know, here are the issues that we’re concerned with that we need to work on. We’d like to see our agenda be driven towards those issues.”
Haahr said he focuses on proving he has the skillset to do the job as speaker pro tem.
“My campaign is basically just about what that office entails,” he said. “Work on the dais, work with messaging and work within the leadership and how we craft a platform and how we get buy-in from members and what they want to work on and how the leadership team can be more responsive to that and then how we take our message to the voters, not just during session but after session in and out of election years.”
He mentioned that he has proven that he can handle working on the dais, something the speaker pro tem does daily during session.
“I think most of the caucus members have had a chance to see me up on the dais and know whether or not I can handle that,” he said.
It’s been an issue that some have questioned about Johnson after he closed the board before getting enough votes on a bill during the 2016 session. He said the issue was a learning experience and he’s moved on.
“I closed the board one vote before I was supposed to. And you know, by reopening the board, we had that problem taken care of it just took a secondary vote and we got the bill passed. It was not a problem,” he said. “I learned a valuable lesson that we can actually re-vote on a bill. I was one vote short and we just had to reopen the board and vote one more time and it was not a problem. We got the bill passed about 10 minutes after we should have.”
At the end of the day, the three representatives think they’ll have made their best pitch about why they should be pro tem.
“I feel like I will make a great speaker pro tem,” Johnson said. “I’m going to have an open door policy for the rest of the members of the caucus. I think I’m going to be a great fit at the leadership table for two more years.”
Haahr said that no matter the outcome, the process has been valuable.
“This is an inner-caucus campaign and a chance for us, for whoever’s running for it, to get to know our membership, to help those that are in tough races, to help new candidates with whatever questions they have and really to get the opportunity that if I’m fortunate enough to be elected as the pro tem, that I will have such a grasp on each individual and what is important in their district that it will help me as a leader to push those issues forward,” he said.
McGaugh wants members to know that he’s most proud that Jefferson City hasn’t changed him. He’s not trying to get the position to advance his career or boost his resume he said, but to help the team.
“This position, it’s not about me,” he said. “It’s not about padding my resume. It’s about helping the Republican caucus resume as a whole. I’ve told people, I don’t have an interest in running for speaker. I’m not doing this so I have a leg up on somebody who’s going to run for speaker in two years when Todd’s done. That’s not what I’m trying to accomplish. I’m trying to do what’s best for the caucus and I think that given the three people that are running, I offer the best opportunity for the caucus to succeed.”
PHOTOS/TIM BOMMEL – HOUSE COMMUNICATION