Speaker Pro Tem Elijah Haahr has been front and center this session, working hard to help push through a number of conservative policies. And having now announced his bid for the position of Speaker, we talked to the representative about a number of issues to get his thoughts on where Missouri goes next and the things he still sees as work that needs to be done.
MT: In your first year as the Speaker Pro Tem, what has been the biggest challenge for you? In your opinion, what is the hardest part of being the Speaker Pro Tem?
EH: The difficult part of the office is also the most challenging – the Pro Tem does not have a constitutionally or caucus defined role other than to assist the Speaker. As such, the office is what you make it. My goal was twofold: to maintain orderly debate from the dais and to provide our caucus with consistent messaging so that all 117 caucus members could speak with one voice when we were united. But every Pro Tem will want to carve out their own unique niche and that is both the most difficult and most challenging part of the job.
MT: The issue of human sex-trafficking has been one that you have carried the torch for some time now. Do you feel like Missouri has made significant strides in that fight, and what do you still see as areas we need to improve on?
EH: Absolutely. In the last two years, the legislature passed numerous reforms including a ban on advertising and expanding the safe at home program for trafficking victims. Our task force helped to raise awareness around the state and now many of those members are joining Attorney General [Josh] Hawley in serving on his standing task force. Work remains to be done and Rep. Cloria Brown will continue to lead that effort in the Missouri House. Her work to advocate for more resources for victims and better statutory authority on behalf of law enforcement will be vital as we work to keep Missouri at the forefront of this fight.
MT: In a recent Twitter poll by the Missouri Times, you were the favorite candidate to win the race for Speaker of the House. What do you think qualifies you for the role, and what strengths do you believe you can bring if you win the race?
EH: The caucus has seen me as a bill sponsor and watched me shepherd legislation through the House and Senate. They witnessed my work as a committee chair handling the toughest and highest pressure issues. And they watched my work as part of the leadership team and running the House floor while presiding from the dais. Each of these positions are different and require unique skill sets. I believe the skills I demonstrated in handling each of these individual roles tells a much better story of what I would be like as Speaker of the House than any pledge or promise.
MT: If we’re asking about strengths, it only makes sense to ask about weaknesses. What would you describe as the one thing you wish you change during your time in the House, and why?
EH: Every freshman and every senior will invariably tell you that experience is so important to become an effective legislator. I came into office having never interned or worked in the Capitol and I still, to this day, am continuing to become better equipped to pass good legislation. Caucus members like Justin Alferman, Curtis Trent, and Phil Christofanelli all began with more experience by interning or working in the Missouri House or Congress prior to their election and it allows them to be more effective earlier in their legislative careers.
MT: One of the major promises made throughout the Missouri political realm in the last general election was that of ethics reform. The House made a point to ensure that the first bill passed by that body was an ethics bill. That being said, no ethics legislation has actually moved any further than that bill. Do you believe enough is being done in terms of ethics reform, and what would you like to see done?
EH: I continue to believe that we can do more to improve the culture of Jefferson City. However, the work that Speaker [Todd] Richardson has done to demonstrate leadership on this issue has resonated inside and outside the building. The conversation about ethics reform is one which will continue to occur and our House caucus will continue to lead the fight for openness and transparency.
MT: One of the major issues this year has been economic development and growing the state’s economy and workforce. With the passage of right to work and tort reform, do you feel that the state is moving forward in the right direction, and what areas do you still see needing work? What would you propose to do to further that cause?
EH: Our Republican caucus took several historic steps towards removing the government barriers to employment and creating a long-term growth strategy for Missouri. Passing right to work and allowing Uber and Lyft statewide are just the two biggest examples of how injecting freedom into the market can lead to short term and long term job growth. But we have so many other opportunities. Whether it’s a statewide issue like the occupational licensing reform that will open up better employment opportunities to more citizens or removing the barriers to the expansion of jobs in the old Noranda plant, the caucus has a multitude of ways it can show our state what a united Republican majority can accomplish.
MT: What made you first decide to get into politics?
EH: I was born in Iowa. My mom was a social worker and my dad had an education degree but they decided to teach my siblings and me at home. However, Iowa was one of the last three states in the country where homeschooling was illegal. You could literally be taken away from your parents by the government for truancy. That experience as a child really burned into me how an intrusive government could completely change your life. My parents dragged me to the Capitol at 10 and I started working on my first campaign at 12. I still maintain my healthy fear of a big and burdensome government.
MT: How does the House majority maintain their numbers going into the next election cycle?
EH: The same way we built our majority. Recruiting the best candidates in the state, working as a team to get them elected, and then governing the way we campaigned – by keeping our promises to make government smaller, more efficient, and less burdensome on the citizens of Missouri.
MT: What’s the one piece of advice you would share with a freshman legislator?
EH: Every senior will tell you that, when you leave office, you will remember the people, not the accomplishments. Focus on building relationships. The days are long but the years are short. Spend those long days getting to know your colleagues and, when those short years pass, you will have had the richest possible experience.
MT: Looking forward to the next session, what do you believe will be the top priorities in 2018 and why?
EH: The House passed a handful of great reforms that didn’t ultimately reach the Governor’s desk so we will obviously begin with issues like ethics reform, paycheck protection, and finding a sustainable long-term solution to the senior aid funding crisis. But we have a variety of issues that we didn’t get to in 2017 that will take center stage next year. We need to find solutions to fix our transportation infrastructure crisis, craft modern answers to generate more affordable energy, and expand our successful reforms of tort and labor laws to include the bureaucracy and our outdated tax code.
We also asked the representative to take part in a “rapid fire” round of questioning, which he gladly obliged to.
1. Favorite color: Blue. Notice the variety of ties I have are several shades of this color.
2. Pepsi or Coke: Diet Coke.
3. Ford or Chevy: Dodge. I have driven one for 6 years and it has been great.
4. Favorite sports team: I like college football, March Madness, and the Yankees. I think you can always trust me to be honest if I admit to being a Yankees fan.
5. Favorite movie: L.A. Confidential and A Time To Kill are two of my favorites.
6. Favorite book: Atlas Shrugged. I don’t believe in all of it and the speeches get long but the visceral defense of capitalism remains one of my favorites.
7. Most likely to be caught listening to ___ while driving: Currently listening to a song by Clean Bandit on Spotify. But, when I am driving, my playlist ranges from Dierks Bentley to Cold War Kids.
8. Dog or cat: Dog. That isn’t really a tough decision.
9. Favorite way to spend the day off: If you have a job you love, you never need a vacation. But when I am not in the Capitol or the courtroom, I love grilling on the deck and playing with my kids in the backyard.
10. Favorite ice cream flavor: Cookies and Cream. But Talenti makes a couple really good flavors. Not sure if that counts since its gelato.
Bonus Question: As the father of four, which do you find easier: wrangling the kids to get ready, or wrangling votes in the House? Wrangling votes for sure. Luckily, I only have four kids and not 163.
Benjamin Peters is a reporter for the Missouri Times and Missouri Times Magazine, and also produces the #MoLeg Podcast. He joined the Missouri Times in 2016 after working as a sports editor and TV news producer in mid-Missouri. Benjamin is a graduate of Missouri State University in Springfield. To contact Benjamin, email email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @BenjaminDPeters.