St. Charles, Mo. — Tom Dempsey will always remember when he sponsored the Missouri Downtown Economic Stimulus Act when he served as a state representative in 2003. He loved working a bill through the legislative process, dealing with legislators of all stripes, assisting then-state Sen. Sarah Steelman, a Republican, as she sponsored the bill in the senate, touring the state by plane with Gov. Bob Holden, a Democrat, to speak with city lobbyists, watching as the governor signed a piece of legislation he had championed.
The bill eventually paved the way for both Kansas City’s Power and Light District and St. Louis’ Ballpark Village to come into existence. Both are now considered major attractions for their respective cities.
To him it was a culmination of years of effort and accomplishment. Ten years before that bill had been signed he had graduated with a political science degree from Rockhurst University in Kansas City and had moved back to his home town of St. Charles to help manage the family restaurant and ‘The Columns Banquet and Conference Center, which closed in 2014.
Dempsey still remembers the feeling he got when Holden signed that bill, and he has spent the last three years paying it forward. As the Republican leader in the Senate during that time, he has given people dozens of opportunities to feel that sense of professional fulfillment.
“I’ve tried to give other people that experience,” he said. “We all make the same sacrifices, regardless of Republican or Democrat, the time we spend away from family, the time we spend campaigning… When you’re making that kind of sacrifice, when you’re time is limited, you want it to count.”
Sen. Pro Tem Tom Dempsey will leave the Senate after serving in Jefferson City for nearly 15 years to pursue opportunities in the private sector and spend more time with his wife, Molly, and their children, Meaghan, Abby and Jack. He is one of the of the last remaining politicians who was on the floor when Democrats controlled both houses and judging by the words from legislators, strategists and other prominent political figures, his demeanor and experience will be sorely missed on the Senate floor as he resigns with one more year left on his term.
The early years
Dempsey first became interested in politics in an innocuous setting at DeSmet Jesuit High School in Creve Coeur, where he learned about the founding of the United States in social studies classes and felt drawn to it. He also loved hearing the president at the time, Ronald Reagan, speak about the greatness of America.
“I think it’s important to be apart of something great whether it’s your community, your family, your country,” Dempsey said, explaining his infatuation with Reagan’s ideals. He followed politics at an early age and kept up with what was going on in and around the country.
Others around him noticed that even early on, he had a stately demeanor.
Mike Kelley, a Democratic political consultant now working in St. Louis, grew up in St. Charles around the same time as Dempsey, and though the two were never the closest of friends, he noted they always got along well together and that even as a youngster Dempsey would listen to all sides of an issue.
Family friend, former State Senator and current St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann first met Dempsey when Dempsey was in college. He recalled that Dempsey was thoughtful and kind and that those qualities translated into his professional career.
“He’s a good listener, he’s calm and reflective, I’ve never seen him lose his temper,” Ehlmann said. “He’s got a great legislative demeanor, he communicates real well with his colleagues, he listens closely to his constituents.”
Ehlmann added that Dempsey came a from a family with a long line of political presence in the St. Charles area. His family has been in the St. Charles community for 70 years when Pio Pedrucci and his brother-in-law Frank moved to the area and opened Pio’s Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge in 1958. Pio’s was a hotspot for people to talk politics at the local, state and federal levels. Dempsey’s family has also been active in politics and charities as well.
“He comes from a family that knows public service,” Ehlmann said.
Despite these attributes, Dempsey did not leap head first into politics, ironically because he felt his degree limited him somewhat.
“You can do two things with it, you go to law school or you teach political science,” Dempsey said. He did not want to do either of those things
So, Dempsey went to culinary school for a year before he did get a job from with a restaurant corporation that owned The Columns in 1991.
In 1998, Don Boehmer, a friend of Dempsey’s who was active in St. Charles government, invited him out to coffee and asked if he would be interested in running for City Council. Dempsey was curious about holding public office. He talked to his wife, and they agreed that he should pursue it.
He remembered thinking it would be great “to put your name on the line, to do a job in government that you spent so much time following.”
It turned out by coincidence that he ran unopposed for the seat.
“Perfect way to get politics,” he laughed.
He enjoyed his two-and-a-half years on the city council, working on issues like streets and creeks, property taxes, stop signs, neighborhood issues, smaller regulatory measures. To this day he still takes pride in what he was able to accomplish in a relatively small role compared to what has followed.
“Some of the things I worked on… the Beacon Hill Basin, the Frontier Park Fence, They’re little things, but they’re things I can drive by today and know that they’re there because of my involvement,” Dempsey said.
But those little things did not satisfy his hunger to wade into larger issues. Dempsey would discuss crime, education, health care, the economy and whatever hot-button issues of the day were facing the state and the country with his family. He had a sense for bigger challenges than those found in the City Council chamber.
He eventually met with then Rep. Chuck Gross, who represented St. Charles. He visited the Capitol with Gross who was set to make a bid to run for the state Senate. Gross asked Dempsey if he would like to run for the House position. Again, he consulted his wife, and they said it would be the perfect opportunity to work on the big social issues they constantly explored over the dinner table.
He decided to go for it.
Mr. Dempsey goes to Jefferson City
Unlike his City Council campaign, Dempsey had an opponent in this race for a House seat. The challenge of putting together a campaign was a new one for him. He had to put forth a platform that spoke to the issues, raise money for yard signs and literature used to educate voters and knock on a lot of doors.
He also had to develop a thick skin.
“There were three negative mail pieces that were used against me,” Dempsey said. “It’s always going to bother you, but you learn to tolerate it.”
Like so many in politics, it was Dempsey’s spouse who seemed to take the low-blows personally. Dempsey remembers finding the first negative piece on him in his mailbox, going inside and trying in vain to hide it behind his back before handing it to her. She was furious.
In November of 2000, as most of the nation waited for Florida’s results to give either George W. Bush or Al Gore the presidential election, Dempsey won his first of four elections to the Missouri House of Representatives.
In his first term, he was a member of the minority party; Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate. But the next year, during three special elections, Republicans took two of the three to take control of the Senate, and Peter Kinder became the Senate Pro Tempore, the first Republican to hold the office in Missouri in 53 years, and a post Dempsey himself would one day hold.
In 2002, the House followed suit and went Republican as well, largely due to the work of then-Minority Floor Leader Catherine Hanaway.
“We were thrilled with the election results,” Dempsey said. “As the minority, you’re actually the bomb throwers, but when you become the majority party you actually have to move policy and govern. There was no previous Republican chairman that had ever moved a bill in the house.”
Hanaway spoke to Dempsey’s character from their time together in the legislature. The two have always held a mutual respect for each other, and Dempsey endorsed Hanaway in her bid for governor in 2016.
“Sen. Dempsey always put his constituents first,” Hanaway said. “He never lost sight of why he ran for office or his commitment to truly serving the citizens of St. Charles and Missouri. He put his experience as a businessman to work solving some of our state’s toughest problems.”
Ehlmann noted that Dempsey’s ability to win elections was impressive in itself, but the way he did it, with grassroots organizing and small donations, was something that he missed in modern-day politicians.
“I always thought it was great Tom didn’t have to rely on the lobbyists to fund his campaigns,” Ehlmann said. “He had a lot of people giving him 50 and 100 dollars.”
The Republican majority brought about a lot of change, but Dempsey again found another teaching moment in the Republican rise to power in Missouri.
“I give a cautionary tale to our members,” He said. “Democrats, to a degree, took their majority for granted. The Speaker of the House was running for state senate and used the power of his office to run a senate campaign.”
He says the key to keeping a majority is to stay connected with those that share your party. Petty squabbles and disagreements have no place on the floor and that Republicans are part of a team at a base level, despite small disagreements on certain issues.
“In 15 years as majority, we’ve kicked off pro-life, pro-limited government, and pro-2nd Amendment legislation,” he said, noting they had been able to do that by sticking together. “Maybe you don’t have everyone on board but you remain a team.”
During the Right to Work debate and ultimate moving of the previous question, which Dempsey opposed he ruled in favor of the majority on every point of order. In his position at Pro Tem he could have been a major obstacle in passing the bill in the senate in the last week, but he chose not to use procedural maneuvers to kill a bill his caucus overwhelmingly supported.
Dempsey ran for state senate in a 2007 special election and began serving in 2008. He quickly became the majority floor leader in the upper house, and in 2012, he became the Senate Pro Tem. His activities changed from being one who sponsored legislation to finding a joy in helping others pass their own legislation.
Dempsey did not just limit that privilege to Republicans either.
Dempsey made perhaps his most distinct mark as legitimately representing the ideas of arbitration, compromise and bipartisanship. In the Senate, and as a leader in the Senate, he recognized the need for bipartisanship as more a need than just a desirable quality. He quickly developed working relationships with both the other side of the aisle, and with the various coalitions that existed within the ever-expanding GOP majority in the Senate.
“It’s out of necessity in the Senate because of our rules that you have to compromise your position without compromising your principles,” Dempsey said.
Sen. Joe Keaveny, the Minority Leader in the Senate, noted that Dempsey is not as concerned with making a headline as he is with achieving a tangible goal. Dempsey sponsored fewer and fewer bills as he spent time in the senate, instead dedicating himself to navigating the chamber through fights on education, gun, and labor issues.
“Tom was never focused on his own personal gain,” he said. “He was focused on making sure his caucus achieved most of their goals. Tom never introduced a whole lot of bills.”
Keaveny added that while he and Dempsey had little time to build a personal relationship, their professional relationship was as solid as could be.
“Tom and I had a good working relationship,” Keaveny said. “There are issues that we don’t agree on, but Tom was always forthright and honest in his feelings. [He is] extremely competent, more deliberative and vocal… extremely professional. He was always focused on the task at hand, not a whole lot of banter back and forth.”
Kelley echoed Keaveny’s sentiment.
“While he and I don’t often agree on public policy, Sen. Dempsey is a rare commodity in the Missouri legislature to make sure true compromise came out of legislation,” Kelley said. “He was always extremely inclusive in making sure all sides were heard… Whether it be on transportation, healthcare, [he] always takes the time to understand the issues, and he brings people together to foster compromise.”
Kelley cited an example of Dempsey’s willingness to hear people out. As someone born in a suburban area, Dempsey was highly attentive to the needs and wants of urban areas, according to Kelley. Unlike some lawmakers, who soon take to outright banning certain individuals or groups from their office space, Dempsey rarely showed a distaste for speaking with those that disagreed with him.
Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder attributed Dempsey’s ability to connect with people as the reason he was so well-received by Democrats as well as Republicans.
“He’s just a number one nice guy and he approaches everyone in that fashion,” Kinder said. “He has the respect of pretty much everyone who’s ever worked with him in both parties.
“Anytime you have a class guy like Tom leaving you’re going to miss him.”
End of an era
Last week, Dempsey announced that he would step down as the Senate Pro Tem., explaining in a lengthy written statement that he had a strong desire to return to the public sector and spend more time with his wife and kids, two of whom have already left for college.
“This was the right decision for my family, and that’s why I’m comfortable with it,” he said. “I know that resigning at this time was what was needed for my family.”
He says his employment after he leaves office is not 100 percent certain. He may transition into lobbying or other work involving public policy because he believes his skill set and experience gives him a certain aptitude for that line of work, despite what naysayers may think about a politician immediately transitioning into the lobbying world.
He would ideally like to work closer to home, but did not rule out running for office again in the future, though he did say he couldn’t see himself doing it at this point in time. His name has been floated by his fellow Republicans as a potential statewide candidate, in congress, or — more locally — to succeed Ehlmann himself.
Ehlmann said that while St. Charles would miss his service deeply, the people he had talked to all understood why Dempsey had decided to leave.
“He just felt he needed to put his family first for a change,” he said.“The more time it takes away from your family, and the more it takes away your ability to earn other income.”
Former Gov. Holden also spoke fondly of his time working with Dempsey and noted that he was more than willing to cross party lines to get things done.
“I’m personally sad to see Sen. Dempsey leave,” Holden said. “He is in the mold of Tom Eagleton and Jack Danforth that could put aside petty partisanship to work for the public good. I thought he was the best of what a public servant is.”
Dempsey’s departure also means that two Senate seats, the other being Sen. Paul LeVota’s, will probably be vacant at the start of the next legislative session after one that will go down in history for being tumultuous, turbulent and eye-opening.
“The extraordinary part of this last session was mostly related to things that they weren’t policy problems, they were problems happening outside of the chamber,” Dempsey said, noting that the suicides of State Auditor Tom Schweich and Spence Jackson as well as the resignation of House Speaker John Diehl after a sex scandal surfaced all impacted the chamber heavily.
“It was a very emotional year,” he added.
But he also stressed that despite the problems outside the chamber, it was a productive one in terms of legislation being passed. He noted that Missouri had a strong budget this year, especially compared to Missouri’s neighbors in Kansas and Illinois, municipal court reform which could make “real progress” in stopping government corruption in St. Louis County’s smallest townships, tort reform legislation, and other pieces of legislation in which he took pride.
“We had a lot of success this year, we had a lot of things to be proud of,” Dempsey said. “But because of the tension and what was occurring, people really didn’t feel good about this year.”
While the previous session had nothing to do with his decision to resign from the Senate, some people around the Capitol worry his departure could leave the Senate in disarray.
Keaveny thinks that’s hogwash.
“I get a little irritated when people say that it’s not going to run as smoothly or that the person that succeeds him won’t be as effective,” Keaveny said. “We’re just going to have to adapt and deal with it as it comes.”
Kinder hopes Senate Republicans will find someone who can properly fill the void left by Dempsey. He is also “optimistic” the Senate will operate successfully.
Kelley, however, thinks that something essential will be lost when Dempsey leaves.
“It’s the rare individual who has the M.O. of Tom Dempsey of wanting to understand,” Kelley said. “His departure from the Senate is the swan song of politicians who have that quality.”
Kelley hopes the next Senate Pro Tem would follow Dempsey’s example of bipartisanship and compromise, adding that “people rise to the occasion when they get these jobs.”
Dempsey also shares that sentiment, the “next-man-up” philosophy, that whoever succeeds him will have to perform at the standard that impressed and endeared him to so many of his peers and colleagues.
“Last year it dawned on me that no matter how hard I work, no matter how hard I try, there are things that I care about that won’t get accomplished,” he said.
But even with that knowledge, he says, he devoted himself to doing all he could.