In a body where, in theory, every senator is equal at the end of each session, some senators have a greater influence on legislation. Many say Sen. Jay Wasson, R-Nixa, may, in fact, be the most influential state senator in Missouri.
Sen. Wasson gave The Missouri Times an open-ended amount of time in his office – located right off the Senate chamber – and urged us to ask him about any topic on our minds. During our conversation, no matter the topic we encountered, one theme appeared over and over: relationships.
Wasson’s first two years in the Senate were two of the most turbulent in the history of the Missouri Senate. Republicans achieved record gains in the 2010 elections and ended up in a deadlocked tie over who would be the pro tem. In the end, it was decided by chance.
The tumultuous start carried through both years, and in some ways, seemed to shape Wasson’s view of the body.
“During my freshman year, there were several chaotic points, and after seeing that, it encourages you to not allow it to become that way again,” he said.
The Senator broke down his view of leadership’s role in both the House and Senate, saying that “in the House, the leadership has a lot more direct control, whereas, in the Senate, it’s more about listening and understanding where everyone is coming from. There’s not as much leading in the Senate as there is figuring out where the caucus wants to go and helping them get there. It’s the way its supposed to be. The House is a team approach while the Senate is more about individuals.”
Wasson continued by repeating the importance of relationships.
“One of the really cool things about the Senate is that once you’re here, it doesn’t matter what you have previously done; all that matters is that you’re a senator, and you better keep your reputation and your word – because it’s about relationships.”
THE PREVIOUS QUESTION
One of the most interesting aspects of the Senate each session revolves around the use of the previous question (PQ) motion. It’s clearly a topic the Senator has spent a lot of time thinking on. He made several references to his conversations with former Sen. Emery Melton.
Melton served his career in the minority, and was clearly an advocate of avoiding, if possible, the majority imposing their will on the Senate.
“I spent a lot of time with him, he was one of my favorite people. I loved listening to him tell stories about the history of the Senate,” Wasson said. “I took what he said seriously about the previous question, that you shouldn’t use it more than you absolutely need to. I believe that it’s a tool, and in order for it to be effective, people have to believe that you are willing to use it.”
It was a problem that he didn’t have to contemplate during his first two years in the Senate before he was in leadership. When asked about it, he laughed.
“There, honestly, wasn’t the votes to PQ anything in my first two years.”
Recent Senate observers often forget that before the 2011-2012 session, the Senate had an incredible amount of PQs. The Senate has since greatly curtailed its use. However, there was one instance in which the usage of the PQ was met with compliments and not derision – during the 2014 veto session.
During that veto session, a bill aiming to limit abortions was passed and after being vetoed, the Senate clearly had the votes to override Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto. An agreement had been made between Senate Republican and Democratic leadership to allow it to proceed to a vote during session, but Democratic senators decided that agreement didn’t apply to veto session.
“I think that incident made the PQ easier to use,” Wasson said. “I think it was a mistake by those senators. You want to use the PQ as little as you possibly can, but people need to know that you will use it to make the chamber function. We give it all the time we felt we should give it to be was fair. There just wasn’t any more to wring out of it.”
Wasson circled back to the issue of the PQ later during the interview.
“As long as people don’t feel like you’re tricking them or kicking them while they’re down, I think most senators know that the Senate has to function. In my view, It’s our responsibility to make sure senators get as much time as we need to legitimately talk about the issue. Now, when someone starts reading a book, that’s different, but if it’s a discussion on the issue, then in my view, if it goes til to 2:00 a.m., then it goes til to 2 o’clock in the morning and we can all just stay and listen. Again, it’s about relationships.”
An issue that southwest Missouri lawmakers have pressed for decades is the right-to-work measure that was signed earlier this month.
“The people spoke on right-to-work. Elections have consequences and this election has consequences,” Wasson said. “I’ve spent the last couple years focusing on attending meetings of the Southern Legislative Conference. I’ve seen states from Florida to Texas that are growing jobs, and right-to-work is a piece of that puzzle.”
Many right-to-work advocates stress the role site locators play in job growth.
“Site locations are a huge part of it. If your state is not a right-to-work state, they just cull you out,” he responded. “One thing some people don’t know that site locators don’t necessarily pick a sites so much as they eliminate sites.”
Many heralded the work that Sens. Mike Kehoe and Gina Walsh put in to bring the bill to a vote, even amending the bill to include a grandfather clause for existing labor contracts without the use of the PQ.
“I would compliment Sen. Walsh highly. Again elections have consequences, and she set an example for the body. I think most everyone respects her for how that was handled,” he said. “I give Sen. Walsh a lot of credit, and also Sen. Richard and Sen. Kehoe. They meet with Sen. Walsh every week so everyone knows what is going on. There are no tricks, and while she may not agree, she knows where we are going each week.”
Wasson is a senator who has consistently stressed the positive case for right-to-work as opposed to the making the issue an attack on unions.
“My view is this: what good does it do to hurt unions? That doesn’t help anyone.”
Another labor issue that is moving through the legislative process is prevailing wage. As a former mayor of Nixa and a real estate developer, it’s an issue that the senator is well acquainted with.
“I wanted to build a public restroom, but I was shocked at how the prevailing wage laws skyrocketed the cost for just for just a small restroom,” he said. “Little things that shouldn’t cost so much. Other things like maintenance or replacing the roof of a shed seem unreasonable.”
We asked if there was the potential for a compromise, and after thinking for a bit, he responded: “Look, to me prevailing wage doesn’t make much sense in rural cities and counties. I think there could be a compromise on these third and fourth class counties.”
While Wasson chose not to seek a leadership position in the House, he chose to run for leadership in his first term in the Senate, and now serves as the Majority Caucus Secretary.
“It felt right. It felt like some way that I could contribute and made some sense to me. Leadership is totally different in the Senate,” he said.
After serving during the aforementioned turbulent first two years, he joined a group of senators seeking to make Sen. Ron Richard the majority floor leader in their third year in the Senate. We asked him why he chose to support Richard.
“Not to sound like a broken record, but it’s about relationships. We sat together in the House, and very quickly realized that we had a lot in common. We were both former mayors, and I came to know that he had a lot of common sense,” he said.
Richard was mayor of Joplin, Wasson of Nixa, giving the pair plenty to talk about from the beginning. However, Richard credited Wasson’s ability to not talk for part of his own success.
“It’s always the quiet who do well,” Richard said. “Jay talks to people without making them mad and understands their issues, so he can share their concerns.”
Wasson’s support for Richard was in part drawn from the way he served as the Speaker of the House.
“The way he ran the House was different than in the past, and once I got to the Senate I immediately knew that after running the House in really a more senatorial way, that it would work well over here.”
He said he was pleased with his decision to vote for Richard, and credits Richard with the success of the Senate.
“While we have had some bumps in the road, we haven’t had anything like what we had in my first two years, and I think that Ron and his style of leadership is a big reason why.”
Richard was quick to reflect on Wasson’s leadership weight in the Senate.
“What he brings to Senate leadership is a common sense business approach,” Richard said. “He is a contractor, so he understands economic development. Some people don’t know that since he was young has taken care of his family and has always been the breadwinner.
“Some people bring a leadership role by their very presence, and when a discussion goes around the table, he always has a concise, well thought-out, reasoned approach. When people seek out your opinion, it’s because it’s you’re important.”
As for the candidate that Richard ran against, he’s done well for himself as well.
“Lt. Governor [Mike] Parson is in a position that he is tailormade for. He is an outstanding lt. governor. He has spent so much time in the chair,” Wasson said. “I was comfortable, too, with Peter [Kinder] in the chair because he knew the rules very well, but Mike has been in the chair so much it really speaks highly of him. Nobody questions his judgment because Mike doesn’t have a dog in the fight. He is really doing a tremendous job.”
Wasson was quite pragmatic about the recent incidents of senators defeating a rule change.
“There is a certain expectation out there that they voted for Republicans and they want to see some results. For the voters to elect a supermajority, they do expect that we pass some tough legislation. Right-to-work was an example of that.”
A great deal was made of Governor Eric Greitens lobbying senators to reject a pay raise last month, and we asked Wasson to share his views on that week. We asked him about the back and forth between senators and the Governor, as well as the hold up in confirming the Governor’s appointments for a week.
The Senator leaned back before answering.
“Oh, I think it sends signals both ways. It’s not a huge problem. The Senate stood their ground in the end and you have to remember that there are separate parts of government,” Wasson said “If this is his biggest problem, then he will be doing fine.”
Some have observed that the whole issue was on the way to being worked out, and Wasson agreed. However, he reiterated parts of his speech on the floor that night, opposing the recusal motion, and in pragmatic fashion, he summed up the night.
“To take the pay raise by not voting, to me, it wouldn’t have been a good way to handle that. I believe the fairest way to do it would be to just tie us to state employees, but you don’t bulldoze senators.”
We asked if the legislature can avoid battling the governor of his own party as Republicans did during his time in the House when Governor Blunt was in office.
“Well, it was contentious then, but I think we can avoid acrimony with the Governor. We all have the same goals, and remember you have to go all the way back to Gov. Blunt to see so many big bills moving so early.”
While on the topic, we couldn’t help but ask him one mischievous question. We asked the senator if, by a common sense definition, he was a politician.
After a long smile he said, “I think people would say I am.”
We asked him then if Gov. Greitens was also a politician, and after an even longer smile, he said that he’d have to say that he is.
The reason for the interview was to learn about how he has been able to affect so many pieces of legislation. We asked him to provide an example of a senator from whom he had learned much of the skills and techniques he currently employs.
“Victor Callahan was absolutely one of the smartest senators I’ve ever run into,” he said. “Not only was he smart, he was a very pragmatic senator and helped shape the way I viewed government.”
When asked if he had any advice for younger legislators, Wasson once again gave a pragmatic response focusing on the importance of relationships.
“You know a lot of my bills are actually House bills. Probably 90 percent of the bills I’ve passed have someone else’s name on them,” he replied. ”I might have the exact same bill, but mine get loaded up on the House side like a pack mule. If I can get a House bill that I like and shepherd it here, I can keep it clean. Basically, if you can make the House bill what you want and then get it through clean over here, you have passed your bill. It just doesn’t have your name on it.”
Callahan was quick to deflect credit.
“Senator Wasson is an effective leader because he understands the currency of the realm is trust and Jay Wasson is an honest broker who tells the truth and keeps his word,” said Callahan.
We asked the Senator if there were any senators in particular that he has been working with to pass some of this legislative strategy that former Sen. Callahan passed down to him. He immediately responded with freshman Sen. Caleb Rowden.
“I’ve been working with Sen. Rowden,” he said. “He is very talented and is going to be an outstanding senator.”
When we approached Sen. Rowden with his reaction to those comments, he quickly confirmed them.
“He was one of the first that we spoke to about running and he is the Senator everyone directed us to for advice and help,” Rowden said. “After we got elected, he really helped prepare me to serve in the Senate. He has a very easy-going personality that is compatible with me and has been a great asset to me.”
BACK HOME IN NIXA
Wasson’s background is real estate development. While he now focuses on commercial development, he has worked in home building. But these days, he has little time for the home building part of his business.
He told us that doing real estate development and especially homebuilding helps him understand economic development.
“Building houses is a crash course in a business degree from building to finance to financing the seller. There is even a human resources component. Buying quality product for the lowest cost and almost every phase of business is covered in home building. You’re also one of the first to see the status of the economy because homebuilding is the first industry to suffer an impending downward economic trend.”
We asked how his wife, Retha, deals with her husband’s part-time job, one that is anything but part-time if you do it right.
“Well, my wife knew what she was getting into – doesn’t complain. I feel bad for her sometimes. When other people are going out to a nice dinner, I am taking her out for rubber chicken and political speeches,” he said with a laugh.
THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENT
It’s particularly topical today in Missouri to wonder if Republicans demonize government too much.
“I think there are some people who won’t be happy until there is no government at all,” he said. “Should we lessen the government? Sure, but we still have to do things like transportation and education. Is there a place for government? Sure, there is.”
“Are there enough adults in the room with enough bandwidth to seriously address the state’s transportation crisis?” we asked.
“At some point, yes. We have to start over, and we have to put everything on the table,” he responded. “We are blessed that within a day’s drive of a semi you can be in three-fourths of this nation. If what you’re selling is logistics, then common sense says that you have to have the roads to make that sale.”
We asked the Senator after observing and leading Missouri Republicans during the Reagan, Gingrich, Bush, Tea Party and, now, Trump Era of the Republican Party, what advice would he give to the generation inheriting this era.
“After this election, you have to step back and say what was this about,” he said. “We have to understand the anger the feeling out there that the voters want some things to happen. They don’t want the same old, same old. They want some change. Realizing that, we are doing some pretty big bills this session.”
With this being his last term and his seat up in 2018, we asked Wasson if he expects there to be a primary to replace him with former representatives Burlison and Hough being discussed as potential candidates. He said that he wouldn’t be getting involved in a potential primary, but said that one thing he has learned is that “things can change in a hurry.”
As he leaves the Senate, we asked him to point to a couple senators who have impressed him.
“Well, I think you look at Sen. Bill Eigel, with his military experience, and Sen. Rowden. When you read about his history, you know he is here for the right reasons,” he said.
We finished our conversation asking him for some final advice to people serving in the Capitol.
“Always remember that there were people here before you and there will be someone here after you’re gone. You’re not the end all be all,” he said. “Always keep your word. Be slow to commit on things, keep your powder dry as long as you can because things change. If you have to change your mind later be sure to go to the person and tell them.
“It’s about relationships and treating people the way you want to be treated,” he finished.
Scott Faughn is the publisher of The Missouri Times, owner of the Clayton Times in Clayton; SEMO Times in Poplar Bluff; and host of the only statewide political television show, This Week in Missouri Politics.