As a first-term state representative, I’m constantly asked, “So, how is it really?” Being a Democrat in a very red state, I understand the curiosity — signing up to be the underdog every day isn’t most people’s idea of a good time. But this job is so much more than that, and as my first regular session comes to an end, I want to share an insider’s perspective of what it’s really like to legislate in the great state of Missouri.
When I was first elected to public office last November, I knew entering the Missouri House as a member of the super minority party would come with some remarkable challenges. I understood I would be on the losing side of some difficult votes as a Democrat and that any legislation I wrote wouldn’t be fast-tracked over to the Senate. However, I also discovered some smaller — but still significant — obstacles when I actually got to Jefferson City.
For instance, the majority sets the legislative agenda, and they have strategic reasons for wanting to keep that agenda relatively confidential — even from their own members. As a member of the minority party and someone new to the building, I initially struggled to keep up with which pieces of legislation I should keep on my radar and which were low priority. But I quickly learned to stay flexible and resilient, and I discovered that by focusing on the legislation that went through my committees or happened to fall into my own areas of expertise, I could be more prepared and more confident in my contributions when the issues come up on the floor.
I also underestimated the toll some of the disagreements over particular bills take on you. When Republicans repeatedly refused to uphold their constitutional duty to fully fund Medicaid, I heard from so many of my constituents over the entire course of the budget process. They asked me to stand up for them, to fight for their vote, or to make sure they got the coverage they had been promised. Knowing what was at stake, understanding how many people in my district and across the state were counting on me and my colleagues to come through for them made losing that fight that much more devastating.
Other work on the floor challenged me in different ways. There were simple, but disappointing differences in approach to policy, like when House Republicans passed a school voucher system that effectively subsidizes private schools with public dollars. Other times, that work felt like personal attacks. When our caucus helped Republican Rep. Tom Hannegan use a rare procedural move to get his Missouri Nondiscrimination Act — which would provide protections for LGBTQ+ Missourians — onto the House floor, Republicans approved a measure that specifically discriminated against our state’s transgender children just two days later.
It hurts to see my colleagues — including people with whom I had built strong professional relationships over the course of the legislative session — use their power to hurt one of our state’s most vulnerable populations.
But not everything was contentious or emotionally draining, and my first year had a number of highlights, as well. I got to work with veteran legislator Rep. Ron Hicks from St. Charles County to get HB 1325 passed out of the Emerging Issues Committee in March. This bill would end stigmas against medical cannabis users in family court. Currently, some judges are restricting custodial or parental rights from qualified medical marijuana patients in family court because of their use of legal medical cannabis. I approached Rep. Hicks about this issue, he took immediate interest, and worked with me to help push the bill through the legislative process.
I built other relationships across the aisle as well, including an unlikely friendship with my fellow freshman, Rep. Bill Hardwick from Pulaski County. He and I connected early in the session on an issue we both care deeply about: improving our state’s cybersecurity infrastructure. We worked together to draft the Missouri Cybersecurity Act, which establishes a commission of public and private experts from across the state to share information, challenges, and best practices. I’m so proud that this piece of legislation made it across the finish line this week as an amendment to a Senate bill that was Truly Agreed and Finally Passed.
I also had the chance to meet and learn from experienced legislators on my side of the aisle alongside a strong contingent of fellow first-year Democrats. Although our caucus is small, each member has exposed me to different perspectives and values, and the more experienced members have helped me understand the inner workings of the Capitol and taught me how to be an effective public servant.
This summer, I expect to build even more connections with members of the freshmen class as we learn more about each facet of our state on the Freshman Tour, which will be held this June. I look forward to the interim to recuperate and reflect on what I’ve learned and how I can use that information to make next year even better.
But mostly, I want to use this time to reconnect with my constituents and hear their concerns going into 2022. They sent me here, and I’m so proud to do this work on their behalf.
I know folks will continue to ask what it’s really like to be a Democratic lawmaker in Missouri, and I look forward to continuing to respond with, “It’s genuinely the most challenging and incredible thing I’ve ever done.
“And I love it.”
State Rep. Ashley Aune is a Democrat who represents HD 14 of Clay and Platte counties. She is a member of the House Rules – Oversight Committee.