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Senate stymies Parson’s pick to lead health department

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — On Tuesday, a looming snowstorm brought a halt to legislative proceedings while conservative senators froze the health director’s confirmation. 

Donald Kauerauf, who has a lengthy career in public health and safety in neighboring Illinois, was picked by Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, to lead the Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) last year. While he’s been serving as the head of the health department since September, Kauerauf needed to be confirmed by the Senate by Friday to remain in his position, according to state law. 

But before adjourning for the week, the Senate confirmed a slate of appointees — sans Kauerauf. 

There are a few maneuvers Parson could make that allow Kauerauf to remain at the helm of DHSS, even as acting director, sources said. But the governor had not made his plans —  if he has any at this time — public by Tuesday afternoon. 

Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz said senators “ran into a time crunch” with the Friday deadline, impending winter storm, and cancelation of last week’s scheduled hearing due to lengthy floor debate. And as the afternoon wore on, leadership had to decide whether to let a conservative-led filibuster continue or get the other 15 appointees through the process. 

Schatz also suggested opposition to Kauerauf could be “some retaliation” stemming from former Director Randall Williams’ resignation last year, noting claims Kaureauf supported statewide COVID-19 vaccine and mask mandates were unfounded. 

“I think [Kauerauf] has a very credible resume,” Schatz said in an interview. “One thing he said was this: He didn’t need this job, and ultimately, his desire to serve in this capacity is something he’s done in his career. And for him to want to do that and put himself in a situation where the criticisms and things like that occurred in this process, I admire anyone who wants to go out and do that for the right reasons.” 

“His motivations were pure in wanting to serve in this capacity. For that fact, I don’t care who it is, it’s unfortunate when someone obviously doesn’t get the opportunity to do that. There was a lot of, I believe, unfair press brought into this,” Schatz added. 

Kauerauf came under fire from conservatives in the upper chamber who questioned his views on abortion and mandates for vaccines and masks amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

More than 100 people rallied in the Capitol rotunda ahead of his Gubernatorial Appointments hearing Monday, at times making false statements about vaccinations, Kauerauf, and more. 

And on Tuesday, Sen. Mike Moon, who led most of Kauerauf’s questioning the previous day, filibustered the opening of session Tuesday for nearly three hours. 

Throughout the hearing, Kauerauf calmly maintained that while he would encourage people to get the COVID-19 vaccine, he is not supportive of government mandates. He also said he is pro-life. 

Moon, however, said he wasn’t convinced and questioned Kauerauf’s wife’s involvement in certain Illinois pandemic-response programs, like an option test-to-stay school program. 

Moon said he was never contacted by the governor to get him on board with Kauerauf’s appointment. 

“The people spoke, and we acknowledged their voices,” Moon said in a text message after session ended Tuesday. 

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Parson vehemently defended Kauerauf Monday amid the criticisms from conservative senators and demonstrators. 

“[Kauerauf] is an experienced public health professional with a disciplined moral compass that is guided by our Missouri principles: Christian values, family values, and love for this nation,” Parson said. “It’s concerning to see certain Missouri officials grandstanding for purely political reasons and fueling fears without any regard for the truth. I implore Missouri Senators to assess the qualities of the person, not let themselves fall victim to misinformation repeated on social media.”

A spokesperson for Parson didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Democrats decried the Senate’s inability to approve Kaureauf. 

“Missouri is in the middle of a health crisis and now the state is without a health director because a small but loud group of extremist Republicans are against fighting a disease that has killed 17,000 of our fellow Missourians,” Minority Leader John Rizzo said. “Misinformation and lies have defeated professionalism and integrity.” 

“It appears [Missouri] will be without a director of [DHSS] during a pandemic because the Senate refused to confirm the nominee on the grounds that he *checks notes* encouraged vaccination,” Sen. Lauren Arthur said on social media

Even Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas took to Twitter to criticize the conservative senators. 

The Senate will not return until Monday — when congressional redistricting is expected to take the tumultuous stage.