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This Week in Missouri Politics Column: A school board president, a health director, and a Senate pro tem walk into a bar

I once heard Mike Kehoe say, “You know you’re in a true crisis when whatever you do, or whatever you say, a reasonable person can argue the other side to a draw.”

I reckon the times we live in qualify as one crisis after another. Imagine three different jobs all being different in every way except they deal with the public. Today, that’s a public that is as restless as it has been in a long time. A public that really no matter what you say or do, the system breaks down. 

Let’s say for a minute that you’re the president of a school board. Now y’all know I’ve never been a big fan of the masks on little kids, but you want to keep your school open and no one seems to have the sense to understand that the same issue that forces a restaurant to close early also affects your school’s ability to stay open. Folks complain if you go virtual, complain if you unmask, complain if you close. Really, the only way folks don’t complain about a school board president is if they turn their school into a charter school, start openly campaigning with taxpayer money to defund the police, then cut a campaign contribution to a Republican state representative. Then, you can not only escape any scrutiny, but you will truly know truly devout unfiltered love. 

Or let’s assume for a second you’re nominated to be a state health director. Your career has been based on following health professionals and carrying out their guidance. Now, two years into a pandemic, if you call yourself a public health expert you are either a hero whose orders cannot be questioned or a power-hungry buffoon. 

Or maybe you’re the president of the Missouri Senate, and you’re trying to draw a congressional map in an era where everyone wants their own seat in Congress and no one wants to give in. 

Are we just in an age where no matter what you do, if you are in a position of authority and you can’t make everyone happy all the time, there is no grace to be found between you being a hero or a goat?

Now, I’ll start with a school board president because I’ve been as loud as anyone that 5-year-old kids shouldn’t have to wear a mask. 

On one hand, I honestly don’t think a 5-year-old can wear a mask all day for months on end with enough rigor to keep minute virus particles from spreading. On the other hand, if you’re the president of a school board, you have to figure that a mask on some small level helps keep your employees at school — so what do you do?

Further, it’s odd to me that people don’t get angry that a retail business or a restaurant has to shut down or pare its hours down because either they can’t find employees or the employees they do find miss time from getting sick. 

It’s pretty obvious that COVID-19 affects everyone, even if it’s minor, and if the workforce overall misses time because of the virus, then so are school employees. I suppose I need to learn this lesson first, and maybe with a little grace for the school boards that are trying to ditch the masks and deal with staffing shortages at the same time. 

Now, the health director who didn’t get confirmed is another story. First, he is about as good as you’re gonna get for this position right now. Let’s be real, Don was a Republican and probably pro-life. Maybe 2002 Missouri Republican pro-life more than 2022 every-issue-all-the-time-everywhere-every-day-is-abortion pro-life, but still. Now here is the rub. If he says the things he has been trained his entire professional career to say, then he cannot be confirmed in this environment. 

However, if he says the things that the public wants to hear, then he will be treated as an outcast and a fool by his profession, making it nearly impossible to do his job. Maybe Gov. Mike Parson needs to bring those who were the most vocal against his last nominee into the process to select the next one so they can get a good look at the candidates to replace the last one. Maybe this time, with a little grace and understanding that COVID will go away, at least in Missourah, and this job can go back to being one that isn’t in the headlines every week. If not, it looks like “acting director” will be a permanent state. 

Maybe the hardest job in the world right now is being the president of the Missouri Senate. 

You have for the first time anyone can remember a caucus within your caucus that is more against you than the minority caucus. You don’t have 18 votes for anything without going to the minority or to the group who is most opposed to you. The congressional map clearly reflected that there had to be a county that bordered St. Louis County to absorb the additional population that CD 2 required — and that county wasn’t gonna be the home of the speaker in Jefferson or the home of the pro tem in Franklin; it was gonna be St. Charles. 

So the senators from St. Charles led an effort to kill the House map  — totally their right as senators to do so. Along with help from the Democratic Caucus, they broke the will of leadership and are now demanding a congressional district that is primarily made up of St. Charles County. (In reality, if you’re still on the 7-1 train, you are just being used.)

If Sen. Dave Schatz changes the maps to give the St. Charles County senators what they want, then he has to change the map somewhere else where he will then have a filibuster from those senators. Such as, if they were to add St. Louisans to the 8th district. If you do that, then you have four senators from southeast Missouri who aren’t gonna let the new map pass. 

At the end of the day, there is no one that can do this job. It’s probably time that all 24 people who were elected on the Republican ticket just admit this marriage isn’t salvageable. It might produce the best public policy and the most logical way to progress with Sens. Schatz, Bill Eigel, and John Rizzo meeting each day and deciding how to proceed since none of them on their own have the 18 votes required to run the chamber. Similar to what they had to do in 2003 when the Senate was 16-16 until the special elections. 

Now, I’m just a simple hillbilly, but when a school board president, a state health director, and a Senate pro tem can’t make a move, any move, without the systems they preside over breaking down, it may be time for all of us to pause and try to find some grace, including your ol’ hillbilly pal. 

This week on the show, our featured guest will be St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones. Also, join us next Tuesday, Feb. 22 for our Statesman of the Year event featuring Senator Roy Blunt.