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TWMP Column: Representative Tom Hannegan 1970-2021

I was walking down the sidewalk from Tolson’s Wednesday afternoon when Gov. Nixon’s American-made Ford stopped on High Street, and he popped out. After we visited for a second, he asked me what was wrong. 

I hated to be the bearer of bad news, but I told him Rep. Tom Hannegan of St. Charles had passed away, and at that moment, it hit me. I mentioned to him that, in all honesty, not a whole lot is better here since he left the Capitol, but Rep. Tom Hannegan’s arrival here in January of 2017, as Gov. Nixon was leaving, was one of them. 

Rep. Tom Hannegan was a quality legislator in a Capitol where quality legislating is a dwindling commodity. I could give you a laundry list of things he accomplished during his service to the state, but I have a story that might give you a better feel for who he was. 

In January, he was named the chairman of the Local Government Committee, and when I visited with him, he was excited because of all of the bills designed to limit local health orders. He wasn’t really excited to go after them or to water down the bills; he was excited to dig in and read all about what other states were doing, learn the history of the existing statutes, and visit with experts from both sides. He was a real legislator, really a statesman in that way. 

We visited later in session, and he was quite put out because there was one of those House special committees created — a House move to go around members on issues — and those COVID-19 bills were being run around his committee. I didn’t get the sense he was upset for reasons of vanity. He was upset because he felt his committee was well-prepared to hear and improve the legislation. It wasn’t about using controversial bills for fundraising or tweets; he was that rare legislator who actually wanted to do the work. In some ways, he reminds me of Sen. Bill White in that regard. 

Ultimately, he took his opinions to the floor, and you can see his work reflected in amendments that ended up with a pretty good bill that became law and has thus far served the state well. I hate that he won’t be there for his final term where he would have had the most clout serving under a fellow successful professional in Speaker Dean Plocher. He would have had a great time, and the state would have benefited from those two years. 

Rep. Tom Hannegan was a quality human being in a town where quality people are becoming a dwindling commodity. The public has a very cynical view of those in office, and in turn, it doesn’t take long for those in office to become cynical themselves. That wasn’t Tom — not to say that he wasn’t funny. If you were stuck at a political event, you grab a drink and sit by Tom and Scott, then before you know it, a drudgery of speeches was turned into the type of laughing that draws the scorn of those who are actually there to listen. 

I felt he maintained his optimism because he was secure in himself and mature in his confidence that allowed him to, in a unique way, appreciate the honor of being elected to high office without the arrogance that sometimes goes along with the position. 

Rep. Tom Hannegan was a print publisher in a world where we are a dwindling commodity. This one I might uniquely appreciate more than you. He was a successful businessman on several fronts, but one thing he was passionate about was his publishing business. We used to joke that it might be more unique to be a Republican in publishing than a Republican who was gay. 

Rep. Tom Hannegan was a tolerant man in a culture where tolerance is a dwindling commodity. You’ll notice that I didn’t mention his sexual orientation until the 9th paragraph. I suppose it’s because, honestly, I really didn’t think about him off the top of my head in terms of his sexual orientation. However, I watched Tom fight for things he believed in and have to listen with a straight face to people who lay claim to all of the hellfire and brimstone of Christ but extend none of the grace of Jesus. 

I can’t imagine the grace it took to sit in rooms where people would loudly and proudly say things that had to cut him to the bone, said by people, mind you, who the next day would pretend to have his back against that dastardly four dozen members of the minority party, no matter what, and have to bite his tongue and as far as any of us could see keep his spirits up. He knew if he let them see how he felt, it would only set his cause back. 

He had a pragmatic sense about him that the best leaders have. Tom had to suppress his feelings because he knew, and honestly everyone today can feel, that even though he might not be winning any particular battle, the cause of equality Rep. Tom Hannegan stood for is winning the war. The fact that Tom could recruit a small-minded simple West Butler County hillbilly to his cause is maybe as good of proof as any. 

Tom Hannegan was a hell of a politician. He wasn’t the first Republican legislator to be gay or to tell their constituents they were gay. However, he was the first Republican I know of to win election to the statehouse living his life openly gay. There is no denying that it made his race tougher, but he won and kept being re-elected. The truth is the guy could get votes. Votes in primary elections, votes in general elections Tom Hannegan was a winner at the ballot box. 

Tom Hannegan is a man who left the world a better place than he found it. More than just winning elections, his example of a successful businessman, with a successful family, a community leader in every sense of the word who was also a successful legislator, blazed a unique trail in our state. 

I think his legacy lives on when a House member introduces one of those House bills that are meant to get attention for their cruelty toward a particular group of people — you know, the ones they know will never pass or even be referred, but are only meant to be cruel enough to get attention — and someday doesn’t get the attention they are seeking for their cruelty.

I think Tom’s legacy will live on at the bar at the Grand Cafe when someone who is gay is apprehensive about entering a Republican primary because of their sexual orientation and someone reminds the bar that Rep. Tom Hannegan from St. Charles won and ended up being an outstanding legislator who enjoyed his time in the General Assembly.

Maybe his legacy will be seen when a young person who believes in smaller government is able to choose their political party guided by their political beliefs and not because one political party castigates them for who they are.

I went for a walk Wednesday afternoon and thought about how probably the most fun I’ve had this year was hosting his 50th birthday party at my place in Jefferson City. It was everything Tom with people from both parties, all parts of the state, and everyone laughing. It was especially Tom because it was actually his 51st birthday. His 50th wasn’t as much fun as he would have liked because of COVID so instead of losing a year to the virus, he told me he would just gain one and celebrate his 50th again last May. 

And that is how I remember him. 

The services for Rep. Tom Hannegan will be held at Baue Cave Springs at 3950 West Clay on Oct. 27 at 11:30 a.m. Visitation will be held at Baue Cave Springs on Oct. 26 from 4-8 p.m. and Oct. 27 from 10:30-11:30 a.m.