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R​​ehder’s Resiliency: Why the freshman senator feels called to empower others

Holly Rehder still remembers the first Happy Meal she was able to buy her daughter — nuggets, fries, and a root beer — and the paycheck she earned to purchase the treat. Rehder was just a teenager herself; her daughter was 3 years old. 

That moment of empowerment is the catalyst for Rehder’s legislative career, underscoring her drive to speak to and for communities like those in which she grew up, areas where people struggle with poverty, addiction, domestic violence, and untreated mental illness. 

Rehder, 51, just wrapped up her first legislative session as a state senator where she served as the vice-chairwoman of the General Laws Committee. She previously served four terms as a state representative and on the board of directors for the Missouri Cable Telecommunications Association (MCTA). But her journey to the Missouri Legislature was one fraught with challenges. 

Rehder moved more than 30 times around the country from third grade until high school, quitting in 10th grade to care for her family. She had her first child at 16 years old. As a young mother, she stood in countless lines at food banks and called every church in town to find food. She watched family members struggle with addiction and grappled with whether it would be helpful or just more harmful to call the police during domestic violence incidents. 

Sen. Holly Rehder at 16 years old with her newborn daughter, Raychel. (PROVIDED)

Eventually, Rehder earned her GED and a college degree while taking classes during nights and weekends so she could still keep up with work and her family. She worked her way up at a cable company — starting in the mailroom before eventually becoming its director of government affairs. She later started her own cable company and served with the MCTA.

Even sitting in a bright and cozy office in the Capitol building, Rehder hasn’t lost sight of where she came from and believes she’s in a position where God can use her. It’s what she experienced and saw growing up that has shaped her political views and offers a unique perspective among the General Assembly. 

“I watched the government policies — which come from very caring places but can sometimes allow compassion to override commonsense — and so many of the policies kept women in my family trapped in poverty because the road was so easy to stay on. The welfare programs were so easy to stay on,” she said. “To me, it was keeping women in my family from rising to their potential because the road to not doing anything was too easy.”

Rehder is passionate about empowering her constituents — just as she was buying that first Happy Meal so many years ago. 

“I know how it feels to get out of poverty and how empowering that is and how it makes you want more. It makes you want to work hard. It makes you want to do more, but I know so many women and women in my family who never experienced that,” Rehder said. 

So Rehder decided to run for office after coming to Jefferson City to lobby on behalf of the MCTA and realizing there were countless attorneys serving in the statehouse but not really anyone who mirrored her life experiences. In the Senate, Rehder represents SD 27 which includes Bollinger, Cape Girardeau, Madison, Perry, Scott, and Wayne counties. 

“Being up here made me realize we need people from different backgrounds, different perspectives,” Rehder, a Republican, said. “We all come from different worlds so we have different views on how best to do it.”  

“I know that I could be the only one — and if I’m not the only one, I’m one of the very few — who can speak to the community that I came from,” she added. “My experiences are just incredibly unique and so I feel my voice is needed. There’s not someone else being a loudmouth for some of the things I am. I know I need to keep going.” 

Rehder can certainly count her first session as a state senator a success. Her priority legislation, establishing a statewide prescription drug monitoring program, flew through the legislature and was signed into law in June. Tackling the opioid epidemic is a top priority for Rehder as a lawmaker — and it’s one that is personal. 

Sen. Holly Rehder and Rep. Travis Smith worked together to shepherd the senator’s PDMP bill through the statehouse in 2021. (HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS/TIM BOMMEL)

Growing up, Rehder was raised in a home and community riddled with drug addiction. She knew from an early age she wouldn’t try recreational drugs because she “needed to be completely with all [her] wits” to protect both herself and her younger sister. 

Her daughter, however, was brought up in church and without a lack of intervention from her parents. But her daughter’s story became one that is familiar to countless others in the U.S.: She was injured at work, prescribed an opioid, and became addicted. At one point, Rehder gained custody of her grandson, and there were times, she said, when she didn’t know if her daughter was alive. 

But unlike so many others, this story has a happy ending. Rehder’s daughter has been sober for several years and is “the best mama” to her child. 

“I want people to have that ending, but I also want people to never have that start,” Rehder said. “Nobody starts out saying, ‘Yeah, I want to be an addict.’ These things happen over time, and the more tools we allow our medical professionals to have to recognize these signs and treat addiction on the front end, the fewer people will become addicted. I want to help with both treatment and recovery.” 

As the legislative session progressed, Rehder chose perhaps an unusual but successful ally to advocate for her PDMP bill in the lower chamber: a freshman representative.

“I coached high school sports for almost two decades. Sen. Rehder is everything I strived for my athletes to be later in life: honest, passionate in their endeavors, and never quitting when things get rough. Then, when finally accomplishing a goal, it is done in a joyous and humble manner,” Rep. Travis Smith said of his time working with Rehder in the statehouse. 

Rehder has also made helping domestic and sexual assault survivors — another area she said she knows “too well” — a priority while in office. Rehder is a member of the new Missouri Rights of Victims of Sexual Assault Task Force and passionately advocated for legislation allowing ex parte orders of protection to be extended for life in Missouri. 

When she was still in the House, Rehder championed legislation expanding Missouri’s sexual education curriculum to include lessons on consent, harassment, and assault. The idea is to better inform high school students so they are prepared when they leave home for college. That legislation is one she is still particularly proud of. 

“Sen. Rehder is a valued ally in the movement to counter domestic and sexual violence in our state. Her personal experiences while growing up give her tremendous insight into the need for legislative action to protect victims,” said Jessica M. Hill, executive director of the Safe House for Women in Cape Girardeau and public policy chair of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. “At the Safe House for Women here in Sen. Rehder’s home district, we’re thrilled that she is now serving on the Rights of Victims of Sexual Assault Task Force, and we look forward to what her next priority bill be to help survivors.”

Then a state representative, Holly Rehder prays with her grandson in the House chambers. (PROVIDED)

One of the bigger hurdles Rehder faced when deciding whether to run for public office was ensuring her three children — now ages 35, 30, and 24 — would be prepared. But they’ve been supportive of her service, particularly as she tells her life story to help others, she said. 

“I know it’s cliche coming from her son, but my mother is genuinely the hardest working person I’ve ever met. She spent eight years fighting for a bill that she knew would help Missourians and lost that fight year after year,” Christian Rehder, the senator’s youngest son, said. “She never gave up and finally won on year nine — almost 10 years after the battle for PDMP began. It takes a special type of person to fight for something for almost a decade.” 

“She has always been resilient, diligent, and dedicated to her work,” he continued. “And most importantly, she leaves every decision in God’s hands.” 

So what’s next for Rehder? Back home in Sikeston, Rehder still attends and serves with Life Church. She wants to continue to focus on domestic and sexual violence law updates and has spent some time this year researching homelessness in Missouri. Rehder also plans to look at how Missouri can improve its technical training opportunities for high school graduates.