The Missouri Senate had seven new members after the smoke cleared from the 2006 election cycle. Only two served for the maximum time allowed under term limits – Senate Minority Leader Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, and state Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah.
The two lawmakers are at the opposite ends of the political spectrum. Justus entered the General Assembly as a combative fighter who fought tooth-and-nail against the Republican majority. Lager, who was arguably more conservative than his Republican counterparts, seemed on a course for higher office.
Now, as they prepare to leave office later this year, Lager and Justus are on completely different trajectories. After transforming into one of the Senate’s most pragmatic dealmakers, Justus is setting her sights on the Kansas City Council – and potentially higher office in the future.
Lager’s future is more unclear. He lost two statewide campaigns during his state Senate tenure. And he was even more disappointed by the legislature’s inability to curtail the state’s tax credit programs or overhaul its ethics laws.
St. Louis Public Radio reporters Jason Rosenbaum and Marshall Griffin talked with Justus and Lager before the end of this year’s legislative session. They both discussed the highs and lows of legislative life – and what they plan to do next.
Here’s Rosenbaum’s interview with Justus. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length. Look for Griffin's interview with Lager later this week.
St. Louis Public Radio: Where did these eight years go for you?
Justus: It’s unbelievable. When I first walked into the Senate chamber, it was 2006 during the veto session. And I remember thinking, ‘this is going to go by really fast.’ I had no idea it would be this fast.
When you first went through orientation to be a senator, what were you expecting? Eight years later, were those expectations met?
Justus: There were places where my expectations were met and others where I was surprised, pleasantly surprised sometimes.
First of all, I thought it would be a lot more combative, (with) a lot more partisanship. But the Senate, thankfully, even when it does get tough, it is still not quite as a partisan as I anticipated. On the flip side, I expected that we would tackle some of the bigger issues and actually work through them and not just kick them down the road year after year. But that’s the nature of this chamber.
But I really did think we would get to some more substantive things that we never really got fleshed out.
When you first came into the Senate, you were much more combative and filibustered a lot. Then you became more pragmatic as time went on. What led you from 2007 to the point in 2014 when you sponsored one of the most important bills in decades?
Justus: The first year I was here in 2007 was a lot more partisan. We had a different dynamic in that we had a Republican governor and a Republican legislature. It was a lot more partisan in the issues we were dealing with. We also had a different (partisan) makeup in the Senate at the time. We had more (Democratic) folks here than we do now.
After that session where we had so many "previous question" motions (a parliamentary maneuver to end filibusters), we got together at the beginning of next session with a group of about six of us. We came to an agreement on how we were going to keep that from happening again. I think both sides were less partisan. Not just me. I obviously became more pragmatic, but the other side did as well. That really has worked well over the years.
Did Democrats become more powerful after the PQ accord?
Justus: When you have both sides agreeing that we’re going to do everything in our power not to go down that nuclear option route, both sides are forced to spend more time negotiating. That’s healthy.
It’s recognizing while we may have differences, we also have constituencies that are radically different. The 185,000 people that I represent, they may want me to stand up to filibuster something. But to get things done, I need to scale that back. The other side has hopefully recognized that as well. I know it’s difficult because when you have vast majorities, you want to set the agenda. You want to be able to pass the bills that are important to you. And they have passed a lot of bills. There’s no question about it.
We’re holding up a particular abortion bill right now because we have a deeply held belief that it is very, very harmful for women. But every single year has a substantive piece of legislation relating to abortion restrictions. So it’s not like we have continually blocked things from happening. We’ve just asked people to go in a slow and more deliberate manner.
Democrats have had a hard time winning win rural seats, at least in the Senate. What is it going to take for Democrats to regain ground? Not necessarily in suburban areas like St. Louis and Kansas City, but in Wes Shoemyer’s former seat or Frank Barnitz’s former seat?
If you look back over the history of the state, you'll see big swings in both directions. I mean, Sen. (Claire) McCaskill came and talked to the Democratic caucus last year – both in the House and in the Senate – about how in the early '90s, the Democrats had super-duper majorities as well. All of the problems they had were very similar to the problems Republicans are having now.
You’ll continue to see Missouri be that battleground state. And we may swing one way for a while and then in the opposite direction. You still have a lot of these counties where they’re not electing any state offices that Democratic anymore, but still every elected official in the courthouse is Democratic. So I think eventually, you’ll probably see a swing back. I just think it’s going to take some time.
During your time in the legislature, you handled numerous bills to help foster children. You also sponsored the landmark criminal code revision. Is that your biggest accomplishment?
Justus: Obviously, it's the biggest one because it’s so fresh on my mind. The criminal code (is) big -- and what an overwhelming effect it’s going to have over the next several years. But those day-to-day things that I got done for kids in the foster-care system (is also important).
It’s the little things that the city needs you to do. Your city comes to you and says, ‘Hey I need you to fix this small issue for us.’ Those things mean a lot to me, too. Those things, you see the immediate results.
The criminal code is a great way to finish up a career. There’s no doubt about it. But I’m really glad of the totality of what I’ve done. Because I look every year and see half a dozen bills or more a year that actually fixed a problem – and that’s something to be proud of when you’re gone.
The Missouri Non-Discrimination Act didn't pass the legislature again this year. Does it just not have a chance in the Missouri legislature?
Justus: The reality is that this war is over. We have won this. And the reason why I’m comfortable with it is I know if it’s not this year, it’s going to be next year or the next. Or it’s going to happen in D.C., and it’s going to go across the land. … Missouri is a little bit slower than other places. But we’re going to get this done.
Back in 2004, the gay marriage ban here passed by huge margins. Prominent Democrats didn't speak out against it. Now, both McCaskill and Gov. Jay Nixon have endorsed gay marriage. And Republicans are supporting MONA. What changed?
Justus: I still think in Missouri there’s a big difference between support for MONA and support for gay marriage. I think that a lot of folks still are able to give support to one and not the other. But the nation’s changed.
Because of the overwhelming number of individuals who have come out over the last decade, folks can no longer come up with a justification for why they shouldn’t provide basic protections in the workplace.
Frankly, I don’t think Missouri’s much further behind on the marriage issue either. If it came to a vote today, I don’t know if it would win. But I know it wouldn’t lose at the same levels that it lost in 2004.
You’re the first openly gay state senator. And people seem to mention that incessantly when they cover you. I’ve tried to avoid that because there are other matters to discuss besides gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender issues. But did it ever become uncomfortable when the press wanted to talk to you, it might have been only about an LGBT issue?
Justus: First of all, anytime an LGBT issue came up, sure, we’re the ones they went to. It’s going to look like that’s the only thing they’re coming to us on. Fortunately, there are other things. Sometimes, frankly, I think the only person who is ever quoted on abortion is me, which is not true either, but that’s what it feels like sometimes.
It was frustrating at times to be the go-to person. But when you put yourself out there as openly gay and this is one of the biggest issues in the country, you just have to expect it. And frankly, it gives you the opportunity to message the way that you need to.
It’s kind of funny. I’m probably not always the best person to go to. I remember the night Michael Sam came out. I started getting all these texts – "Michael Sam, woo hoo!" I didn’t have a clue who Michael Sam was! I didn’t know that we had a football player named Michael Sam.
Now obviously when I saw he was a Missouri Tiger and that he was a potential NFL draft pick, I was excited. It’s a good thing I investigated, because the next morning I got to the office and there must have been 15 press calls asking me how I felt about Michael Sam. And I’m like "great!"
I was talking with former House Speaker Rod Jetton a couple of weeks ago. His downfall got me thinking about whether legislative service is worth it – especially if it comes at the expense of your friends and family. Did you feel like you sacrificed a lot to serve in the Missouri Senate?
Justus: The personal sacrifices that we make as politicians are real. This really is a very hard life. I mean, I’m not going to say that my life has been sunshine and lollypops. The reality is I’ve had troubles in my personal life. I have had health concerns. And I think all of those things could be directly related to this place where we work and the things that we do.
It wasn’t until three years ago that I started taking advice that I was given my first year in law school: “You need to eat your vegetables. And get a good night’s sleep. And put your family first.” And when I started to get those things, then I was able to enjoy my time as a legislator.
My last three years have been the best three years here because I finally got to a place where I was not letting my professional life destroy my personal life. But it is very easy for that to happen.
If you had eight more years to be here, would you run for Senate for eight more years? Or are you looking forward to doing something on the local level?
Justus: If I could run for eight more years, I would do it in a heartbeat. That being said, I cannot.
You’re thinking of a city council seat?
Justus: Absolutely. I’m running for city council. When this system works right and we are helping people and changing their lives and making them better, it is a magical thing. And I want to go to do that in Kansas City, which is the city that I love and the reason I ran in the first place.
What do you think will be the biggest difference between here and there?
Justus: We have 12 council members and a mayor. So it’s 13 people. It’s nonpartisan, so it’s not Republican versus Democrat. I like the idea of trying to make change happen with 13 people instead of 197 and a governor. Cities and city government are really the petri dish for all the exciting progressive projects or experiments in the nation. And I want to be part of it.
Democrats tend to nominate outstate or suburban candidates for statewide offices. Is it just because rural Missourians don't vote for city political figures?
Justus: We’re starting to see a change in that. Claire McCaskill had that urban sensibility and urban voting record. And then she went back and ran statewide. Jason Kander comes from a city.
It’s just hit or miss. A lot of folks have asked, "Why aren’t you running for attorney general? Why aren’t you running for this or that?" My answer is, "I don’t want to be those things." Maybe some day in the future if I feel I can help my state. But really, I want to go home. If I can’t be a state senator, I want to go home.
If you had one piece of advice to somebody thinking of running for this job, what would it be?
Justus: Do it. We need as many bright, intelligent, hard-working, honest people down here as possible. So if you are thinking about running, do it.