(Updated 11 a.m. Friday, May 15) Missouri Rep. Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, was elected and sworn in as new House speaker Friday, and swiftly got the House back to the business at hand — passing bills in the final hours of a surreal last week of session.
"This is not the time for speeches,'' Richardson said, ending tumultuous applause from the packed chamber. "This is a time to get back to work."
Still, Friday's proceedings took a strange turn when legislators were gaveled into session by disgraced (and now former) Speaker John Diehl, R-Town and Country. Diehl was officially still speaker during the opening ceremonies, and then gave brief remarks before leaving the podium and the chamber.
Diehl formally stepped down about 48 hours after his sexy text messages with a college-age intern went public Wednesday morning.
Richardson had been nominated in less than 20 minutes Thursday night, when the House’s remaining 116 GOP members gathered in the Capitol's third-floor lounge, just hours after Diehl had announced his plans to step down.
Richardson, 38, is a lawyer. He's the son of former Rep. Mark Richardson, who led House Republicans in the mid-1990s before being forced out over a controversy regarding his personal behavior. Todd Richardson said he was asking the public to "judge me by my actions and by my character."
Richardson told reporters Thursday night that there will likely be limited pieces of legislation that can be passed during the final day, because of an unrelated dispute in the Senate that has blocked most bills.
Richardson added that he already is talking to fellow House members about changing their intern policy, and imposing stricter rules by the time legislators go back into session in January.
“I don’t think the last five months has put the legislature and this public institution in a particularly good light," Richardson said. "And it’s my great hope that beginning tomorrow, we can get back to work and focus on improving that public perception.”
Diehl changes mind
In a three-paragraph statement Thursday, Diehl — who as late as Wednesday night sought to stay on — wrote that he’d changed his mind.
He explained, “For the good of my party, the caucus, and this state, I’m not going to further jeopardize what we have accomplished this year and what can be accomplished in the future.”
Diehl’s late-breaking scandal shocked and upended the state House, adding to an unusual end-of-session week already wrecked by an unrelated dispute paralyzing the state Senate. The General Assembly's legislative session officially ends at 6 p.m. Friday.
On Thursday afternoon, when it was clear Diehl was departing, then-House Majority Floor Leader Richardson and House Speaker Pro Tem Denny Hoskins had issued a joint statement.
“Today is a sad day for Missouri and this body. However, we were elected to do the work of the people and we begin the process of doing that by choosing a new leader. ... We will move quickly but deliberatively to select a new Speaker of the House.”
At Thursday night's caucus meeting, Richardson was the only person nominated for the job.
Officials call resignation 'right thing'
Diehl , who is 49, married and has three children, is a lawyer at one of St. Louis’ most prominent firms: Husch Blackwell, LLP.
Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, jabbed at Diehl for the behavior that forced him out.
“Missourians deserve elected officials who reflect their values and comport themselves to the highest standards of integrity," the governor said. "Rep. John Diehl’s resignation from the position of speaker and state representative is an appropriate and necessary step. Our thoughts go out to the families who have been affected by the speaker’s conduct. I look forward to working with the next speaker to restore the public trust and continue building a brighter future for our state.”
U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., lauded Diehl's decision to step down. “Speaker Diehl was an effective leader with significant accomplishments for our state. He made a mistake and has apologized. He made the right decision today. I wish John the best as he and his family work through this.”
Texts touch off political tornado
Diehl’s troubles erupted Wednesday morning, shortly after the House went into its daily session. That’s when the Kansas City Star published on its website screenshots of a series of sexually charged texts earlier this spring between Diehl and the 19-year-old woman, a student at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin.
At the time the story broke, Diehl was presiding over the House. Soon after, he retired to his office. That appears to be the last time he held the speaker’s gavel.
The episode quickly went viral on social media, drawing national coverage.
In his first apology, issued Wednesday afternoon, Diehl did not address any of the specific texts, some of which implied a sexual relationship with the college student. Later, Diehl and the woman separately denied any involvement beyond the texts.
She had left the Capitol a month ago when Missouri Southern State University abruptly ended its state Capitol internship program, sending the four interns back to Joplin. The school said little at the time, but later told the Star that the shutdown was in response to “an unspecified incident.”
State Capitol seen its share of scandals
A number of House Republicans, including most of the women members, met with Diehl privately Wednesday afternoon. After a lengthy caucus meeting Wednesday night, members appeared to support the idea of him staying on.
But after Thursday’s change of heart, some House Republicans expressed a mixture of sadness and relief.
Rep. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, said that “it was the right thing to do” for Diehl to step aside.
“Unfortunately, all of us are flawed,” said Engler, who served two terms in the Missouri Senate before coming back to the House. “I don’t know if it says something in particular about the situation or the fact that when you’re given positions of power, sometimes that is a difficult position to handle. So we’re going to move on. We’re going to have an election and move forward. We’ll get that done.”
Rep. Nate Walker, R-Kirksville, served in the legislature during the 1980s and has known Diehl since he was a teenager. Walker said that Diehl helped him out in his unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor in 1984, and he still considers Diehl a friend.
“I don’t think he took his own considerations into mind, but looked to what was best for the whole,” Walker said. “I think he understood in life we should honor the titles — have not the titles honor us. And I think John made the right decision and I supported his decision.”
At least one Democratic member — Rep. Gina Mitten, D-Richmond Heights — also supported Diehl’s decision to step down. Mitten had taken to the floor Wednesday to call for Diehl’s resignation as speaker, and had begun circulating a petition aimed at forcing him out.
Mitten, who has a daughter close to the same age as the intern, said Diehl’s downfall “says a lot” about the culture in Jefferson City. She had complained Wednesday that there was a strain of sexism in the state Capitol.
Diehl is the first Missouri speaker of the House to resign due to wrongdoing since Democrat Bob Griffin, who resigned in the early 1990s when he was under federal investigation.
However, a number of other recent House speakers have been tarred by personal scandals during or after their tenure, including Republicans Rod Jetton and Steve Tilley.
Former state Rep. Delbert Scott was in the Missouri House when Griffin came under fire. He said the fall of Missouri politicians can yield some valuable lessons.
“There’s 163 here and 34 in the Senate,” said Scott, who was visiting the Capitol on Thursday to honor a former assistant. “And you hear about the one person it happens to every 10 years or five years. And you don’t hear anything about everybody else that remains true to their spouse and doesn’t do it. But it’s a personal tragedy. And he’s doing the right thing by stepping down for the institution. And life goes on. We’re all moral people. But sometimes we fail.”
Diehl’s statement of resignation:
“In my time in the General Assembly, I’m proud of my long legislative legacy that was built upon being honest with members and doing what is in the best interest of our caucus and this body. I am proud to have led us to the largest Republican majority in state history, the first income tax cut in nearly one hundred years, and an override of the governor’s veto of Missouri’s congressional redistricting map.
I have acknowledged making a serious error in judgment by sending the text messages. It was wrong and I am truly sorry. Too often we hear leaders say they’re sorry but are unwilling to accept the consequences. I understand that, as a leader, I am responsible for my actions and I am willing to face the consequences.
I appreciate those who have stood beside me and the overwhelming number of caucus members that have offered continued support; but for the good of my party, the caucus, and this state, I’m not going to further jeopardize what we have accomplished this year and what can be accomplished in the future. Therefore, I will be resigning the position of Speaker of the House and the office of State Representative in a way that allows for an orderly transition.”