Tilley the Toiler

There used to be a comic strip called “Tillie the Toiler” about a brunette stenographer and part-time model. King Features syndicated it from 1921-1959. Marion Davies, the mistress of William Randolph Hearst, played her in a silent movie in 1929 and Kay Harris was Tillie in a 1941 talkie.

Now there’s a new one except this time the main character is a guy and he spells his name differently and it’s a last name instead of a first name. But he’s becoming a toiler. A worker. Some think he is a model for some of the things that are wrong about the legislature’s ethics.

Steven Tilley has walked away from being Speaker of the House with five months left to serve to because he didn’t want to be a consultant (or lobbyist) while he’s also the Speaker of the House. The nobility of his action is probably unrecognized by another southeast Missouri lawmaker, Senator Jason Crowell, who openly accused him during last spring’s regular session of CWS–consulting while Speaker. Both are Republicans. Crowell is from Cape Girardeau. Tilley is from Perryville, which isn’t that far away. But they probably are not on each other’s personal Christmas card lists.

But at least Tilley has stopped taking state paychecks while he embarks on his career of telling candidates how to win political office or taking paychecks from this or that group to get favorable legislation passed or unfavorable legislation killed.

Not so with House Democratic leader Mike Talboy, who is still getting state paychecks while he also is a lobbyist for Burns & McDonald, a major Kansas City engineering company.

Understand that none of this is particularly new. Several years ago we reported on a House member who also was working for one of the professional-group organizations that heavily lobbies at the Capitol. And a long, long time ago we caused a stir by reporting that a member of the legislature was renting a room in the home of a prominent lobbyist.
Other observers in the Kansas City and the St. Louis newspapers have commented with one degree or another of harshness on both Tilley and Talboy and the legislature’s lack of ethical standards that allow people to serve two masters (as with Talboy) or to seamlessly move from writing the laws to influencing how the laws are written. The comments can be boiled down to three words: The system stinks.

Chances are that a good number of the people we elect in November will have read those columns or heard of them. But don’t bet the farm that the new legislature will do anything about the issue next year. For one thing there are too many former legislators who are working in the Capitol hallways who will lobby against the idea.

We sense we are being drawn into the same discussion so we’re going to back away from those issues nd get to some history of Speakers who leave before their time, or before the end of their term. For that we have consulted with our friend, the Emperor of Arcania, a small territory within the Missouri Capitol, Marc Powers, who quickly went to work after Tilley’s announcement. Marc writes press releases for the few Democrats who are in the House, which means he has a lot of spare time to pore through old journals, state manuals, and other references. He notes that next month’s veto session could be the first time the House elects a new speaker during one of those sessions. Speaker pro-tem Shane Shoeller is the temporary speaker (pro tem is short for the Latin phrase “pro tempore,” meaning “for the time being,” a person who is a place holder until a new officer can be elected). It’s likely that Republican floor leader Tim Jones of Eureka, who had been anointed Speaker-in-waiting last year, will be elected the new Speaker. Someday we might have something to say about the fairly new practice of political anointment in the House. But let us not get misdirected from Marc’s research. He has written:

Tilley’s resignation appears to mark just the third time since the 1860s that a vacancy in the office of House speaker has been created prior to the end of a two-year General Assembly.

The last time occurred on Jan. 10, 1996, when House Speaker Bob Griffin, D-Cameron, resigned the post on the fifth day of the 1996 legislative session. However, Griffin’s departure, which was prompted by a federal criminal investigation that ultimately sent him to prison, had been planned since the previous summer.

On the day of Griffin’s resignation, the House voted 86-75 to elect state Rep. Steve Gaw, D-Moberly, as speaker over House Minority Leader Mark Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff. Griffin subsequently resigned his House seat on Jan. 26, 1996.

The other speakership vacancy resulted from the sudden death of Speaker Lester A. Vonderschmidt, R-Mound City, on what turned out to be the third-to-last legislative day of a 1954 special legislative session.

On the morning of April 14, 1954, as the nearly two-month long special session was drawing to a close, Vonderschmidt presided over the chamber and took ministerial actions to send several bills that had won final passage to Gov. Phil Donnelly to be signed into law. The House then recessed until 2 p.m., at which time it had planned, according to an April 15, 1954, story in the St. Joseph Gazette, “to take up the controversial St. Louis earnings tax bill.”

During the break, Vonderschmidt returned to his hotel room to rest for the afternoon session but died of a sudden heart attack. When Vonderschmidt failed to arrive at the Capitol at the appointed hour, his wife, whom the St. Joseph Gazette said had been “her husband’s constant companion during legislative sessions,” went to the hotel to look for him and discovered his body. He was 50 years old.

According to the House Journal for April 14, 1954, when the House finally reconvened from its recess after finding out of the speaker’s death, lawmakers immediately adjourned until April 19, 1954, “out of respect” to Vonderschmidt.

Upon reconvening on April 19, 1954, the House elected state Rep. Richard Webster, R-Joplin, without opposition to replace Vonderschmidt as speaker. Interestingly, Webster had not been a member of House leadership at the time of his elevation to the post.

Webster presided over the House during the final two days of the special session, which ended on April 20, 1954. The General Assembly was never again in session during the remaining months of Webster’s stint as speaker.

Webster, who later achieved legendary status as a state senator from 1963 to 1990, was the last Republican speaker of the Missouri House until state Rep. Catherine Hanaway, R-Warson Woods, took the post on Jan. 8, 2003.

We thank Marc for his scholarly work. The first time a vacancy occurred in the Speakership, 1860, was the result of the Civil War when south-leaning legislators fled from Jefferson City in the face of the arrival of Union troops. A special committee took over, named an interim Governor and with U. S. Army troops protecting the city, ran the government.

One final note from Marc. He suggested, “If you ever get bored, you should check out the House Journal from April 19, 1954. After the House elected Webster as speaker, both chambers then convened in a joint session to pay tribute to Vonderschmidt. Gov. Donnelly, Senate President Pro Tem Al Spradling and Supreme Court Judge Rosco Conkling were among those to give speeches. After the joint session, the House went back to legislating.”
I know right where to find that journal, Marc. And I guarantee you I will be driven to the legislative library sometime during the 2013 session because there are days when reading about death is preferable to listening to live Senate debate.

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