Beware the independent

Independent voters seem to carry a huge amount of electoral power. Both parties passionately court their favor.

But when one shows up to serve on a state board or commission? Hmmmmm. Is he OUR Independent?

Or is he THEIR Independent?

This teapot of political junke-talk is not yet at the tempest level at the Missouri Capitol. But it has started emitting a low whistle in the Senate.

Here’s the deal:

The Coordinating Board for Higher Education has nine members when it has a full membership. The law says no more than five can be of the same political party. There are now only five members of the board, two D’s and three R’s.

A sixth member, Craig VanMatre, a D, resigned last year to join the University of Missouri Curators.

Governor Nixon had appointed former senator Betty Sims of Ladue and Lebanon publisher Dalton Wright, both R’s, between sessions.

He also appointed Springfield lawyer Tom Strong, best remembered as the state’s lawyer in the national tobacco lawsuit settlement several years ago.

So that would be 2Ds, 5 Rs, one I, and a vacancy. But since the Sims and Wright appointments had been made between legislative sessions, their appointments had to be confirmed by the Senate within the first thirty days of the legislative session. The senate didn’t get to them in time so the governor withdrew teir appointments.

Now it’s 2Ds 3Rs, 3Vs (vacancies), 1I.

Independent Strong’s nomination came up Wednesday in the Senate Gubernatorial Appointments Committee and everybody who has spoken of his appearance says he did a good job and is well-qualified to serve. But after the meeting somebody came up with political campaign donation records showing that Strong has contributed tens of thousands of dollars to Nixon or to the state Democratic party.
Whoa up there, pardner. Is Tom Strong a closet democrat here?

So when the list of people to receive confirmation came up in the Senate on Thursday, Strong’s name was deleted, an action that does not kill a nomination. It is an action that gives some senators a chance to chew on Strong for a while. Strong’s sponsor, Rookie Senator Bob Dixon of Springfield, was nonplussed. He was advised to wait a week, talk to Strong, talk to some doubting senators, and work out the kinks if he could.

Things COULD get interesting behind the scenes. Governor Nixon and Strong go waaay back. Nixon, as Attorney General, used Strong’s law firm as a special counsel to make sure Missouri got its share of the tobacco settlement pot. And we got a bunch. Strong’s law firm was able to make a lot of boat payments with the fees it earned. Some legislative Republicans had noisy fits about the Strong-Nixon deal although Strong’s cut was only a small part of the money Missouri got in the settlement.

If Governor Nixon wants to play some hardball, here’s what he could do (all behind the scenes): He could go to the doubting R’s and say, “If you don’t confirm Tom Strong, I’m not going to resubmit the Sims and Wright nominations. I’ll nominate two Ds instead. And then I’ll fill the Van Matre vacancy with another D. And that will put my party in control of the Coordinating Board 5-4.”

Or Strong could just say, “Okay, if you want me to say I’m a D, I’m a D.” The senate could then approve his nomination and the board would remain 5-4 R.

The official word from the Nixon office is that “a final decision has not been made” on resubmitting Sims and Wright and it’s unknown if he will wait until the Strong matter is resolved before he resubmits them–or somebody.

We’ve seen this before when a governor wants to appoint someone who claims to be an Independent to a board or commission that, under state law, has limits on the number of members who can belong to one political party or the other. They get questioned about who they voted for in the last several elections for governor or senator or congressperson and whether they’ve ever given money to a D or an R candidate, even if it’s in a race for the school board. These occasional gymnastics stem from the fact that Missouri does not require voters to state a party preference when they register.

The biggest paroxysm usually is reserved for those times when it is suspected a governor wants to get around the single-party limit on membership by appointing a closet R or a closet D to a board or commission under the guise of being an I. That’s not the case with Strong. If the senate hadn’t had its mini-fit on Thursday, he’d be confirmed and the board would then be 2Ds, 3Rs, one I, with two more Rs waiting for resubmission.

Of course Strong COULD say, “Well, actually, I’m a Republican,” and really throw the Senate into a tizzy. That’s not likely. Maybe he should send a big check to the state republican party to show that he supports both sides, symbolizing his independence.

At least the coordinating board has five members, a quorum. That means it can transact business while waiting for something to happen in the senate.

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