Umbrage kills and chills

Maybe they were just cranky because they didn’t get much sleep Wednesday night after what was the state senate’s first-ever interactive filibuster. *

Whatever the reason, I’ve seen the state senate in a lot of moods in the years I’ve covered it but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in the killing mood it was in on Thursday morning.

Senators who have been complaining that Governor Nixon doesn’t communicate with them about appointments–some say he has even appointed people the senators have repeatedly warned him not to appoint–or who complain that he has loaded bipartisan commissions with Democrats claiming to be independents instead of appointing Republicans, or  that he has left commissions like conservation and transportation geographically unbalanced got in their licks.

In about an hour and a half the senate killed two appointments and forced the withdrawal of four others before the senate could vote to kill them, too..  Hours earlier, senate leader Rob Mayer had let it be known the senate would not be considering the nomination of Jason Hale as economic development department director, forcing his resignation before the senate would kill his nomination.

Killing a nomination means that person can never, ever, be nominated by this or any other governor to that position again.

Some senators have accused Nixon of playing games with the appointment process.  Columbia attorney Craig Van Matre is an example of what they were talking about.  But it wasn’t that part of the Van Matre experience that led the senate to kill his nomination as a University of Missouri curator.  It was some things he had said.

Van Matre was nominated to the board of curators last year.  But the governor withdrew the nomination when it could not be confirmed.  After the legislature left last spring, he made Van Matre an interim appointment.  But when confirmation wasn’t likely in September, the governor withdrew the appointment.  He appointed van Matre a third time after the special/veto session ended.

What made the bile rise in Republican throats, however, was some things Van Matre said in articles in the Columbia Daily Tribune.  St. Louis Senator Jim Lembke referred to some of the comments during the debate, taking umbrage with Van Matre’s allegation that Republicans are “religious zealots”  controlled by Missouri Right to Life.

Lembke called the senate’s attention to the first amendment to Missouri’s constitution which, like the first amendment of the federal constitution guarantees freedom of speech.  Missouri’s constitution-writers back in 1944-45, however, felt they could improve on what the founding fathers said so simply.  Here’s Missouri’s first amendment:

That no law shall be passed impairing the freedom of speech, no matter by what means communicated: that every person shall be free to say, write or publish, or otherwise communicate whatever he will on any subject, being responsible for all abuses of that liberty; and that in all suits and prosecutions for libel or slander the truth thereof may be given in evidence; and in suits and prosecutions for libel the jury, under the direction of the court, shall determine the law and the facts.

Lembke read only part of the amendment to justify his position, ending with “being responsible for all abuses of that liberty.,”    He did not share with the rest of the senate the additional language that some might interpret to expand on the “responsible for all abuses” language by linking the phrase to libel or slander actions and the defense against such allegations is truth, and prosecutions of such actions will be under the direction of a court.

Van Matre was not given an opportunity during these proceedings to assert the truth of his remarks, nor was that test done under the direction of a court. Wouldn’t it make for an interesting trial if the full language of the amendment was utilized?

But that possibility is pretty scary.  Imaging the court system clogged with libel and slander suits about the things our political parties or their respective bomb-throwers say about each other.  There would be no way in the world you and I could get our lawsuit heard to determine whether that big walnut tree is on your property or mine.

But anyway, several Republicans stood up to say they were personally offended that Van Matre had exercised his constitutional right and because he had done so it was unlikely he could work harmoniously with other curators who did not share his political views.  Governor Nixon did not withdraw the nomination a third time.  A motion to approve it was withdrawn, killing the nomination and Van Matre’s chances of ever being an MU curator again.

Is there a message here?  Sure there is.  But it’s not a new message.  The message is a simple one, and ancient:

People play politics.

It’s a fact of life. Sometimes the result is positive.  Sometimes it’s negative.  Which of those two it is depends in this case on whether your name is Lembke or whether it is Van Matre.

This isn’t a courtroom where we hope to have an unbiased jury judge us. It’s the General Assembly. People who play politics play here.

In this era when hot words and characterizations are more the political norm than the average citizen finds attractive, there should be no surprise when a person in or headed for a public position requiring a trip to the senate for confirmation pops off and pays the price.

The moral of the story:  Be careful what you say, citizen.  People who play politics might make you pay for it someday.

Anybody else feel a chill?

* Wednesday’s 14 1/2 hour filibuster against the employment discrimination bill was led by Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal.  At one point during the evening, she and Senator Robin Wright-Jones began a conversation that turned into a trivia contest of sorts between them.  At one point, Chappelle-Nadal suggested people listening to the filibuster on the internet text her with trivia questions she and Wright-Jones could play with to keep the discussion going.

The senate’s sometimes quaint traditions forbid computers on the desks of senators.  But they do not forbid smart phones in their hands.  Twittering and texting are not uncommon by and among senators and between lobbyists in the halls and senators in the chamber.   But this was the first time any senator during debate SOLICITED public participation in the debate.

So, webheads, mark this historic date on your calendar:  February 1, 2012: The first interactive Missouri filibuster.

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