Over the years, any reporter worth his salt learns who the go-to people are in a state capitol. These are folks respected by members of both parties who handle the big, meaty issues.
And when they get up to speak, things quiet down. Lawmakers take the rare step of actually listening.
Reporters refer to them as the adults in the room. Matt Bartle, the one-time conservative state senator from Lee’s Summit, was one of those adults for the Republicans.
Now the Democrats are about to lose one.
Missouri Rep. Chris Kelly of Columbia just announced that he won’t seek another term next year.
At 67, Kelly is almost certainly the last of an era. He served in the House in the 1980s and 1990s and became indispensable for his budget knowledge. He stepped down for other jobs, including a stint as an associate circuit court judge from Boone County, but ran again for the House in 2008.
In the term limits era, where hardly anyone seems to know anything, his experience and knowledge of state government quickly asserted itself. So did his ability to work with Republicans. That bothered his fellow Democrats.
Kelly didn’t care. He was the opposite of the smooth, glad-handing pol who rarely spoke his mind. Kelly made it a habit to call it just the way he saw it.
So when he spoke, people listened.
He is worth listening to now as he prepares to head out the door after one more January-to-May slog. He is leaving, he said, because the General Assembly has made it a habit to avoid tackling the big issues.
Lawmakers these days lack the experience — let alone the willingness — to work with members of the opposite party, he said. They ignore needs that practically scream for attention. Kelly’s chief focus was infrastructure: bridges, roads, buildings.
In another era, lawmakers came together on issues like that. Now?
“We’re dealing with none of that stuff,” he said.
Throw in another obstacle — the hyperpartisanship that’s bogging down Jefferson City the same way it is Washington — and Kelly wonders whether state government is even capable
of dealing with tough stuff.
Like a little kid delaying his homework by watching TV, Kelly sat incredulous last year as lawmakers devoted hours to what was broadly perceived to be an unconstitutional gun bill — “frivolous political nonsense,” in his words — while ignoring pressing concerns.
So Kelly had a choice: seek re-election in 2014 or retire to spend more time with his granddaughter.
The granddaughter won. And we lost.