Government & Politics

New Missouri House speaker hopes to restore legislature’s now-tarnished image

Republicans and Democrats alike have praised the selection of Todd Richardson as the new Missouri House speaker.
Republicans and Democrats alike have praised the selection of Todd Richardson as the new Missouri House speaker.

A sex scandal elevated Todd Richardson into the most powerful job in the Missouri General Assembly.

He knows what happens next will go a long way to define his legacy.

The 38-year-old attorney from Poplar Bluff was already on track to be speaker of the Missouri House of Representatives. After five years in office, he’d been named House majority floor leader — the chamber’s second in command.

Along the way, he’d built a reputation as an honest broker and a policy wonk, winning friends on both sides of the aisle, from conservative rural Republicans to liberal urban Democrats.

He was expected to ascend to the top job in 2017.

All that changed when House Speaker John Diehl was forced to resign after The Star revealed details of his sexually charged relationship with a 19-year-old House intern.

In the final chaotic days of the 2015 legislative session, Richardson’s colleagues turned to him to take the reins.

“It’s an enormous responsibility under normal circumstances,” the Republican said in a recent interview with The Star. “Anyone who says they don’t have trepidation coming into this job would be lying, but especially under the circumstances.”

The months following Diehl’s resignation were dominated by more legislative scandal. Dozens of women told The Star sexual harassment has been rampant in the Capitol for years. Weeks later, state Sen. Paul LeVota, an Independence Democrat, was forced to resign after two of his former interns made allegations of sexual harassment against him.

With his party holding massive supermajorities in both the House and Senate, and with next year’s statewide elections just around the corner, Richardson is set to begin his three-year reign leading a legislature whose public image is badly tarnished.

Addressing that, he says, must be his first priority.

“Is the public’s perception of the problems in Jefferson City worse than it actually is? Yes,” he said. “But I don’t think anyone can look at the last 10 months and say there are not substantial things that could be done to make things better. And that’s what we’re going to do.”

Those who know him say Richardson is just the right guy for the job.

“I couldn’t hand-pick a better person to be speaker of the House,” said Noel Torpey, a lobbyist and former Republican legislator who has became close friends with Richardson. “He’s brilliant. He has incredible ethics. He loves his family dearly. He cares tremendously about the state of Missouri. He’s the perfect person to step into that job at this moment.”

Even Democrats have high hopes for the new speaker.

“I think Todd is going to be a great speaker,” said House Minority Whip John Rizzo, a Kansas City Democrat. “Unequivocally. He’s just what the doctor ordered.”

Family business

Richardson was born and raised in the southeast Missouri town of Poplar Bluff. And in a way, politics was in his blood.

His dad, Mark, ran for the state legislature for the first time in 1982, at a time when there weren’t a lot of Republican candidates getting elected in that part of the state.

He lost that bid for office but ran again in 1990, and this time he won, kicking off a legislative career that would span 12 years and bring him within shouting distance of becoming the first Republican speaker of the House in decades.

But the job of speaker was not in the cards for Mark Richardson. He was forced to step down from his party leadership position in 1997 after being arrested for driving while intoxicated. And by the time Republicans finally won back control of the legislature in 2002, he was forced out of office by term limits.

“To be able to have him on the dais as I’m presiding over the Missouri House as speaker was a particularly proud moment for me,” Todd Richardson said. “And I think me becoming speaker was a moment of pride for him.”

The younger Richardson received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Memphis and then moved to Nashville to work as an assistant budget analyst in the Tennessee state Senate. After marrying his wife, Amber, in 2001, he moved back to Memphis, where he earned his law degree.

By 2006, Richardson says he and his wife were ready to return to Poplar Bluff.

“We were both from Poplar Bluff, and we always knew we wanted to come home one day,” he said. “We wanted to start a family, and doing that close to home was an easy choice.”

After practicing law for a few years, his dad’s old House seat opened up in 2010. Richardson emerged from a three-way Republican primary with a 316-vote victory. He cruised to victory that fall.

He was determined to hit the ground running.

“I’ve never been a person who subscribed to the notion that freshman legislators need to sit down and be quiet,” he said. “They were elected to do a job, and I always took that mentality to heart. There’s nothing wrong with me tackling big issues, because that’s what I was elected to do.”

His legislative reputation was built handling high-profile — and complicated — legislation. Asked about his proudest legislative achievements, Richardson points to an overhaul of the state’s beleaguered second injury fund for workers hurt on the job and a constitutional amendment placing limits on the governor’s authority over the state budget.

“There’s a certain enjoyment I get from taking on complex tasks,” he said. “Those bills were difficult to get across the finish line, and it’s fun getting that kind of stuff done.”

His colleagues chose him to be majority floor leader beginning in January 2015, and that set the stage for him to become the next speaker of the Missouri House after Diehl left office.

Intern scandals

Richardson says he first heard the rumors swirling around Diehl a few weeks before the story became public.

Missouri Southern State University had pulled all of its interns out of the Missouri Capitol without explanation — including a 19-year-old freshman who was working in the House. Diehl had allegedly been exchanging sexually suggestive text messages with the female intern, and word was making its way through the statehouse.

“Rumors in Jeff City are pretty common,” he said. “I approached John and I asked about it, and he told me it was not true. It was a very busy time for the legislature, so I went back to work.”

Diehl continued to deny the allegations for weeks. When House staff started looking into the rumors, he successfully assured them that any texts between him and the intern were forgeries.

“Everybody that had heard that rumor knew it was potentially explosive if true,” Richardson said. “My focus was to try to keep people on task. If it’s not true, we don’t need to waste any time talking about it.”

As it turns out, the rumors were true.

After the story broke in The Star, Diehl issued a statement admitting the relationship. The next day, he announced he would resign from the legislature.

Among Richardson’s first actions after being selected to replace Diehl was to form a legislative task force to revamp the House intern policy.

While initially receiving widespread praise, the move is beginning to draw criticism. The task force, they point out, has never met publicly and so far has not produced any concrete policy changes.

“Other than a vague outline of possible policy changes informally distributed a few months ago, no action has been taken on this matter,” said a letter written to Richardson by House Minority Leader Jake Hummel and other Democratic House leaders.

“With universities beginning the process of placing interns for the upcoming legislative session,” the letter continued, “it is vital for the House to develop and implement effective policies to help protect interns without further delay.”

In an op-ed published in The Star, one of the former interns who accused LeVota of sexual harassment worried that by focusing on the intern policy, a wider problem of sexual harassment was being ignored.

“None of the provisions offered up by legislators so far appear to address the underlying issue or put in place any new protections for those who aren’t interns,” said Taylor Hirth, a Kansas City resident.

Richardson said he understands updating the intern policy “isn’t nearly enough.” He promised a public hearing on the intern policy and said lawmakers must improve the House sexual harassment policy and implement more widespread ethics reforms.

“We’re not going to be able to fix every problem,” Richardson said. “But our mission is to improve the work environment in Jefferson City. There’s nothing I can do looking back to change what happened. What I can do is try to prevent it from happening in the future and make sure that we have a clear process in place for dealing with it if it does.”

Legislative priorities

Richardson sees ethics reform as a key priority in response to a year marked by scandals. It’s the key, he said, to making real changes to the culture of Missouri’s Capitol.

Missouri is the only state with the trio of no campaign contribution limits, no caps on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers and no restrictions on lawmakers leaving office to become lobbyists. Changing that dynamic has proved exceedingly difficult in recent years.

“We are going to make some substantive, meaningful steps forward,” Richardson said. “Ethics reform will be the first thing out of the House in January, and it’ll be out very quickly and will send a strong message that we intend to have a different environment in Jeff City.”

He doesn’t see much chance of reinstating campaign contribution limits, which lawmakers voted to repeal in 2008. But lobbyist gifts and the revolving door between lobbying and lawmakers will be key pieces of his ethics agenda.

Richardson also hopes to tackle issues that have vexed previous speakers, such as how to fund the state’s crumbling transportation infrastructure or ways to improve Missouri’s Medicaid system.

That won’t include expansion of Medicaid eligibility, Richardson said. Democrats have pushed expansion for years, a key piece of the federal Affordable Care Act that if implemented would add 300,000 Missourians to the public health insurance system for the poor.

Richardson says he sees lots of opportunity to discuss improving Medicaid, but “there’s simply not the support in the legislature for expanded eligibility.”

The new speaker will also face growing dissension among his fellow Republicans over a recent vote on so-called right-to-work legislation.

Twenty Republican lawmakers voted against overriding Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of the right-to-work legislation. Their opposition killed the bill and drew criticism from conservative advocates who vowed to fund challenges to the lawmakers in next August’s Republican primaries.

Richardson, who is a staunch supporter of right to work, said policy disputes within the party are healthy. Those disputes sometimes can lead to primaries, he said, which is simply a part of the system.

Regardless of how those primaries may ultimately turn out, Richardson said, “We’re a big enough party to tolerate differences of opinion, on not only this issue but others.”

Bipartisanship

Richardson describes his political philosophy as “very staunchly conservative.”

“If you put me on the ideological spectrum,” he said, “you’d find me pretty far to the right.”

Yet his selection as speaker earned widespread praise from Democrats.

“We’re going to disagree on a lot of issues, but I do think he’ll always be fair,” said Rizzo, the Kansas City Democrat. “He’s a guy we can work with.”

Richardson says watching his father serve in the legislative minority for his entire career helped shape his leadership philosophy.

“I remember being in the side gallery of the House once and watching a Republican legislator have to stand on his desk to get recognized to speak,” Richardson said. “Republicans weren’t always treated with respect back then, and that experience certainly informs how I’ll act as a speaker. I have a lot of fundamental disagreements with the Democrats. But the House is better when all members are respected and valued.”

Richardson says he hopes he leaves the House with a legacy of “getting things done.”

“I don’t want to bang the drum just for the sake of banging the drum, and all too often the rhetoric impedes our ability to actually move forward on the issues,” he said. “We need to find ways to move the ball. I want to make sure when I look back on my legislative career that I feel like it was worth it.”

And when that legislative career is over, Richardson said he isn’t sure what the next step will be. He ran a short-lived campaign for the U.S. Congress in 2014, ultimately falling short. But today, he doesn’t have any other elected offices on his mind.

“If there are opportunities to stay in public services, and I have the energy to do it, who knows,” he said. “But I may get to the end of this eight-year run and decide it’s someone else’s turn and just go do something else.”

That something else may just be heading back to Poplar Bluff to coach his 7-year-old son’s baseball team. His family, he said, is his how he stays grounded.

“My son, Sawyer, tried to tell my wife last week, after I said he could do something and my wife said he couldn’t, that ‘daddy is the speaker of the house so he’s in charge.’ ” Richardson said, laughing. “She promptly corrected him and let him know that’s not the case.”

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock

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