Recent headlines have drawn attention to salacious situations that have occurred with some elected leaders serving at the Missouri State Capitol. The press and the public have responded with shock about the moral depravity that exists in the Capitol culture.
I served four years as a state representative. During that period of service there were multiple times where I would say to a colleague, “A lot of constituents would be upset if they saw this.” That statement could apply to closed-door meetings where “the deal” is made, lavish dinners, open bar receptions, private boxes at sporting events or late night gatherings at bars. I have seen it all.
When I would make that statement some colleagues would be silent, yet others would respond, “Yes, they would.” That statement was a personal accountability check for me. I was not there to judge those around me, but rather to decide on what was right or wrong for me.
Do not misinterpret my statements here as a declaration of innocence. I will admit that I have succumbed to some temptations. However, I will also state I was wrong in those decisions.
The point I want to make is that they were my decisions. Accountability started with my willingness to view my behavior through the eyes of those who elected me to serve many miles away in Jefferson City.
We do need ethics reform in Missouri, but real reform starts with you the citizen voter. The laws written in the books only establish the rules of the playing field. The morality of what constitutes behavior that is acceptable depends on the constituency and their willingness to hold their elected representation accountable.
You will find there are differences in each legislative district’s tolerance of certain behavior and moral standards in the areas of marriage, personal finance, alcohol consumption and lobbyist gifts. As a result, ethics laws set a baseline for a legislator’s behavior, but they are just the starting point.
As an example, there is a state representative who was re-elected after pleading guilty to possession of marijuana. In my district that plea agreement would have been the end of my political career. The accountability on that issue is quite different between our two districts.
I distinctly remember the times when a constituent would shake my hand, give me a sincere look and ask me a very personal question about religion or family. That, dear folks, is when my answer had to be honest and direct. Those people are the ones who would come to mind at times when I would pause to evaluate how I would be perceived back home.
Now ask yourself these questions. Do your elected officials know what kind of behavior you expect of them? Have you engaged in a sincere one-on-one conversation rather than playing gotcha politics with your questions? When you hear a rumor do you dismiss it or repeat it rather than asking your elected official if they are engaging in that behavior? I have been a candidate and believe this is all fair game.
As the 2016 election cycle approaches, I encourage Missouri citizens to ask the questions and express what your expectations are of the person who wants your vote. Make sure it is you a legislator thinks about the next time someone says, “A lot of constituents would be upset if they saw this.”
Kevin Elmer is a former state representative from Nixa, Mo.