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Senator’s new role tests ability to bridge factions

by Rudi Keller | January 10, 2023 at 4:02 a.m.
Incoming Missouri Senate Majority Leader Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina, during an interview Dec. 27, 2022, at the headquarters of O’Laughlin Inc. (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent)


Ask around the Missouri Capitol, and there is one trait people bring up over and again to explain how Cindy O'Laughlin became one of the most influential lawmakers in the state.

"She has the ability to tell me I was an idiot," said Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, "and tell those guys they were idiots. And that is an endearing quality in today's political world."

"Those guys," were the members of the Senate's conservative caucus, and Rowden was sharing an anecdote about O'Laughlin shepherding a major education bill to passage last year despite the conservative caucus' best efforts to derail it.

She went to battle over the bill and "said you are not going to kill this thing," Rowden said. "And she won."

O'Laughlin laughed when she heard Rowden's quote during an interview last month at her family's trucking and concrete business in Shelbina.

But those who know her say it's that honesty -- even, at times brutal honesty -- coupled with a willingness to admit she was wrong that has served her so well during her time in the Senate.

Success in her next role -- as the first woman to serve as majority leader in the state Senate – will depend on her ability to finesse those traits within a chamber plagued with GOP infighting for two years. While the conservative caucus has disbanded, fights such as when Rowden called the caucus "a clown show" and in turn leaders were accused of "tyranny" won't be forgotten.

It's a job no one would have pegged her for when she joined the Senate four years ago.

"She continues to be someone people underestimate," said Sen. Lauren Arthur, a Kansas City Democrat who has become close friends with O'Laughlin after they both entered the Senate in the same year. "It is really a credit to her that she was able to build a coalition. Unlike some of the other Republicans in the Senate, she doesn't have a tribe."

O'Laughlin says it will be her job to get lawmakers to agree on major bills and tell them when they aren't helping.

"These are all smart people, right? They're all smart people," O'Laughlin said. "And so if they're attempting to do something that any rational person would say, 'It's not going to work,' I feel like somebody needs to say, 'You know, that's not going to work. And here's why.' And I don't have a problem saying that.

"Some people do have a problem saying that or they can't say it in a way that doesn't make the other person mad. And I think I can communicate it without making people mad."

One reason O'Laughlin can tell people they are wrong -- and make them like it -- is because she accepts being told when she is wrong, said Otto Fajen, long-time lobbyist for the Missouri National Education Association.

The education bill she passed over conservative caucus objections includes several innovative ideas, he said. One is a pilot project to allow districts in four metropolitan areas to establish "recovery high schools" to serve students with substance abuse issues.

The idea began in 2021 as a bill to create them as charter schools.

Because expanding charter schools beyond the current law is politically impossible, Fajen said, he convinced O'Laughlin to make it a district-based initiative. O'Laughlin has made education issues a personal priority since she took office in 2019 and chaired the Senate Education Committee for the past two years.

The first time they met, Fajen said, "she was wary of my employer, but not unwilling to talk. We were able to develop an ability to talk because we were able to listen to each other, develop a degree of 'What I say to you is what I really think, what she says to me is what she really thinks.'"

When Fajen explained her original bill couldn't pass and a changed bill could, O'Laughlin said, she learned a lesson.

"Nothing opens your eyes more than to get a smackdown," she said. "So if you think you have a great idea, and it goes absolutely nowhere, if you're smart, you'll take time to regroup, think it through and think to yourself, 'What are we trying to achieve,' not 'Is my pride hurt, because it didn't go just the way I wanted it to?'"

Rise to power

In 2018, O'Laughlin was a political newcomer.

A mother and grandmother, she worked alongside her husband, Russ, as vice president of Leo O'Laughlin Inc., a concrete and trucking company based in Shelbina.

She was elected to the Shelby County R-4 Board of Education for one term, but she had never sought partisan office. That doesn't mean she wasn't familiar with politics.

She was a member of the state board of Club for Growth, a conservative anti-tax organization, and told the Linn County Leader in 2018 she had been active "against EPA overreach and Obamacare."

In a four-way contest against three incumbent state representatives, O'Laughlin campaigned as an outsider, aligned herself with President Donald Trump and provided about half of the $312,000 her campaign raised.

She took 37 percent of the vote in the 14-county 18th District in northeast Missouri.

All three of her opponents were men she knew and had supported in the past, O'Laughlin said. But she thought she had something more to offer voters.

"You need to be able to tell people things that they're not going to want to hear, but it's the truth," she said. "And only when, when you're operating from the basis of truth, can you come to a good conclusion. And I felt like maybe I was more able to do that. Because I don't have to have this job."

Her adherence to Trump and the tone of her campaign made some of her future colleagues uneasy.

On her 2018 campaign website, she told voters she was "tired of society raising kids that are snowflakes and will focus on education that teaches people to work with their hands." On another page, she said she was "a critic of the Black Lives Matter movement and the University of Missouri's liberal policies on inclusion."

"I came in with very unfair assumptions about her and she has really proven me wrong and shown me the ways it is unhelpful to make assumptions about people," said Arthur, who won a special election in the 17th District in Clay County the same day O'Laughlin won her primary.

The Missouri NEA did not support O'Laughlin in her first campaign, Fajen said. He was worried she would freeze him out.

"I had heard from other people, she's going to come in and be difficult to deal with and have an anti-public education orientation," Fajen said.

O'Laughlin was also wary of Fajen when she met him. But she found they could work together by being respectful.

"One of the things that I like about Otto, and I have not really seen it in some of the other establishment education people, is he's always honest, I believe, and he's always very cordial, even if he disagrees," O'Laughlin said. "It gives you, you know, a good environment to exchange ideas."

When she reached the Senate, O'Laughlin joined the conservative caucus, a group that included five other senators intent on pushing the GOP further right in its legislative actions.

"We all have an interest in achieving our goals through the most fiscally conservative route," O'Laughlin said in a Senate-produced podcast about the caucus in 2019.

But she quit in 2021, turned off by the group's disruptive tactics.

Last year, the conservative caucus tied up the Senate for weeks on the question of how to draw congressional districts, then battled over other Republican sponsored bills, complaining their proposals on social issues such as transgender participation in sports were being ignored.

A bipartisan group of 22 senators – not including O'Laughlin – led by Sen. Holly Rehder, R-Sikeston, demanded in March that the conservative caucus back down to allow the Senate to function. Rehder called the tactics "constant adversarial and classless actions."

Open warfare between the GOP factions continued into the August primaries, when candidates aligned with the conservative caucus won four of five open GOP contests and Assistant Majority Leader Bill White, R-Joplin, lost his contest for renomination. White was expected to run for majority leader.

That opened the path for O'Laughlin. Sen. Mike Bernskoetter of Jefferson City was seeking the job, as was Sen. Andrew Koenig of Manchester.

Bernskoetter sponsored the congressional district bill that the conservative caucus declared war over. Koenig was a member of the conservative caucus. He withdrew before the caucus vote.

"I thought, you know, I really feel the only person that can maybe be successful at this is going to be someone who is not seen as part of either group," O'Laughlin said. "And the only person that I can think of was myself. Which sounds kind of, well, you know, sounds bad.

"But the only reason that I felt like I might qualify was because people trusted me," she said. "From all corners, I felt like they trusted me."

Common ground

While Republicans hold 24 of the 34 seats in the Senate, it is difficult for the majority to impose its will by sheer weight of numbers.

That means that no matter how attractive a bill might be to a partisan base, the minority party -- or a strong faction -- can filibuster it on the floor.

"When you get to the floor with something, everybody has input," O'Laughlin said. "So okay, let's hear what that is, before we get there. And let's see, do we have, you know, potentially some landmines that we can get around without blowing up the building."

Two early tests of her leadership will come on culture issues.

"One of them's going to be something to do with (critical race theory) and the 'Parents Bill of Rights,' and the other will be women's sports that has to do with transgender issues," O'Laughlin said.

The key to success on both issues, she believes, is communication.

"These are issues that matter in everyday people's lives," O'Laughlin said. "And we need to really look into it as far as we possibly can, to be sure we're doing the right thing. And I think to do that, you have to listen to people who don't have the same view that you do."

Shira Berkowitz, senior director of public policy and advocacy for PROMO, the state's largest LGBTQ advocacy organization, said they are skeptical of the chances for finding common ground on transgender participation in sports.

"I think talking about a middle ground is a fallacy," Berkowitz said.

Three of the four bills filed by Senate Republicans on the subject require students to compete in gender-based activities based on the gender they were assigned at birth and make no allowance for participation by students who have had their gender changed by medical treatment.

"Politicians are just putting the vulnerability of transgender children on the front line of a culture war that they have invented," Berkowitz said. "It is not something the legislature should be toying with."

O'Laughlin has an enormous task if she wants to find common ground on the cultural issues, Arthur said.

"If you put your stake in the ground and you are unable to achieve that goal it makes you look weak," Arthur said. "That looms as a threat over any leader's ability to move the Senate toward their goals."

Arthur said O'Laughlin understands that rolling over the minority isn't practical in the Senate. And Democrats, she said, understand the limits of their power.

She trusts O'Laughlin will lead good-faith efforts to find common ground

"Our working relationship has restored my hope that lawmakers, whether in the Missouri State Senate or Congress, can find bipartisan solutions and work on things that matter," Arthur said.

Abortion-rights supporters and opponents last year found rare common ground in support of a bill extending Medicaid coverage for pregnant woman to one year after delivery. The bill failed, but it has been named as a top priority this year by leaders of both parties in both chambers of the legislature.

"That is a good example of solutions that are based in science and best practice identified in other states," said Mallory Schwarz, executive director of Pro-Choice Missouri. "At the same time, that is one piece of the puzzle of supporting pregnant people and their families."

If O'Laughlin wants to hear the science showing the connection between restrictions on reproductive health decisions and poor health outcomes, Mallory said, her organization is ready to provide it.

"We welcome Sen. O'Laughlin to give us a call and have access to that information and resources," Schwarz said. "Missouri deserves more than the status quo."

While O'Laughlin is unlikely to change her stance on abortion, Sam Lee, lobbyist for the anti-abortion Campaign Life Missouri, said the postpartum coverage bill is an example showing O'Laughlin listens and can be persuaded. At first, he said, she likened it to an issue she has vehemently opposed: Medicaid expansion.

"We talked out her doubts," Lee said, "and she voted for it in committee."

Democrats who will be negotiating over bills will find another refreshing trait, he said.

"She's never left me guessing what she thinks," Lee said. "That is certainly not a universal quality among lawmakers."

Political future

Whether O'Laughlin has a future after the Senate -- she is in the second of her two allotted terms -- is an open question.

"I'm not always looking ahead to my next job," she said.

In 2026, when term limits force her out of the Senate, she will be 70.

"I wish I was 45," O'Laughlin said, "because the answer might be a little different."

In a Facebook post in late December, O'Laughlin argued for a change in legislative term limits -- from eight years in the House and eight in the Senate to 16 years in either chamber.

Short tenures in office radicalize politicians, she wrote.

"Right or wrong, they throw out an idea that might sound good but in reality isn't good," O'Laughlin wrote. "They do this because they want a future in politics and they hope to 'stand out' to the voters; many times playing to the fears of the base which is not good. Meaningful policy takes an incredible amount of time; both to come up with it and then to get it through."

O'Laughlin has already made history as the first woman to lead the majority in the Senate. Holding that post makes her the likely choice as president pro tem starting in 2025. That would also be a first for a woman in Missouri.

But for O'Laughlin, even that is looking too far ahead. She said her own future success is tied to the success of the Senate.

"I feel like certainly for this first year, the most important thing for me is to be sure that I'm helping everyone else succeed," she said. "Because if I can't do that, then I'll feel like I have failed."

The Missouri Independent, www.missouriindependent.comwww.missouriindependent.com, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering state government and its impact on Missourians.

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