On the Trail: Lawmakers see promise and possibility in Richardson's rise to power

May 17, 2015
Originally published on May 18, 2015 11:25 am

From the moment Todd Richardson was sworn into the Missouri General Assembly, there was an aura of promise around the Poplar Bluff Republican.

With his oratorical skills and a knack for handling big-ticket legislation, high expectations were placed on Richardson to succeed. Some political watchers foresaw a future in Missouri House leadership – and even climbing the ranks of federal politics.

But with the shock resignation of John Diehl, Richardson’s time to lead has come much sooner than anybody expected. He’ll take over the speakership of Missouri House as the chamber is under scrutiny for its treatment of women and has careened into legislative gridlock. No longer is Richardson a politician for the future: His time is now; the stakes to succeed are high.

And he knows it.

“I think you always look for the opportunities to learn lessons in this building. Sometimes good and sometimes bad,” Richardson said. “We will certainly do everything we can to learn from the events that have happened this year and push ourselves not to make those same mistakes again.”

While every Missouri House speaker goes through ups and downs, Republicans hope Richardson can move a troubled party to bigger and better things.

“I think he’s kind of one of those ‘once-in-a-generation’ type of political figures,” said Scott Dieckhaus, a former state representative and the executive director of the House Republican Campaign Committee. “I think the Democrats on their side probably have Chris Koster. That would be a good comparison – somebody who is just kind of the complete package. They look the part, they speak well, they present well, they have a broad understanding of policy. And they have a political intuition that probably helps them out a lot on the official side.”

Born to legislate?

A native of the southern Missouri town of Poplar Bluff, Richardson received his bachelor and law degrees from the University of Memphis. After practicing as an attorney for a few years, Richardson won a three-way Republican primary in 2010 to represent a Missouri House district that took in his hometown and part of Dunklin County. 

Richardson is a second-generation legislator. His father – Mark Richardson – served as House minority leader and possessed a promising future in legislative politics. In an interview, Mark Richardson said that his son came up to the Capitol often to watch the legislative process at work.

That experience, Mark Richardson said, stayed with his son through adulthood.

“You always want what’s best for your children,” Mark Richardson said. “But Todd had wanted to do this. It was a dream of his from the time he was probably a freshman in high school – or maybe even earlier. If he wanted it, which he did, I wanted it for him. And I was thrilled. And we put up a lot of yard signs and knocked on a lot of doors.”   

Mark Richardson, though, went through his own public trials: He stepped down from his leadership post in 1997 after being arrested for driving while intoxicated. He remained in the Missouri House until 2003 and later became a circuit judge.

State Rep. Steve Cookson, a friend of both Mark and Todd Richardson, said the current speaker was heavily influenced by his father’s legislative experience.

“He has seen firsthand the good things – because his dad was an excellent, gifted legislator and a very bright man that was liked by a lot of people down there,” said Cookson, a Republican also from Poplar Bluff. “He had a few issues. And they become magnified. We live in a fishbowl. ... And, you know, I think Todd realizes that and he has always realized that from a very young age. And he has positioned himself to deal with that.”

When asked about how his dad’s experience in politics readied him for this type of moment, Richardson replied on Thursday: “Particularly in my time in public office, I have taken to heart lessons both good and bad, what you can learn from watching other people. ... But I expect my dad will be very proud tomorrow.”

Before he became house majority leader earlier this year, Richardson garnered a reputation for handling high-profile bills. He was the House sponsor of a major overhaul of the second injury fund that finally got to Gov. Jay Nixon’s desk after years of inaction. He also handled a constitutional amendment that placed limits on how a governor can handle the state budget. 

While Richardson didn’t face opposition for re-election in 2012 or 2014, he did have one political hiccup: He unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination for the 8th Congressional District seat, which was won by U.S. Rep. Jason Smith, R-Salem. He became the House’s majority leader in 2015 after the GOP captured more seats than any time in recent memory.

Even as his trajectory continued to rise, some GOP caucus members like Rep. Paul Curtman, R-Union, say Richardson remained grounded.

“A lot of people had high expectations of him,” said Curtman, who came into the Missouri House at the same time as Richardson. “In spite of that, he still maintained an extremely humble attitude and position with the rest of the caucus. And I think in the world of politics that we live in today, humility is by far a very rare attribute.”

A rise through turmoil

After he became Missouri House majority leader, many assumed Richardson would capture the speaker’s gavel after Diehl departed from the legislature due to term limits. But those expectations were shaken dramatically after Diehl resigned last week after the Kansas City Star wrote about the now-former speaker’s sexually suggestive texts with a 19-year-old intern. 

The chaotic two days contributed to one of the least productive final weeks of the Missouri General Assembly ever. It also raised sharp questions about how women are treated in the Missouri Capitol.

Rep. Gina Mitten, D-Richmond Heights, said she's been told that things are "much better today than it was several years ago. But I do believe that there is a culture of sexism within the Capitol. And believe that a young woman that’s here as a part of internship program should not ... have that kind of harassment.”

(Indeed, this type of concern isn't new. During an episode of the Politically Speaking podcast in 2013, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill talked about a latent culture of sexual harassment and promiscuity throughout the Missouri Capitol. McCaskill served as a state legislator in the 1980s and said she was “hazed” by male attorney counterparts, possibly because of her gender.)

Rep. Stephen Webber, D-Columbia, said that Richardson has often treated Democrats fairly and is optimistic about his speakership. But he also said Richardson needs to take a leadership role in cleaning up a dysfunctional culture throughout the legislature.

“What I hope that he does is look at the situation and say ‘clearly we have an ethics problem in Jeff City,’” said Webber, who sponsored legislation aimed at studying gender pay equity. “Clearly there’s a culture of entitlement here. People rightfully don’t trust Jefferson City. And he would say ‘one of my first priorities is going to be to clean it up.’ … And he’s committed to doing things that will empower women rather than pushing employment discrimination bills, which they have the past few years.”

“I hope he can look at the weaknesses of the last couple days in terms of ethics and in terms of treatment of women,” he added. And turn that into a positive next year by working on those issues.”

For his part, Richardson said he’s spoken with “several of my members who are interested in reviewing our intern policy.

“I don’t think the last five months have put the legislature and this public institution in a particularly good light,” Richardson said. “And it’s my great hope beginning tomorrow, we can get back to work in improving that public perception. So that’s going to be a priority for me as the speaker. And I know it’s going to be a priority for our entire leadership team.”

Ups and downs

While the speaker of the Missouri House yields a lot of power, it can also be a frustrating job. Some past Republican speakers – including Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, and Tim Jones, R-Eureka – ran into legislative road blocks and didn’t end up getting parts of their agenda past the finish line. 

But Dieckhaus said Richardson has the personal skills to deal with difficult situations.

“I don’t think anybody can avoid those pitfalls,” Dieckhaus said. “I think he will handle them well. He has genuine relationships with almost everyone in this building and almost everyone in the General Assembly. He has those deep personal relationships, and I think that’s going to help him avoid controversy around issues as they kind of ebb and flow.”

Rep. Shelley Keeney, R-Marble Hill, said she also expects Richardson to transcend tough legislative times.

“I don’t think there’s anything but high hopes for the leadership that he’s going to bring to this caucus moving forward,” Keeney said. “I believe that Todd, not only does he have the characteristics within him, but he also has a very strong wife and family who will be right by his side to offer support and guidance whenever he needs it. I think that is what is going to be key to him being a very successful speaker.” 

Keeney is the sole female member of the House GOP leadership, serving as the majority caucus chair. Even after a tumultuous time for her caucus, she expects that the chamber’s 116-members can unite around Richardson’s leadership.

“We will keep moving forward the best we know how,” Keeney said. “We will try to do the right thing when it comes to our constituents and try and stay in touch with those who sent us there to work for them. And I believe that will be our focus. Sometimes we get a reality check in this building. And I think there are many people who are reflecting and looking ahead after the events of this week.”

One of the people reflecting is Mark Richardson, who quipped that “I’d be lying if I didn’t say that his mom and I were busting our buttons today."

“He’s got the heart of a servant,” Mark Richardson said. “And he loves helping other legislators with things and advising them and encouraging them. And I think all of those things go together with the fact that he’s just a good man of integrity – it’s the reason that he’s so well liked both by the Democrats and the Republicans.”

“And they do see a great future for him. And what that future is? I don’t know. It’ll be up to Todd,” he added. “But he has a lot of potential to offer the state of Missouri.”

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics. You can find a radio feature about Richardson on St. Louis Public Radio on Monday.

Copyright 2015 KWMU-FM. To see more, visit http://www.stlpublicradio.org.