Chris Kelly never had a problem speaking his mind.
So when it came time for the longest tenured member of the Missouri General Assembly to announce he wasn’t seeking re-election, he didn’t hold back.
The Columbia Democrat and former associate circuit court judge said one of the reasons he was leaving was because the Legislature spends way too much time on “frivolous political nonsense” and not enough time on solving real problems.
“We’re letting our state infrastructure — roads, public buildings and utility infrastructure — go to hell in a handbasket while we’re worrying about patently unconstitutional gun bills, Agenda 21 and Sharia Law,” Kelly told reporters last week.
The Legislature is going to miss Kelly when he leaves.
Having served nearly 18 years in the Missouri Legislature, he has more institutional knowledge than any other legislator still serving. Kelly was first elected to the House in 1982 and served 12 years. That was a different era in state politics — a time before term limits radically altered the political landscape in the state Capitol.
Kelly voluntarily left the House to serve as a judge and as chairman of the state Labor and Industrial Relations Commission. He returned to the Missouri House in 2009 and now is a victim of both term limits and redistricting. His district was re-drawn after the 2010 census and, like a number of other lawmakers, no longer lives in the district he represents. He could move, but is limited to only one more two-year term if he were to run and win re-election. He says it isn’t worth the hassle.
Kelly says he would rather spend more time reading to his granddaughter than sit around listening to debate on pointless legislative issues.
That’s a sad commentary on the Legislature. It’s a view that many lawmakers share but far too few say out loud.
Kelly was admired for his knowledge of state government, especially on budget matters and his willingness to reach across the aisle to get things done. He wasn’t afraid to criticize his own party when they deserved it.
Bob Priddy, one of the deans of state government reporting, said this of Kelly: “People listen to him when he speaks. He doesn’t mind saying the other side has a good idea, a rare attitude in today’s hyper-partisan Legislature. And when he speaks, he speaks from intelligence and experience, a noticeable contrast to those who have only ideology and allegations to spout.”
One of those legislators who admires Kelly is Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, who, like Kelly, is also a victim of redistricting. Schatz, however, is eligible to serve more than one more term so he says he plans to run for re-election. He has rented a home in his new district and is looking forward to working with the new House leadership to try and get things done for his district.
But Schatz said that Kelly’s assessment of the current state of the Legislature isn’t far off. He voted for all of the bills Kelly deemed “frivolous political nonsense,” acknowledging he stood with his caucus.
But he conceded the legislature wasted a lot of time on what he called “window dressing” and “red meat” issues that attract a lot of attention and get people fired up but don’t help businesses or our state’s infrastructure.
We have too many ideologues in the Legislature and not enough problem-solvers. The ideologues bring a lot of heat but not much light.
We need more Chris Kellys.