People and Politics: October/November 2009
Pleading guilty. Two Missouri legislators pleaded guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice in a federal elections probe that cost them their jobs, while another one pleaded guilty to a federal bribery charge and also will resign his seat. Senator Jeff Smith and Representative Steve Brown admitted to the felony charges in U.S. District Court in August related to Smith’s 2004 run for Congress, and resigned their legislative seats. Smith had denied his role in fliers that made anonymous attacks against Russ Carnahan in the congressional campaign to fill Dick Gephardt’s seat. Carnahan won and his campaign filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission. Smith also resigned his teaching post at Washington University. Representative T.D. El-Amin has entered a guilty plea for accepting $2,100 from a St. Louis gas station owner. He admitted to soliciting the money after the gas station owner asked him for help in resolving problems with city government.
Looking to lead. Oklahoma Senators Harry Coates and Brian Bingham have announced they will run for the chamber’s top leadership spot when Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee’s term ends in 2010. Under Oklahoma’s term limits law, legislators are restricted to serving 12 years during their lifetime. Five senators are term limited in 2010 and half of the remaining senators are up for election then. Republicans currently control the chamber 26-22.
Musical chairs. Utah Senator Greg Bell was unanimously confirmed as Utah’s new lieutenant governor in September. Bell, who was assistant minority whip, was tapped for the post by Governor Gary Herbert, the former lieutenant governor. He succeeded Governor John Huntsman, national co-chair of John McCain’s presidential bid, who is President Obama’s ambassador to China. (He is fluent in Mandarin Chinese and has lived in Asia three different times.) Stuart Adams, a House member from 2002 to 2006, was selected to replace Bell. At the time of his appointment, he was chair of the Utah Transportation Commission. Herbert will replace him. Ah, the domino effect.
Big catch. When the federal government decided to base Medicaid payments under the stimulus program on employment figures for the wrong months, Nebraska fiscal analyst Liz Hruska did a little probing that resulted in a huge return—$6.3 million for the state’s bottom line. Hruska, who specializes in Medicaid and other human services programs, questioned why the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services planned to base payments on unemployment numbers from October through December, rather than January through March. She and her boss contacted U.S. Senator Ben Nelson, who raised the issue with HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who changed the formula to the January through March schedule. The result was millions more for Nebraska and kudos for Hruska from Nelson, Senate Appropriations Chair Lavon Heidemann and her boss, Michael Calvert, who in understated praise called it a “nice catch.”
One of a kind. Tommy Burnett, former Tennessee House majority leader, consummate deal-maker, and charming, flamboyant rascal who spent 20 years in the House—once even being re-elected while in federal prison—died in September. A close ally of former Governor and House Speaker Ned McWherter, Burnett’s oratory on the floor and down-home humor won him the affection of his colleagues and constituents, even though he was imprisoned twice. The first time was for a misdemeanor conviction for failing to file tax returns. While serving his 10-month sentence, he was swept back into office with 60 percent of the votes. He was ready to run for his 11th term when he was sentenced to five years for gambling, mail fraud and conspiracy charges, and dropped out of the race. The felony conviction prevented him from running for office again. He was a lawyer, mule trader, preacher, car dealer, cattle rancher, oil prospector and chicken farmer during his colorful life. He ushered through some of the most significant legislation in Tennessee, and after raising three children, he and his wife took in 16 foster children. He was 67.
New in the House. Val Hoyle, Oregon’s newest House member, knows her way around the Capitol. Hoyle, sworn in Sept. 29, served as Senator Floyd Prozanski’s legislative assistant and policy director. Before her appointment, she was director of the Lane County United Way 100 percent Access Program and former chair of the Federal District Export Council of Oregon. Hoyle replaces Representative Chris Edwards, who moved to the Senate to fill the seat of Senator Vicki Walker, who left to become chair of the state parole board.
Looking to D.C. Former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff is launching a primary bid for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Senator Michael Bennett, a former superintendent of the Denver public schools. Bennett was appointed by Governor Bill Ritter to replace Ken Salazar who resigned his Senate seat to become Interior secretary. Many political observers believed Romanoff, a popular politician who was honored with NCSL’s Excellence in Legislative Leadership award, was a shoe-in for Salazar’s seat when Ritter appointed Bennett, who had never before held public office. Romanoff was first elected to the House in 2000, and in 2004 masterminded the first Democratic majority in the Colorado House in 30 years. He became speaker in 2005. He was term-limited out of office in 2009. Bennett is facing six potential GOP candidates.