Echoes of John McCain in Missouri

By: 
Phill Brooks

The death of John McCain has led me to reflect about his similarities with a Missouri state senator.

Like the deceased Arizona senator, the person about whom I write was a true maverick in his Republican Party, regularly standing up to pressures from GOP leaders to tow the party line.

Like McCain, he reached out to Democrats, even when it upset his fellow Republicans.

Like the former GOP presidential nominee, this GOP Missouri senator made the growing financial dominance of special interests in politics a major legislative target.

The person I’m writing about is Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph.

He was so focused on curtailing what he termed “dark money” of hidden special interest funding that he made it the only two bills he introduced in this, his last year, in Missouri’s Senate.

Similar to John McCain’s experience with a Republican president, Schaaf came after attacks from Eric Greitens for Schaaf’s criticism of the Republican governor — particularly for Greitens’ acceptance of large amounts of money from secret donors. The former governor’s anger was displayed when Greitens’ secretly-funded advocacy organization disclosed the senator’s personal cell phone number in digital-media attacks.

Both men had the courage to speak out about their party’s top leader, despite the consequences.

That boldness of political independence in challenging party leaders is at the heart of what I find the most striking similarity between McCain and Schaaf. Schaaf regularly stood up to party pressures for conformity.

This year, he led a bipartisan multi-day filibuster against an electric-utility bill pushed by party leaders that critics attacked for allowing rate increases without prior approval by the Public Service Commission. He caved in only after Republicans leaders threatened to shut off his debate with a parliamentary procedure normally used only against filibusters by the minority party.

Schaaf came under statewide public attack for his resistance to the efforts for a prescription drug monitoring program because of his concerns about privacy protections. The attacks suggested Schaaf simply was trying to protect fellow physicians from scrutiny.

But there’s another side to this story.

Some of those bills would let a government worker with access to the records report a doctor’s prescriptions to police without a court warrant. Few of those bills recognized the difference in prescriptions by most doctors compared to those with many patients in hospice care needing end-of-life pain-killing drugs.

I’m not picking sides. But it was a compelling debate that got overshadowed by the attacks on Schaaf.

John McCain and Rob Schaaf had an unusually open relationship with reporters, speaking their minds about anything that was asked.

I cannot remember a single time Schaaf refused to answer one of my questions — no matter how sensitive to internal political intrigues.

Another similarity between the two was the passion for maintaining the historic traditions of their legislative chambers that protected the rights and powers of members from both parties.

A few years ago, Schaaf was threatened by the Senate’s leader that he’d be removed as a committee chair if he persisted appealing the presiding officer’s ruling on control of the debate. I cannot remember the last time a member of the majority party rose to challenge the leadership governance of the chamber in demanding a formal motion.

I was reminded of that display of independence when I saw McCain give a thumbs down in front of the U.S. Senate’s top leader to cast the deciding vote defeating repeal of the Affordable Care Act because of the failure to seek a bipartisan agreement.

I fear that the voices for senatorial independence and bipartisanship may be fading. Nationally, commentators have predicted there may not be anyone to replace the strong voice of John McCain for independence.

Here in Missouri, after Rob Schaaf’s term-limited departure in January, I’ll be watching to see if another senator rises in Missouri’s Senate with outspoken courage Schaaf displayed.

(Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes).