TCS: Prior to becoming a State Representative, you had run for the aldermanic position in the 15th Ward and lost by a handful of votes. At the time, what were your thoughts? Did you assume your political aspirations were finished, at least for the time being?
MD: My thoughts were pretty optimistic after the aldermanic election. Nobody likes to lose an election, but I felt that I remained true to myself and the ideas that I thought would move the neighborhood forward. The fact that I lost by less than one percent of the vote confirmed the fact that many in the neighborhood either supported my ideas or just had faith in my abilities to lead.
I think it's safe to say that the week after the election my political aspirations were, for the meantime, finished. Political races aren't always fun for your family, friends and supporters. I can handle conflict directed at me, but it hurts to see loved ones suffering over the endless anxiety that campaigns can put on them.
What helped clear my thought process to run for State Rep was when some residents from the district who had not supported me in the aldermanic election approached me and offered their support for the State Rep race. It was very encouraging to get support from individuals who were opposed to me in prior elections.
TCS: What were some of the most unexpected things you found out upon your arrival in Jefferson City (either day-to-day / practical stuff or the bigger picture)?
MD: The most unexpected thing I discovered in Jefferson City (day-to-day wise) is how much the Jefferson City community is active in state government. What goes on in the capitol building takes up about the first five minutes of every evening newscast. Everyone in Jefferson City has a pretty firm grasp of what's going on politically; they know who you are, and they don't hesitate to let you know what they think when you walk into the local barber shop to get your haircut. Fortunately for me, my receding hairline doesn't give them too much time to comment.
In the big picture, the thing that I found most unexpected was my new definition of "lobbyist." I think most people imagine cigar-smoking, large pocketbook "controllers" of the legislature. In reality there are some of those individuals around, but often times these same lobbyists represent the parents of retarded children, public television or the arts. They support those issues just as strongly as they do the large corporations they represent. You also have lobbyists who lobby for such issues as a moratorium on the death penalty. These individuals make next to nothing and definitely have no money to hand out for campaign contributions, but they work just as hard as the top-paid lobbyists and most importantly their heart is in what they do. I've realized the important role lobbyists play here in Jefferson City. They know their issues and they can give you the history of just about any legislation that has ever been introduced. The unfortunate side of the lobbyist issue is when only one side of the argument has someone walking the halls. It's always nice to get both sides of the story before you vote.
TCS: What's been your biggest regret thus far?
MD: My biggest regret so far has been that I haven't quite figured out a good balance between work and personal time. I think it's probably something every new elected official goes through. Regardless of the time of day or night, every time the phone rings, you immediately presume something is wrong in the district. It can make relaxing in front of the television set on a Friday evening with your family a very frustrating experience. It's also difficult sometimes to go out. The Black Thorn has always been a favorite place for me to relax, but it has become more difficult. I never want to discourage anyone from approaching me to discuss a topic, but when you're there to be with friends who knew you before you became elected they can get frustrated by having your attention pulled aside during the evening. I'm sure it's difficult for the people who approach me also. Sometimes I can talk forever at the neighborhood hangouts, the grocery store, or the post office. Sometimes I'm really busy or just need time to relax and can't talk. I don't mind telling someone to call me later and we'll talk about the issue; I just don't want to offend anyone when I do it. For you readers at home... I can be reached TOLL FREE at 1-866-729-8914 or at home 773-7785. (Sorry, no cell phone numbers given out today.)
TCS: How do you balance reality with constituent demands/issues/concerns? How do you keep your priorities true to what you think, while also representing your constituents' wishes, while also living in the real world?
MD: Balancing the reality of constituent demands/issues/concerns isn't easy but I feel pretty good about my approach. I knew when I got into this that the most important thing for me was to be able to lie down at the end of the night and honestly say that I remained true to myself. Some would argue that I'm in Jefferson City to simply do the will of the people. If that was the case, the state could save some money and replace me with a robot. I've always felt that my job is a mixture of listening to constituent concerns, investigating the legislation, and ultimately doing what is right for the 67th district. If I keep doing that, I'll be able to sleep easy at night. If the voters disapprove, they can vote me out of office; if they approve, I hope they help to keep me in office. Although I love my job and work very hard to keep it, I've seen what happens to people's personalities when they start making decisions that they don't agree with but feel they have to make because some individual or group has pressured them. If I ever get to that state, I've given my wife permission to pull the plug on my political career.
TCS: What's the best thing about Jefferson City? The best thing about your job? The worst?
MD: The best thing about Jeff City is that you can come here, get away from all of the distractions of what's going on back home and focus very intently on the work at hand. This job, I would imagine, is very difficult for the people whose district's are close to Jefferson City. I get to the office at about 8 a.m. and usually leave the capitol building around 11:30 p.m. It would be very difficult to dedicate that same amount of time every day if a wife or family were a thirty-minute drive away.
The best thing about my job is making people know that their concerns are respected. This doesn't always mean that you agree with them or that you are able to solve their problems. I have found early in my career that if you respond to someone's call quickly they are so impressed that you got back to them so fast it more than compensates for the fact that you may not see eye to eye on an issue. It may sound goofy, but I love the feeling of when two people can disagree but still have a working relationship. I think that's where real progress happens and for the most part I think I'm pretty good at it.
The worst thing about my job is being away from home five days a week. It does make coming home on Fridays all the better, but being away from family and friends so much takes its toll by the end of May.
TCS: Do you perceive a real disconnect between urban and rural legislators? How does that manifest itself?
MD: There is a real disconnect between rural, suburban, and urban legislators. It manifests itself in debate. There's an overall lack of trust, finger-pointing, and blaming that goes on during floor debate or in the halls late at night. I thought that with term limits it might get better because a new breed of legislators would be more into the "kum-ba-yah" feeling that could be obtained. Unfortunately, it takes a long time to establish trust and I think that some of the reps that served before term limits came about had a better chance at establishing that trust for the mere fact that they were able to get to know each other better. I don't want anyone to get the impression that we all hate one another up there. We have many funny moments together, but when it comes to transportation and economic development there are some pretty big differences in the thought processes for the three groups.
TCS: What else should we know?
MD: Overall, I would say that the vast majority of people in Jefferson City are honestly doing this out of service to their communities. They work hard and are very concerned about how various legislation will affect their communities. I think the readers should also know that we like to hear from our constituents and not just at neighborhood meetings, either. When someone goes out of their way to email, write, or phone, it shows me that there are people out their genuinely concerned about what I'm doing here. I love to listen and appreciate it very much when people want to hear my perspective from Jefferson City.
One other thing I will add to this is that many people think my job is to pass laws. The job goes much deeper than that. So many useless laws are passed every year that I don't really pay much attention to how many laws someone has introduced. I view my job as making sure that the policies we undertake provide for a better state of Missouri and a better St. Louis. We need more watchdogs in Jefferson City than we do people who think a good job is filing five bills every session.