Missouri has lost one of the most influential Senate leaders for at least half a century.
It would be hard to overstate the accomplishments of Jim Mathewson, who died of cancer on September 28th.
The Sedalia Democrat served in the Missouri Senate for nearly a quarter of a century and achieved a number of important legislative achievements.
After serving as the Senate Democratic leader, Mathewson was elected Supreme Leader of the Missouri Senate in 1989 and became the longest-serving Senate Presidential Pro tem in the state’s history.
These leadership elections were a demonstration of his ability to win the hearts and minds of his peers.
What I remember most as a reporter about Mathewson was his passion for seeking both friendship and support from members of both parties. He was an artist for forging compromises.
Like Pres. Lyndon Johnson, Mathewson felt the need to connect physically.
When I spoke to him, he would massage my shoulders as often as he would other reporters.
When asked a difficult question, he would often reply, “God love you,” with a smile on his face.
His legislative achievements bridged the ideological divide we see in so many legislators today.
His bills included the expansion of Medicaid eligibility, caps on medical malpractice lawsuits, tax credits on prescription drugs for the elderly, and various consumer protection measures.
But Mathewson was not a knee-jerk liberal. He supported measures that conservatives would welcome, including tougher penalties, welfare restrictions, and the creation of a company that would provide health insurance to companies for workers’ compensation.
He even passed a law allowing state taxes to be paid by credit card.
Mathewson regularly built compromises between Republicans and his Democrats.
One of Mathewson’s greatest accomplishments was in 1991 when he received support for a tax increase on higher education from an arch-conservative Republican governor, John Ashcroft.
It was’nt easy. It took five days behind closed doors with lawmakers and the governor to finally push through the $ 385 million tax hike on the statewide vote.
A reporter actually heard the intense negotiations with Ashcroft through a closed door. I suspected that Mathewson, who wasn’t a mysterious person, probably knew that journalists’ bugging might be lurking outside his office.
Mathewson’s victory was short-lived. Missouri voters overwhelmingly opposed the tax hike.
But two years later, when Democratic governors Mel Carnahan and Mathewson were still the top Senate leaders, the legislature passed an almost equally high tax hike for primary and secondary education without the need for voter approval.
In 2005, legislative restrictions forced Mathewson out of the Senate, whom he loved so much.
The absent Mathewson Senate provided a clear demonstration of the implications of an eight-year limit on membership in any Missouri legislature.
A major factor in Mathewson’s legislative success was the deep friendships he developed during his 24 years in the Missouri Senate.
The Senate of that earlier era was like family.
Of course, like most families, there were arguments.
Once the Democrats in the Senate overturned the Democratic President’s prototype, but only after the ousted leader challenged the Democratic governor on an important administrative issue.
But the kind of verbal assault the current Senate leadership has recently experienced from its Republican counterparts is quite a contrast to the Senate during the Mathewson leadership.
Eight years have proven too short to develop the deep family friendships and work partnerships of Mathewson’s era.
Those years also helped Mathewson better understand the values and political pressures of his colleagues.
In addition, his many years as a lawmaker gave Mathewson the experience of becoming a policy expert, capable of drafting and negotiating complex policy issues such as interstate banking regulations, insurance tariff regulation, employee compensation, and more.
While I mourn Jim Mathewson’s death, I also miss his era when the Senate focused on politics and family courtesy.
I owe great thanks to Rudi Keller of the Missouri Independent for this column, who covered Mathewson as one of my student reporters when he was Senate Majority Leader, and then as a statehouse reporter for the Columbia Daily Tribune on Mathewson as Senate President pro tem.