Senate filibuster stalls Graves nomination to University of Missouri curators

Senate leader, Parson say they are committed to winning confirmation of controversial choice

Todd Graves, left, nominee for the University of Missouri Board of Curators, listens Wednesday, March 31, 2021, Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville, introduces him to the Senate Gubernatorial Appointments Committee. (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent)

The Missouri Senate spent about three hours Thursday debating the controversial nomination of former state Republican Chairman Todd Graves to a seat on the University of Missouri Board of Curators without getting the appointment to a vote.

Listeners who stayed with the entire debate heard a history of the university and each campus, discussions of what is lacking in the current board and that the current administration of President Mun Choi has the respect and affection of lawmakers from both parties.

Senators also discussed the Katy Trail, political party platforms and the cost of health care. 

Those classic elements of a filibuster, combined with an urgency to get home for the Easter weekend, led Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, to end the debate about 2:30 p.m.

The Senate returns to work at 4 p.m. Tuesday and the discussion of Graves’ nomination could resume at that time, Schatz said after the Senate adjourned.

“I would anticipate that would be the case,” Schatz said.

Supporters of the nomination are negotiating with opponents in order to find a way to end the filibuster and bring the nomination to a vote, he said.

“Obviously there are a lot of negotiations that go on in this building and that is how things get done,” Schatz said. “We are going to get this done and obviously it is just part of the process.”

Gov. Mike Parson nominated Graves on March 18 for the Sixth Congressional District seat on the nine-member board. By doing so, he rejected calls from some Kansas City business and political leaders to name attorney Lisa Weixelman because of her ties to the University of Missouri-Kansas City campus and strong civic involvement. Weixelman also had Choi’s backing for the position.

At his weekly news conference, Parson said he did not follow the Senate debate closely but remained committed to the appointment.

“I’m not sure what they did, but if they tabled it, that’s fine,” Parson said. “I don’t know but you know, he’s a guy we picked and we’re gonna stay with him.”

The bipartisan opposition to Graves, evident when the Senate Gubernatorial Appointments Committee approved the nomination Wednesday on a 7-4 vote, may not be strong enough to reject Graves but it is clearly strong enough to hold the floor for any length of time to block a vote.

Under the Missouri Constitution, a nominee for a post that requires Senate confirmation who loses a floor vote can never be appointed again to the same position.

Graves is the lead partner in Graves Garrett LLC, a Kansas City law firm that also includes among its attorneys former acting U.S. Attorney General Matt Whitaker and Lucinda Luetkemeyer, who served as general counsel for former Gov. Eric Greitens and is married to state Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville. 

Graves is a former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, and his brother is 6th District U.S. Rep. Sam Graves. His appointment is to replace Democratic former state Sen. Phil Snowden, who’s term on the board expired Jan. 1.

During the debate, Sen. Greg Razer, D-Kansas City, led off the opposition by outlining the history of the university, founded in 1839 in Columbia, and the mission of education, research and service it accepted when it was given land grant status in 1870. He outlined the development of the campuses outside Columbia, starting with the School of Mines in Rolla, which is now the Missouri University of Science and Technology, and the school’s reach through University of Missouri Extension and research centers throughout the state.

Razer noted that of the nine current curators, eight have degrees from the University of Missouri-Columbia and none hold degrees from any of the other campuses. Graves is a graduate of the Columbia campus.

“It does seem like, perhaps it is reasonable, to have someone with a degree from UMSL, S&T, or UMKC on the board…to make sure the needs of the institutions are not overlooked,” Razer said.

Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, voted to confirm Graves in the committee vote. Under questioning from Razer, Rowden said the NextGen Precision Medicine Institute, currently under construction, will make the Columbia campus a premier research center for medical treatments.

And Rowden said Choi is the key to making it a success.

“Dr. Choi is going to have to be part of the equation or we have a much bigger problem,” Rowden said.

Sen. Justin Brown, R-Rolla, said he would like to see a curator from his part of the state that has ties to the Rolla campus or the Rolla community. Parson also nominated a replacement for Steelman, Keith Holloway of Cape Girardeau, who has a degree from the Columbia campus.

“I will stand up here as long as necessary to make sure it is protected,” Brown said.

Graves’ partisanship is an issue for Democrats and the way he ran the party is an issue for some Republicans.

The floor session Thursday concluded with Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, and Sen. Paul Wieland, R-Imperial, on the floor.

Wieland, who voted against Graves during the committee vote, told Hoskins that he tried to delay action to get more information. And Hoskins noted that he was not approached for support until shortly before the Senate convened on Thursday. 

“They have not made any attempt to contact my office and meet with me to see if I had any concerns more than 30 minutes before” the session began, Hoskins said.