Capitol Perspectives: The loss of a major state leader, Jim Mathewson

October 1, 2021 7:00 am

A view of the Missouri Senate chamber from the visitors gallery (photo courtesy of the Missouri Senate).

Missouri has lost one of the most influential Senate leaders in at least the past half century.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the accomplishments of Jim Mathewson who died Sept. 28 from cancer.

The Sedalia Democrat served nearly one-quarter of a century in Missouri’s Senate achieving a pile of major legislative accomplishments.

After serving as the Senate’s Democratic leader, Mathewson was elected the top leader of Missouri’s Senate in 1989 and went on to become the longest serving Senate president pro tem in the state’s history.

Those leadership elections were a demonstration of his ability to win the hearts and minds of his colleagues.

Jim Mathewson

What I most remember as a reporter about Mathewson was his passion to seek both friendships and support from members of both parties. He was an artist at forging compromises.

Like Pres. Lyndon Johnson, Mathewson had a need to physically connect.

So often when I talked with him, he would massage my shoulders as he did with other reporters.

Often when asked a difficult question, he’d respond “God love ya” with a smile on his face.

His legislative accomplishments bridged the ideological divide we see from so many legislators of the current era.

His bills included expanding Medicaid eligibility, medical malpractice lawsuit limits, prescription drug tax credits for the elderly and various consumer protections.

But Mathewson was not a knee-jerk liberal. He sponsored measures conservatives would appreciate including tougher criminal sentences, welfare restrictions and establishing a company to provide businesses with workers’ compensation health insurance coverage.

He even passed a law allowing paying state taxes by credit card.

Mathewson regularly built compromises between Republicans and his fellow Democrats.

One of Mathewson’s greatest accomplishments was in 1991 when he won support from an arch-conservative Republican governor, John Ashcroft, for a tax increase for higher education.

It was not easy. It took five days of closed-door negotiations with legislators and the governor to eventually get the $385 million tax increase on the statewide ballot.

One reporter actually heard the intense negotiations with Ashcroft listening through a closed door. I suspected that Mathewson, who was not a secretive person, probably knew there might be a journalist eavesdropper outside his office.

Mathewson’s victory was short lived. Missouri voters rejected the tax increase by an overwhelming margin.

But two years later with Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan and Mathewson still the Senate’s top leader, the legislature passed into law a tax increase nearly as large for primary and secondary education without requiring voter approval.

In 2005, legislative term limits forced Mathewson out of the Senate he so dearly loved.

Mathewson’s Senate absent provided a clear demonstration of the impact from an eight-year limit on membership in a Missouri legislative chamber.

A major factor in Mathewson’s legislative successes involved the deep friendships he developed during his 24 years in the Missouri Senate.

The Senate of that earlier era was like a family.

Of course, there were squabbles, just like in most families.

Once, Senate Democrats ousted the Democratic president pro tem, but only after the ousted leader had challenged the Democratic governor on a major administration issue.

But the kind of verbal assault the current Senate leadership recently has encountered from their fellow Republican members is quite a contrast with the Senate during Mathewson’s leadership.

Eight years has proven too short to develop the deep family-like friendships and working partnerships of Mathewson’s era.

Those years also helped Mathewson better understand the values and political pressures of his colleagues.

Further, his years of legislative service provided Mathewson with the experience to become a policy wonk able to craft and negotiate complicated policy issues such as interstate banking regulations, insurance rate regulation, workers’ compensation and so much more.

While I mourn Jim Mathewson’s passing, I also miss his era when focus on policy and family-like civility dominated the Senate.

I owe a major thanks for this column to Missouri Independent’s Rudi Keller who as one of my student reporters covered Mathewson when he was Senate majority leader and then as the Columbia Daily Tribune’s statehouse reporter, he covered Mathewson as the Senate’s president pro tem.

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Phill Brooks
Phill Brooks

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.