‘He’s the good cop’: Caleb Rowden’s leadership of Missouri Senate reflects political realities

By: and - May 8, 2023 3:06 pm

Sen. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, gives a speech after his colleagues unanimously approved his appointment as president pro tem on Jan. 4, 2023 (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent).

Sen. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, says he didn’t think he would win when he first appeared on the 2012 ballot for a state House seat.

Voters in the 44th House District and the 19th Senate District have since proved him wrong. Eleven years later, he has risen to the most powerful seat in the Senate — president pro tempore — becoming the first senator representing Boone County to hold that position.

Thanks to Rowden, Columbia is in a powerful position in state government. Although the majority of Boone County representatives are in the Democratic minority, Rowden wields influence as the leader in the Senate of the Republican majority, a position he was elected to by fellow Republican senators following last fall’s statewide elections.

Looking back to that 2012 election, it’s easy to see why Rowden had doubts. But he made history by becoming the first person to beat two former state senators in a House race. At the time of his election, the 44th House District included Boone County and parts of Cooper County.

Rowden moved up to party leadership in 2019 when he was elected Senate majority leader, a position he held through last year’s legislative session. As president pro tem of the Senate, he frequently presides over the chamber’s daily operations and is in a position to make rulings and procedural steps as legislation is considered.

Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina, the Senate majority floor leader, said she feels that the leadership duo have rapport.

“He’s able to relate to people and kind of bring them along,” O’Laughlin said. “We have sort of a good cop, bad cop. He’s the good cop.”

O’Laughlin and Rowden can be seen on the Senate floor chatting like old friends, and in corners with both Republican and Democratic senators as they lobby for particular programs or amendments to bills.

Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, notes that he and Rowden go “way back.”

Rizzo and Rowden served in the House of Representatives together in 2012.

“We’ve been in the building, whether it’s in the House or the Senate, together for quite some time now,” Rizzo said.

Even though they represent different interests, Rizzo said Rowden has always been respectful of his views.

This session has brought a number of difficulties for Rowden, one being the battle for sports wagering legalization in the state — something Rowden has made clear he fully supports.

Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, has disagreed with him on how to accomplish this throughout his term. He spoke dryly of Rowden’s work across the aisle.

“Caleb does an excellent job working with Senate Democrats,” Hoskins said. “They’ve got a lot of their priorities passed.”

Hoskins has been the roadblock to sports wagering, wanting to add regulation of Video Lottery Terminals in tandem with allowing sports wagering. Hoskins said the reason VLT’s were not successful is because Rowden put the bill in the wrong committee.

“I think VLT’s as well as sports (betting) should go into (my committee) Senate Committee on Economic Development and Tax Policy,” Hoskins said. “Unfortunately, he sent those gambling bills to the Senate Public Safety Committee as well as the Senate Appropriations Committee.”

Rowden said he hopes Hoskins rethinks his position.

“Senator Hoskins is solely responsible for sports betting not happening,” Rowden said in a statement. “Any revisionist history attempt won’t change that fact.”

According to many local elected officials, Rowden has worked in Jefferson City to help Boone County.

Kip Kendrick, presiding commissioner of Boone County, first met Rowden when he was the state representative for Rowden’s old 44th District seat.

“We have had a lot of interactions over the last eight/nine years and a lot of positive interactions,” Kendrick said. “We will certainly have our different stances on policies and we have certainly had disagreement on a direction of policy at times inside the Capitol.”

Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, chats with Sen. Brian Williams, D-University City, and Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, on the opening day of the 2023 session in January (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent).

For Boone County, having a positive relationship with those in leadership in the Capitol is important, Kendrick said. Boone County is a first class non-charter county, which means the power is derived from the legislature and not from its own county charter. Boone County has to rely on the state legislature to pass ordinances.

“As a non-charter county … our authority is all set within state statute,” Kendrick said. “So there is a very real connection between what happens inside the state government and what happens inside the Missouri legislature and how it impacts Boone County government operations.”

One of the most important strongholds of Boone County for commissioners and Rowden alike is the University of Missouri.

University of Missouri System Board of Curators member Robin Wenneker has been a steadfast supporter of Rowden, donating multiple times to his campaigns.

“He has consistently been a vocal supporter of the UM system,” she said. “He’s a supporter and knows us, he’s able to talk about the positive initiatives we are pursing.”

He’s an active voice on social media, tweeting repeatedly about Mizzou basketball successes and other university developments, tweeting about the Tigers on Feb. 12, “This is a special group of coaches and players. No doubt about it!”

His reach in Boone County has extended beyond MU as well. Rowden listed off several projects he’s proud to have pushed through, including the Rocheport Bridge, the Roy Blunt NextGen Precision Health Building and scoring Boone County large amounts of money from state bonds.

When Rowden was elected, the 19th District included Boone County and parts of Cooper County. Now, after redistricting last year, the seat includes only Boone County.

This change means that the chances of Rowden’s constituents electing another Republican senator seem low. Boone County Commissioner Janet Thompson says that Rowden is aware that he may not reflect the views of the majority of his constituents and knows that putting Boone County’s growth first is vital.

“If your goal is to do better by the people who sent you here, then partisan politics shouldn’t play a role,” Thompson said. “I think, by and large, that’s where he’s coming from. He gets it, he’s from here.”

Rowden acknowledged that he is no stranger to the “elephant in the room” of his constituency.

“I wake up every day knowing that any time I open my mouth, I’m gonna make 50% of my constituents mad,” Rowden said.

He added that he’s okay with this because of the nature of his job.

“I care deeply about what the folks who sent me here think, (but) this isn’t a (direct) democracy. It’s a constitutional republic, which means they sent me here to do a job,” he said.

It’s this commitment to his personal principles that sometimes make him appear less in tune with Columbia, the seat of his county. Many residents feel like their interests are not being represented by Rowden, particularly on issues of anti-gender affirming care and anti-red flag laws.

Earlier this year, Columbia Public School board member Katherine Sasser announced that she could not participate in a school board meeting, stating that the recent state legislation attacking transgender and LGBTQ youth made her unable to be fully present at the meeting.

Rowden said he feels that he balances everyone’s interests.

“There are moments where I may have a particular inclination that because of the folks that I know I represent back home, I finagle (my approach) a little bit differently than I would if I represented 70% Republicans,” he said.

“He’s also mindful that being a Republican is an asset to his county, because he has a voice that can have a broader impact in our network,” Thompson said.

While there are Democrats representing Boone County in the House, they are at a disadvantage because of the Republican supermajority in that chamber and frequent party line votes.

Rep. Adrian Plank, D-Columbia, said that he has not seen the collaboration that Wenneker speaks of. Plank repeatedly mentioned anti-trans legislation that has been pushed through both the House and Senate, and how that is not reflective of his Columbia community.

“If you are really trying to support the community, have those conversations with the leaders of the community and find out what really happened and be honest with those scenarios,” Plank said.

After a drag performance at a diversity event held by the city where young students were present, Rowden took to Twitter expressing some reactions his office received — causing it to turn into a state issue.

“My office has been inundated with calls & emails re:grade school kids being forced to sit through a drag show at this morning’s #CoMo Diversity Day Breakfast. We have heard from parents whose kids attended who are obviously very upset,” he wrote on Jan. 19.

Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, speaks during a press conference April 6, 2023 (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent).

Rowden later met with Columbia Public Schools Superintendent Brian Yearwood and said he was satisfied with the district’s pledge to communicate better with parents.

He said he talked to city leadership about what happened and told them “Don’t mess up.”

“I’m not a vengeful person, (Columbia) is still my home … I don’t care enough about the political realities to throw people under the bus,” he said in an interview.

Rowden will finish his time in the Senate in 2024 and is not eligible for reelection because of term limits.

“To be in this position, 11 years later, to watch all the investments that have happened, that’s just something to be proud of,” Rowden said.

“When I am 10 years older, when I am living a different life it will just be cool to say ‘Hey, I have had a little bit of an effect’, that’s pretty neat,” he said.

This story originally appeared in the Columbia Missouri. It can be republished in print or online. 

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Brooke Muckerman
Brooke Muckerman

Brooke Muckerman is a state government reporter at the Columbia Missourian.

Allie Feinberg
Allie Feinberg

Allie Feinberg covers state government for the Columbia Missourian.