Rod Jetton during his tenure as Missouri House speaker (Tim Bommel/Missouri House Communications).
Even during his reign atop the Missouri political world, former House Speaker Rod Jetton’s life was a looming disaster.
He’d lost the discipline of his Southern Baptist upbringing and his Marine training. He was drunk on Southern Comfort and power, and it is not hard to see how both inebriations impaired his judgment.
Over a decade ago, I wrote about my friend Jetton’s meteoric rise and fall for The Atlantic. Thanks to his native talent as a campaign strategist and salesman, then-House Minority Leader Catherine Hanaway tapped him to head up candidate recruitment for the 2002 cycle in which Republicans flipped the House for the first time in nearly a half-century.
He was elected speaker pro tem in just his third legislative session and speaker in his fifth, ultimately serving longer in that role than anyone in the last quarter-century’s post-term limit era.
Few who truly understand campaigns also master the legislative process. But Rod sought to conquer the Capitol, too, memorizing House rules and procedures as he had previously memorized House district lines. Even amid the mess he was making of his life, he was the best legislative strategist I’ve seen in 20 years in and around Missouri politics.
And he threw it all away.
How did his life run off the rails?
The father of three made poor, alcohol-fueled decisions that contributed to the dissolution of his marriage.
But the marriage was falling apart anyway, he rationalized, so who cares?
As speaker, he started a campaign consulting firm and took as clients members of his caucus who were seeking higher office. Some complained that Jetton’s clients’ bills were fast-tracked through the House, a clear conflict of interest and a form of pressure for members in contested primaries to hire him.
But there is no law against it, he told himself, so why not?
Former Republican state Sen. Matt Bartle of Lee’s Summit testified to a federal grand jury investigating Jetton for bribery that Jetton steered one of his bills to an unfavorable committee in exchange for a $35,000 contribution to the House Republican Campaign Committee.
But bill referral is the speaker’s prerogative, he thought, so what’s the big deal?
He orchestrated a maneuver whereby a party backbencher tucked a sentence into a massive omnibus local government bill that allowed a major donor to secede from unincorporated Stone County and create a “village” around his home, letting the donor begin a major construction project that the county commission had blocked. This revelation nearly cost him his speakership.
But his speakership was basically over anyway, he concluded, so who cares at this point?
The final straw came months after he left office, when he was charged with felony assault after being accused of drugging, hitting and choking a woman to the point of unconsciousness during an encounter involving previously agreed-upon rough sex.
Jetton later pleaded guilty to a reduced charge.
With his life collapsing all around him, he finally realized that he needed to change.
But it was too late.
Broke and unemployed, he hit rock bottom when he was turned down for a job driving a garbage truck in his tiny hometown of Marble Hill.
I’d first met Rod years earlier, in February 2007, when House Bill 444 came to the Senate after having rocketed through the House – unsurprising, since it was the sole bill he filed.
The bill proposed to eliminate state taxation on all Social Security benefits. I rose to speak in opposition.
A few hours later, a fellow Democratic state senator collared me and asked why I was filibustering. I said that while I could support a tax cut for middle-class seniors, millionaire seniors with annual six-figure investment income don’t need a tax cut.
“Let’s go see Jetton,” he replied.
We walked down to the speaker’s office and Rod shook my hand vigorously while slapping me on the shoulder, much harder than I expected.
“Well that’s a helluva way to introduce yourself to the speaker, by filibusterin’ his only bill!” he exclaimed exuberantly, and led us into his enormous, well-appointed office.
“Ah don’t really care if you filibuster,” he said.
“You don’t care if your bill passes?” I asked skeptically.
“Nope,” he replied matter-of-factly. “If it passes, great — we cut some ol’ folks’ taxes. If it don’t, that’s even better! It polls over 80%, so we’ll just beat the tar outta the Democrats for the next year and go for a supermajority. So Ah appreciate ya filibusterin!’ Ya think ya could keep it up all session?”
He winked, letting me know he was in on the joke.
I considered his logic, and after speaking on the floor for several more hours as afternoon turned to night, we negotiated a compromise that eliminated taxes on Social Security payments for recipients with total incomes (including government benefits) under $85,000/year.
Was it perfect? No. But it buried a potentially potent election issue, and most importantly, it wasn’t nearly as bad as the original version.
Jetton and I would go on to collaborate on other issues, including education and criminal justice reform. I learned a ton from him about House procedure, the dynamics of House-Senate negotiation and the House’s leverage amid brinkmanship with the governor.
He taught me how to ride a mule in Marble Hill. I took him to a Village People concert in St. Louis.
When he would call me during the interim to inquire about the challenges facing St. Louis Public Schools (my first post-college employer), or how best to combat rising urban crime (I’d just completed a month of nightly ride-alongs with city cops), I was heartened that, outside the legislative process or any attendant political dynamics, he seemed to genuinely care about the plight of the city and its families.
But the broader takeaway for me was that people whose background was the polar opposite of mine – he was a born-again, rural, proudly pro-life redneck Marine while I was an agnostic, urban, progressive polisci prof – maybe weren’t all evil.
I remember the first letter I received when I arrived in federal prison after going through my own ordeal. It was from Rod Jetton.
He opened by asking how I was doing, inquiring about conditions in the prison and asking after my family. Then he described how humbling his own experience was, but that he was grateful for it, because it showed him how he had fallen away from Jesus Christ. It inspired him to reconnect with the Lord, he wrote, and with his father, the Marble Hill pastor who had first read him the Bible.
It also motivated him to return to the sobriety of his military days.
He closed by encouraging me to draw upon faith, to get in shape and to be careful. And he said he’d be praying for me.
I wrote back, and over the course of my bid, he became my most faithful correspondent and one of my most reliable connections to the outside world.
When I came home, Jetton and I became business partners, hitting the road to address state legislatures and assemblies of legislative leaders. It was a sort of “Scared Straight” for ambitious politicians.
I watched him share his story with shocking candor and humility. Reconnecting with his faith had brought him back from the brink, but he didn’t proselytize. Instead, he provided practical lessons to help lawmakers avoid the temptations that lead to scandal, and always ended by imploring the audiences of lawmakers to avoid making the mistakes he had made.
No one is naïve enough to think that a scandal-plagued speaker bringing in a scandal-scarred former speaker is going to produce positive headlines on day one.
Indeed, the storyline almost sounds as if The Onion concocted it.
But in my view, the potential long-term benefits easily outweigh the short-term hit.
It is no secret that House Speaker Dean Plocher’s organizational skills could be improved. His allies would call him energetic and dynamic; his detractors would judge him peripatetic and rootless.
Armchair observers purporting to diagnose the problem might say that the caucus’ relative disorganization last session was rooted in Plocher’s well-intentioned, people-pleasing nature – a tendency that the buck-stops-here speaker’s office quickly exposes.
Beset by crisis – first, the messiness related to the House’s constituent management software, compounded by the stunning dismissal of highly-regarded chief of staff Kenny Ross; and then the surfacing of documents showing taxpayer reimbursements for trips already financed by his campaign – Plocher must stabilize his speakership, oversee a successful 2024 session, and jump-start his languishing lieutenant governor’s campaign.
So what can help him accomplish this?
The sober discipline of an ex-Marine to get the trains running on time. The legislative acumen of an ex-speaker who mostly united a fractious caucus and somehow seemed to always best not just the Senate, but the governor as well. The political instincts of a guy who had as much to do with taking the House back as anyone not named Hanaway. The communication skills of a guy who gets human nature and works to understand what others need in various situations and relationships. The turnaround mentality of a guy who, a decade ago, could not get hired to drive a garbage truck in a town of 1,200 people.
And some hard-earned humility and wisdom.
Cynics will immediately assume that Jetton’s interest is rooted in the same thirst for power that caused his previous collapse. Other slightly more charitable observers wonder whether a return to the Capitol could tempt him to return to the habits that once led him astray.
And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have the concern when I first heard his name in connection with the vacancy.
He happened to call me shortly thereafter to seek my perspective.
When I asked him what was driving him – with a cushy, low-stress 40-hour a week gig as a senior Department of Revenue manager – to return to the boiling cauldron, he hesitated.
“Man…I know this sounds corny but I just can’t bear to see anybody screw up like I did. Dean messed up his accounting stuff and he knows it, but he’s a good guy and this whole deal’s humbled him. He’s listening to people. We just gotta get everything more organized. If I can help the place run better that’d be great. But if I can keep even one member – even if it’s a Democrat! (he laughed) – from goin’ through what I went through, it’ll all be worth it.”
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