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Ron Richard, titan of Missouri’s legislative world, dies at 75

Carolina Hidalgo I St. Louis Public Radio

When he came to the Missouri legislature in the early 2000s, Ron Richard already built a legacy for himself as a prominent businessman and the mayor of Joplin.

And when he departed the legislature because of term limits in 2018, the Joplin Republican left behind a career that is without precedent in Missouri history: the only person ever to serve as House speaker and Senate president pro tem.

“Every time there's a door opened … I've been lucky enough to go through that door,” Richard said in a 2017 episode of Politically Speaking.

Richard died on Friday at the age 75. He had been recently diagnosed with bladder cancer.

Many who are currently or were in Missouri politics spent Friday praising Richard as a titan in the state legislature who held top leadership roles during tumultuous times. He was speaker of the House in the midst of the economic calamity of the late 2000s and was the leader of the Senate during a monthslong crisis over the future of then-Gov. Eric Greitens’ governorship.

“It’s a legacy of what it means to be a true public servant,” said former House Speaker Todd Richardson.

And while Democrats sharply disagreed with his political views, they found him to be an honest broker who was willing to work on major policy initiatives.

“He knew who he was, and he was confident in who he was,” said former Gov. Jay Nixon. “He wasn't searching for who the real Ron Richard was.”

Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

A late start to politics

Born in Kansas, Richard owned and operated bowling alleys before entering local politics. He was on the Joplin City Council and eventually became that city’s mayor before getting elected to the Missouri House in 2002.

Richard had run for the state Senate in 1998 but lost in a GOP primary. He said in 2017 that loss was a blessing in disguise, since he ended up beginning his legislative service when the GOP was just taking over control of the Missouri General Assembly.

“I do know right from wrong, I do know that,” Richard said in 2017. “You know, don't do something your mother wouldn't want you to do. And I tell people that all the time. And if you do something, there's consequences.”

As a freshman lawmaker at age 55, Richard also noted he had more life experience than many of his colleagues. And former Sen. John Lamping, who came into the Senate in 2011, said that gave him an advantage over people who were younger and arguably more ambitious.

“You need to elect people who have self actualized,” Lamping said. “They are who they are already, and they’re not trying to become someone through politics.”

Former state Rep. Steve Hobbs shared an office with Richard in the 2000s. When talking with another legislator, Hobbs would “lovingly” say, “I don't agree with what the old man's doing.”

“You know what the problem was? Every time he was right, and we were wrong,” Hobbs said. “And he just had that aura of competence. And that you knew that if Ron said, ‘This is what I think we need to do,’ then you were on pretty safe ground on getting behind that and moving forward."

Richard was elected as House speaker in 2007 after a difficult intraparty election against then-House Budget Chairman Allen Icet. His speakership corresponded with the 2008 economic collapse, and much of the focus was around how to divvy up a large amount of federal money that came into the state to fill budget gaps.

“I think having somebody who respected and understood the institutions was especially important, and I think he did,” Nixon said. “And so I think that he was a rock solid person throughout all of that sort of stuff.”

 Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon takes questions from reporters in 2015.
File photo / Carolina Hidalgo
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon takes questions from reporters in 2015.

Economic development a big focus

While he had much more power as House speaker and Senate president pro tem, Richard said his favorite position in legislative politics was chairman of the House Economic Development Committee.

“I thought I'd died and gone to heaven,” he said in 2017.

And while he had worked his way up the political ladder through his time in local and regional politics in southwest Missouri, he was adamant about developing economic development policies that benefited the entire state.

“My goal was job creation and economic development back when it wasn't cool,” Richard said in 2017. “Now, it's all cool. Everybody wants to create jobs. And I've been doing it for 15 years — longer than that with city government.”

While Nixon clashed with Richard on some policy items, notably a failed attempt to modestly expand Medicaid, he said the then-speaker was instrumental in pushing through an economic development package that helped save a major Ford manufacturing plant in Clay County.

Lamping said Richard had the added benefit of watching the state’s transformation from somewhat evenly divided politically to solidly red — in part because rural Missouri swung wildly to the Republican side.

But he added that Richard knew that in order for the GOP to have sustainable majorities, it needed to have a policy agenda that paid attention to urban and suburban parts of the state.

“My general understanding is that what happened in his time in the House is that Republicans started to realize that their power was going to come from the rural areas, and they’re watching all those conservative Democrats change parties,” Lamping said. “And he was hardwired to think: ‘OK, all these country boys can be in the majority, but we've got to have the urban-suburban areas as part of our coalition.”

The Missouri Senate on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, during the first day of the legislative session in Jefferson City.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
The Missouri Senate on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, during the first day of the legislative session in Jefferson City.

Senate service

After hitting term limits in 2010, Richard successfully ran for an open Senate seat representing the Joplin area. By his own admission, he had trouble becoming acclimated to the upper chamber — but eventually played a major role in helping Joplin after a deadly tornado in 2011.

“And obviously, after the Joplin tornado, we spent a tremendous amount of time together,” Nixon said. “And he, like many people, showed the strength and resilience of what was called the toughest people in God's green Earth.”

He returned to a leadership position in 2013 when he prevailed in a bid for Senate majority leader. Richard defeated then-Sen. Mike Parson for the post. And while there may have been hard feelings at the time Richard said the loss turned out all right for Parson — especially since members of House and Senate leadership often make enemies that stymy their bids for statewide office.

“I think it worked out better for him,” Richard said in 2017 after Parson became lieutenant governor.

Parson said in a statement that Missouri “lost a strong leader and dedicated public servant with the passing of Ron Richard.”

Richard was also an ardent supporter of right to work, which barred unions and employers from requiring dues as a condition of employment. Richard was Senate president pro tem when right-to-work legislation made it through the General Assembly, but voters ended up repealing it in 2018.

Former Sen. Jake Hummel, who is now the president of the Missouri AFL-CIO, said he had major disagreements with Richard — especially on labor issues. But he and Richard also found points of common interest.

“We did not agree politically on much of anything,” Hummel said. “But the fact is that Ron cared about the institutions of the House and he cared about the institutions of the Senate. And he was no nonsense when it came to that.”

Tim Bommel | Missouri House Communications

Gruff or a ‘puppy dog’?

One of Richard’s trademarks was his bluntness. When he was asked in 2007 if his election as speaker was a sign that southwest Missouri was solidifying its dominance in state politics, Richard replied “that is absolute B.S.”

“I’ve worked with the entire state of Missouri since I’ve been elected,” Richard said at the time. “And anybody who wants to say that I’m regional can just leave the building.”

Lamping, though, said Richard’s gruff communication style was something of a front for the fact that his personality resembled that of a “puppy dog.” And Hobbs contended that Richard was actually a “teddy bear.”

“And so he much preferred to be behind the scenes,” Hobbs said. “Of course, when you have that type of tremendous ability and are politically astute, you're going to get elevated to higher offices. But those that are close to Ron know what a deeply caring person he was.”

Both Hummel and Lamping noted that he forged a close relationship with Richardson and that they were able to work together to pass a number of key agenda items. Richard and Richardson were also in charge in 2018, when the legislature almost initiated impeachment proceedings against Greitens amid scandals involving an extramarital affair and campaign finance issues.

“Ron’s leadership made a material difference in how those eras played out,” Richardson said. “He had a leadership style that was direct. It was honest. And he wanted ultimately what was best for the state and the people of Missouri.”

Hobbs added Richard will be remembered in the Missouri political world in a similar manner to former Sens. Kit Bond and Roy Blunt — as a pragmatist who tried to do the right thing.

“He's been a role model for so many of us,” he added.

Richard is survived by his wife, Patty, and two children.

Copyright 2023 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Since entering the world of professional journalism in 2006, Jason Rosenbaum dove head first into the world of politics, policy and even rock and roll music. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, Rosenbaum spent more than four years in the Missouri State Capitol writing for the Columbia Daily Tribune, Missouri Lawyers Media and the St. Louis Beacon. Since moving to St. Louis in 2010, Rosenbaum's work appeared in Missouri Lawyers Media, the St. Louis Business Journal and the Riverfront Times' music section. He also served on staff at the St. Louis Beacon as a politics reporter. Rosenbaum lives in Richmond Heights with with his wife Lauren and their two sons.