The Missouri Times presenting Kehoe with inaugural Statesman of the Year award after legislative lapse in his absence
In celebration of the 5th Anniversary of The Missouri Times, staff, subscribers, people in the business community, and a group of longtime Capitol observers combined to select the 2017 Missouri Statesman of the Year. The inaugural honoree is Senator Mike Kehoe, Cole County.
We asked this collection of influential Missourians to help us identify someone who consistently worked on causes bigger than themselves, whose impact on the state will be felt after their career was over, and someone who worked to find compromise on issues in the mold of the former great men and women who have served the state and preserved the traditions that have made Missouri the great state it is.
Senator Kehoe was the overwhelming choice.
“To me, a statesman is someone who puts the state ahead of themselves,” Missouri Times Publisher Scott Faughn said. ”We’re sometimes trapped in an era where leaders are always looking to their next office the day after winning their current one, some of our newest politicians only think as far ahead as the next Facebook post. Senator Kehoe works on projects like highways and utility infrastructure – issues that require sacrifice and foresight of today’s generation for the benefit of the next generations of Missourians. To me, that is what a statesman does and that’s why we are proud to honor Senator Kehoe.”
This year will be his last in the Senate, due to term limits, but the impact he has had on Missouri will be a long-lasting one.
Many people know his story of being raised in the St. Louis area by his mother, a single parent with six children. At the age of 15, he started washing cars for Dave Sinclair Ford, and worked his way up into sales management. After graduating from Chaminade College Preparatory School, he was given an opportunity to lead Osage Industries at the age of 25. After selling the company to the employees in 1992, he purchased a Ford and Lincoln-Mercury auto dealership in Jefferson City, which he still is involved with today.
“Mike Kehoe is one of the finest people I know,” Gov. Matt Blunt said. “He is an absolute personification of the American dream. His devotion to his faith, his family, and his country are sincere and real. Beyond all that he is a real leader and public servant who is not afraid to tell others the truth. I admire him greatly and am proud to count him as a friend.”
Kehoe’s first real venture into the political realm came when he volunteered in 2004 to help Matt Blunt’s 2005 gubernatorial campaign. After his successful campaign, Governor Blunt appointed Kehoe to the Missouri Highway and Transportation Commission.
“That really got me interested into the goings on in Missouri,” Kehoe said. “It really opened my eyes to what was going on. I thought Missouri needed a change. We needed someone who understood that business friendliness in the state and what we could do to create jobs in the state all ties back to how we treat our employers, particularly our small businesses. I was an aggravated taxpayer, to be honest.”
He would ultimately leave the highway commission and, despite never having held an elected office, decided to run for State Senate to succeed the well-respected Carl Vogel in 2010, where he came out on top in a four-way primary to run unopposed in the general election.
“It’s almost impossible,” Kehoe said when asked about how one can replace a figure as polarizing as Vogel. “Carl was a friend of mine for a long, long time, almost as long as I’ve been in Jefferson City. To be honest, his service to the state and the people was inspiring, and when I decided to run for office, he was one of the people I talked to.”
Vogel’s shoes were large ones to fill, but once there, the Senator quickly established himself, putting his experience and knowledge on a variety of topics, ranging from unemployment reform, workers’ compensation, transportation and various business matters, to use developing legislation.
“Sen. Kehoe is in a class by himself,” Rep. Mike Bernskoetter, a Republican candidate to replace Kehoe, said. “His understanding of the people and the businesses in the sixth district is remarkable. Really a tremendous statesman and an example to everyone in the legislature how to conduct themselves when going about the people’s business.”
Upon entering the Senate, Kehoe chose to take on perhaps the most complicated issue in state government: transportation. He came well-versed in the issue, having spent more than 30 years working in the industry. Kehoe would be praised by both sides of the aisle as one of the mature legislators offering real solutions to provide the much-needed funds to maintain the state’s more than 3,000 miles of highway.
“Mike Kehoe is a great friend and great public official,” U.S. Senator Roy Blunt said. “He truly understands the importance of transportation and infrastructure to our state and our economy, and has been an incredible leader on those issues. For Missourians, location is our greatest competitive advantage. Mike has worked tirelessly to ensure we have the infrastructure in place to maintain that advantage and keep our economy thriving.”
His counterpart, the Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh echoed compliments for his work on infrastructure issues, “I have always appreciated and respected Sen. Kehoe’s willingness to work across the aisle with us on issues important to all Missourians.”
One of Kehoe’s most notable contributions to that debate was his handling of the constitutional amendment that would have raised the state’s sales tax for transportation – an effort that failed in August 2014.
“His work on the state’s infrastructure was one most often cited as a reason to honor him. Back in the 1850s, Governor Austin King began an infrastructure plan to build railroads that led to Missouri doubling in population,” Faughn said. “If Senator Kehoe is ultimately successful in updating the state’s utility and highway infrastructure, he will be remembered in the same vein.”
But Kehoe says that the good news about the transportation debate is Missourians no longer seem to question that more money is needed. Instead, he says, the debate is solely centered on how to get the money and how it should be utilized. To that end, he takes hope, saying that a middle ground can still be found.
“Sen. Kehoe is a friend and colleague whom I’ve had the privilege of working alongside for nearly three decades,” Congresswoman Ann Wagner said. “In that time, Mike has become a conservative stalwart whose leadership is valued well beyond his district. He is a true citizen-servant who respects the values and traditions of all Missourians. Sen. Kehoe is responsible for the growth and strength of our Republican majorities and is the epitome of a statesman.”
Early in his career in the Senate, he was elected Assistant Majority Floor Leader, and later Floor Leader, a role that in the current climate of Republican supermajorities, requires an element of negotiating and diplomacy, as well as a firm hand all at the same time.
“There’s a lot of personalities in the Missouri Senate,” Kehoe chuckled. “You just have to wade through and work with everyone as best you can. I’d say that working in the car business teaches you a lot about that. It’s not a business where you can draw a line in the sand and stop talking to people; you have to continue to communicate. Even when you don’t sell a family a car this time around, you have to continue working with them because maybe their kids will buy a car, so you have to keep those relations open. My goal is always to try to communicate and keep the ability to talk to me as open as possible. I’m human, but I try to keep an open mind and listen to as many points of view as possible and then figure out the path to get there.”
Perhaps the best demonstration of his influence in the Senate was this last session when, after another of the Governor’s attacks on the state senators, Kehoe, following heavy rains across the state, found himself flooded in at his family farm on the Gasconade River, unable to leave due to the water over the roadways.
The Senate prepared to continue with business as usual, with Assistant Majority Leader Sen. Bob Onder filling in for Kehoe in his official capacity, but it quickly became apparent that little would get done as senators came forward with a list of bills they would agree to work on, a deviation from the norm, as the majority floor leader sets what will be taken up for action on the floor.
After a few days of nothing being accomplished, Kehoe returned, and the Senate’s business resumed. However, Kehoe simply says that he is one single member of the Senate, and chalks it up to having been involved in conversations that others were not privy to.
As a legislator, Kehoe has never shied away from working on difficult legislation, instead hoping to find the middle ground that could mutually benefit everyone.
While it did not proceed, Kehoe’s proposed ethics legislation served as an attempt to find a fix that was a calculated step toward finding an answer to the ethics conundrum that has been such a difficult matter to navigate. Kehoe sought to address the lobbyist gifts in a manner that allowed for a small price tag to be expended by lobbyists, or what he called “the cup of coffee” rule.
He says that his hope is to pass an ethics bill, because he is concerned about correcting the perception of the Capitol. 2018, it seems, will be Kehoe’s final chance to push for legislation on that matter.
But the 2017 legislative session came with its own set of challenges: a new governor, new legislators, and adjustments to be made on all sides. But the changes, particularly new members with little or no prior experience, are something that Kehoe says he likes, noting that he himself was once in the same position.
“Trying to do things differently is not a bad thing at all,” Kehoe said. “My least favorite answer in the private sector when you ask why they’re doing something a certain way is ‘Well, that’s the way we always did it.’ I hated that answer. And I think Governor Eric Greitens is hating that answer.
“But somewhere between here and there, there’s a path to get between those two points,” Kehoe said. You’ve got to try and thread that needle, and sometimes it takes longer.”
His advice, which he tries to follow every day, is simply to be patient.
“I like Mike, I knew him before,” Gov. Jay Nixon said in his recent retrospective with Faughn. “I mean, my kids were around Jeff City in sports and he was around, he’s one of the guys you know, was a buddy and a friend of mine, so I kinda knew Mike before he ran. Saw him around at a lot of stuff, he was obviously there. I’d always say to Mike, if I couldn’t get him to do some deal and we would get close, I’d say ‘if I gave you a free bed liner, would it work?’ Well, he’d come across there – he’s an auto guy, they’ll make deals with you, but I think that at first, he was in a little hurry and could lose his patience. It’s the only time that Mike has trouble is when he loses patience and as a successful business guy, guys like him, Libla and Wayne Goode on the Democrat side, they would get really frustrated on how long it would take to get some stuff done. But I think that once he realized that the process of government would take a little longer sometimes, he became a heck of a senator.”
In a state that proudly carries the name of the “Show-Me State,” Kehoe has also shown himself to be a man of integrity, respected by his colleagues and peers for being fair and easy to work with.
“Life’s too short,” Kehoe said. “I’m trying to leave the building the same way I came in. I don’t want to leave the building with a reputation that you just weren’t square with people. I don’t want to be that way. Sometimes, I give people an answer they don’t want to hear, because that’s the way things might be going, but I try not to ever mislead or lie to them.”
With one year left, the Senator from Cole is focused on what can still be accomplished, rather than looking to what’s next for his career. But as he begins the journey toward the door, he simply hopes for an effective legislative session that can benefit all Missourians, because he, too, is simply a Missourian.
“There are few leaders that I’ve had the pleasure to work with that are as humble, genuine and dedicated to the people they serve as Mike Kehoe,” Lincoln Hough said. “He is truly a statesman in an era that needs and deserves leaders like him.”
The Statesman of the Year Award will be presented at the Missouri Times 5th Anniversary Celebration on January 30 at 6:00 p.m. at the Millbottom in Jefferson City. The Missouri Times Magazine Legislator of the Year awards from the Fall 2017 edition will also be presented. For more information, contact Rachael Herndon Dunn.
This was the cover story of the January 3, 2018 edition.
This story originally appeared on The Missouri Times.
PHOTO/COURTESY OF MIKE KEHOE