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Anti-Abortion Forces Gain House Victory

November 9, 1995
By: REBECCA HEAD and ELISA CROUCH
State Capital Bureau

See: Bills filed by speaker nominee in 1995 session.

JEFFERSON CITY - Anti-abortion forces scored a major victory Thursday with the nomination of abortion opponent as their candidate for the next House speaker.

Democrats selected Rep. Sam Leake, D-Laddonia, a farmer and businessman to replace House Speaker Bob Griffin who has plans to step down in Jaunary.

Republican leaders immediately called Leake's selection an extension of Griffin's rule.

"He's part of the Bob Griffin machine, the Bob Griffin style," said House Republican Leader Mark Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff. "The only difference is experience."

However, Leake disagreed with the Republican assessment. "How do you have a continuance when this is the first day of my nomination?"

During a press conference following Leake's nomination, the seven candidates who competed against Leake for the Democratic nomination stood behind him as he emphasized the Democratic Party's unity in the House.

"It's a great time to be a Democrat," Leake said with his wife's hand upon his shoulder. "The party is alive and well; we will be united."

Despite the message of party unity portrayed by the speaker nominee, five House Democratic members refused to participate in the vote because they said they disagreed with the way the caucus was being run.

"We are sending a message that we want fair and open hearings and term limits on committee chairmen," said Rep. Tony Ribaudo, D-St. Louis, one of the dissident members.

Ribaudo said the dissident group had not decided whether they would support Leake in January.

As the Democratic Caucus cast its votes, the five sat in Ribaudo's office just across the hall from the House chamber.

In addition, two other Democrats failed to appear for the caucus which left the Democratic Caucus with 80 members - two short of the 82 votes that will be needed in January to elect a speaker.

In last January's speaker election, dissident Democrats came close to helping Republicans vote out Griffin, who won his 15th year as House speaker by one vote. The Democrats hold a 87-76 majority.

Following Leake's nomination, Griffin said that he doubts the dissident five will cause a similar stir in January.

"I'm very confident that they'll support Sam," he said. "All 87 members will support him."

In the final votes that took place behind taped windows and guarded doors, Leake was head-to-head with House Budget Chairman Sheila Lumpe, D-St. Louis County, an abortion-rights supporter.

Leake said that his position on the abortion issue didn't play into his election against Lumpe.

"I didn't see any issue dividing us into different camps," Leake said.

But Rep. Jim Montgomery, D-Cabool, said that the abortion - a heated issue during the 1995 legislative session - was, in fact, a deciding factor.

"The body has moved toward the pro-life position," Montgomery said. "I feel that it could be a possibility that they moved toward this direction."

The election of the new House Speaker will be in January when the General Assembly convenes for the 1996 legislative session.

Griffin, under federal investigation for activities with riverboat gambling, announced several months ago he intended to step down as Speaker.

But Thursday, he unveiled a plan intended to assure he does not officially leave the speakership post until Leake is elected.

Griffin said a motion would be made in January that Leake be elected to replace as Griffin as speaker - a motion that block any other candidate from nomination.

But his approach raised immediate objections from the 5 dissident Democrats as well as from the House Republican leader.

"If Bob Griffin is intent on resigning, he should resign," Richardson said.

Richardson said he disagrees with the way the Democrats are handling the process.

"Until there is a vacancy, there should not be an election for a new speaker," Richardson said, outside the doors of the Republican Caucus.

Nevertheless, Richardson said there will be a Republican nominee to challenge Leake. That nominee would most likely be Richardson, he said.

Like their Democratic counterparts, the Republican Caucus was closed to the public with paper taped over the windows. But there weren't any guards to ensure complete secrecy.

Just hours before the caucuses began, the Cole County Circuit Court ruled against a petition the St. Louis Post-Dispatch filed requesting the meetings be open. The newspaper's attorney argued that the caucus constituted a governmental body, and should be open according to the state's open meeting laws.

Judge Roger Brown, however, ruled that the caucus does not constitute a governmental body.