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Speaker's Power Wanes

State Capital Bureau

May 08, 1995

JEFFERSON CITY _ The boxer fights to regain his composure _ but can't. His old muscles refuse and his reflexes tire.

For much of this legislative session, House Speaker Bob Griffin has seemed like the amateur box he once was. Critics describe him like a fighter who has passed past his prime and should have gotten out of the ring long ago _ but hasn't.

Even Griffin's son acknowledges the loss of power. "There have been votes that show his political power is eroding," said Jeff Griffin, the speaker's son and a lobbyist.

But Griffin consistently turns back suggestions it's time to step down. "I am still here," Griffin said, although, he acknowledges he will not run for re-election as speaker in 1997.

Supporters and critics of Griffin agree the end of Griffin's control of the House came in mid-April when representatives squashed Griffin's attempt to kill an anti-abortion bill in committee.

Anti-abortion representatives, joined by a handful of abortion-rights supporters, voted to yank the bill out of a hostile committee and bring it to the floor for debate.

It was the first time the House speaker was overruled by representatives in at least two decades and the first time in Griffin's 15 years as speaker.

Griffin appeared to realized the significance of the vote. When he left the floor that day, his hands were trembling and his face was flushed.

He tried to downplay the significance of the vote, saying that it was issue-driven, rather than personal.

But other legislators, even some of his supporters, said it was more than just a vote on abortion _ that for some, it was a vote against Griffin's leadership.

Even the governor's office was interested in the "strange activity" in the House, said Chris Sifford, Carnahan's spokesman.

"He is speaker of the House and it is a very important job," he said. "We are concerned. We will have to adapt to what happens."

Representatives, with this vote, seized back command of the floor, said Rep. Don Lograsso, R-Blue Springs.

"He has ruled with a dictatorial hand for years," he said. "As speaker of the House he is supposed to facilitate discussion, but what has been happening is that frustration is building."

"The question was, Who is going to control the House?" Lograsso said. "And the vote answered, it is going to be the 82 representatives."

The vote was the culmination of what has been a difficult year for Griffin.

Activity outside the chamber fueled some of the anti-Griffin momentum. Griffin's ties with a riverboat gambling firm are being investigated by a federal grand jury after he wrote a letter to a gambling firm warning of state licensing problems if more money was not provided to clients represented by Griffin's law firm.

The jury also subpoenaed his state campaign reports, personal disclosure forms and state travel records.

Last year, Griffin plead guilty to driving drunk in his taxpayer-furnished car. Griffin temporarily lost his license and says he paid for his bad judgment.

Then, when Griffin attempted to run for speaker again, mutiny erupted.

On the morning of Jan. 4, Griffin had his acceptance speech in his hand. But in the temporary House speaker election _ a test vote for the speaker's race _ a shocking scene unfolded.

The Democrats lost.

Secretary of State Rebecca Cook refused to close the board. As hours passed, the chamber held its breath as rebellious Democrats were lobbied. But by the end of the day, Griffin and Democratic leaders could get no closer than a tie.

The bulky, 6-foot-tall Griffin could be seen in the back of the House chamber, towering over one representative or another, trying to win over votes.

By the next day, one Democrat _ Rep. Matt O'Neill _ mysteriously changed his vote, granting Griffin the speakership.

But O'Neill's switch laid the groundwork for further problems. A couple of months later, FBI agents showed up at the Capitol asking lawmakers what led O'Neill to switch his vote.

Back in January, O'Neill said he concluded overnight that he could not vote against his party and nobody had pressured him to switch his vote.

It seems as though everywhere Griffin goes and everything Griffin does is being closely watched by federal investigators, journalists or the FBI.

Under a cloud of a federal investigation is not the way Griffin imagined he would leave politics, he said.

"I thought I would leave on a better note," said Griffin, who has said that he doesn't plan to run again when his term as speaker ends with the 1997 session.

In 1970, Griffin _ a young lawyer fresh out of the military _ was elected to the House of Representatives.

"I though it would be nice to spend a few years in the legislature because it was very similar to trying a lawsuit," he said. "That was 25 years ago."

In the beginning, Griffin was especially interested in working on criminal justice legislation. In 1977, Griffin was the sponsor of legislation that brought Missouri's death penalty into compliance with U.S. Supreme Court decisions that had invalidated the state's old death-penalty law.

During this time, Griffin earned a reputation for being a hard worker, working for 15 to 17 hours straight, working over coffee, working through dinner and working at parties.

In 1980, Griffin captured the speaker's job on a pledge to run the office with less autocracy and more fairness _ an approach he followed during his early years as speaker.

In the early years, even some of supporters criticized Griffin for being too soft _ just the opposite of today's criticism.

In 1985, then Columbia Rep. Chris Kelly lamented the loss of a strong leader in the House.

Griffin "is much less inclined to use the office of speaker to command votes, though he should from time to time. Any speaker will and should. In fact, a lot of people don't think Griffin is vindictive enough. It's not his leadership style... to threaten to get his way," Kelly, D-Columbia, said ten years ago.

The frustrations with his easy-going style led some of his colleagues to present him with a new coffee cup with an inscription "No more Mr. Nice Guy."

In 1992, election of a fellow Democratic as governor presented Griffin with new opportunities for more forceful leadership.

"All this time, I was serving under a Republican governor and I wanted to serve under a Democratic governor. It has been fun working with Carnahan," Griffin said. "We did welfare reform and workers compensation and the Outstanding Schools Act."

Last year, however, fortunes appeared to change. That year, Griffin and the governor made the top issue a sweeping package designed to expand health care access to most Missourians.

It died amid strong, bi-partisan opposition. And he failed to win even House approval to resubmitting to the voters a ballot issue to allow slot machines on riverboats after initial voter rejection that spring.

While his support may be waiver in the House, Griffin has been a god-sent for his home town _ a rural area with middle income folks.

Griffin has been able to bring in a prison and a veterans hospital. Another prison is on its way to a nearby location.

"The prison has been a real shot in the arm," he said. "Job creation has been a major part."

In Cameron, Griffin is king. But in Jefferson City, Griffin, the talk is about the session of frustration for Griffin and politician ammunition for Republicans. He has become the Republican poster child for everything that is bad in politics. They paint Griffin as a corrupt tyrant.

At times, it does seem to get under the speaker's skin. Like the time when he was asked by a reporter about the ongoing investigation and he scolded, "If you ever ask me that again, I will not talk to you."

But, maybe in the long-run, people will look back at Griffin and remember him as being a soft-spoken, emotional man.

They will remember last year when he cried as one of his good friends Key Steinmetz retired from the House or when this year he issued a release saying the media is "hurting his feelings."

As the session winded down, Griffin said he was not bitter. He realizes the scrutiny and pressure he is under comes with the territory. He is waiting for the grand jury to absolve him.

Until then, "I am taking it one day at a time," said Griffin reaching for his coffee cup. Inscribed on it is the singular word _ "Speaker."