®RM75¯®FC¯®MDBO¯COL135.PRB - The Lion of the Lobbyists®MDNM¯
This past summer, Missouri lost the undisputed lion of our state's lobbyists -- John Britton.
In his prime, Britton was one of the state's most powerful figures.
But there was much more to Britton. He also was a mentor, teacher, friend and adviser to generations of Missouri public leaders.
His funeral was a demonstration of that depth, bringing together past and present government leaders from across decades.
Among those paying their respects were the current attorney general, a former House speaker of decades ago, the last Democrat to be the Senate's top leader, and one former lawmaker so aged and in ill health he was confined to a wheelchair, but still wanted to attend.
A few reporters also were there -- not to get a story, but rather in respect to Britton's legacy, a sense of a passing era and in respect for the insights Britton provided to us.
On one side, Britton personified the public perception of a lobbyist.
He wined and dined lawmakers, freely distributing gifts.
He represented the beer and liquor companies, the tobacco industry and gambling boats. He'd laugh when I'd joke with him about being the lobbyist for sin.
Critics charged he was the reason Missouri has some of the lowest taxes and laws on booze and tobacco.
But that is only a part of the story about John Britton. He did not fit the stereotype of a lobbyist.
He was one of the most cultured figures I've covered in the statehouse. He graduated from Harvard University -- Cum Laude.
There was a depth of knowledge about history and how it related to modern-day public policy that awed me.
He had a deep commitment to serving the public interest that transcended the profit-making objectives of some of his clients.
He helped lead the efforts that gave the legislature more voice over the sometimes hidden rule-making process of state government.
He risked some of his influence to push a legislative rule change that he thought would help the process, despite adamant opposition from some powerful legislators -- powerful enough to kill Britton's efforts to give the process a longer, two-year period to consider legislative bills.
~~Public service was at his core. As a young man, he parachuted into Europe on the eve of the Normandy landings and went on to fight in the Battle of the Bulge.
Britton's statehouse career started as an aide to one of the state's most liberal attorney generals -- Tom Eagleton who later became one of the leading Senate voices in Washington against the Vietnam War.
There also was a benevolence to Britton that transcended this well-dressed, powerful figure.
For free, he lobbied for causes in which be believed like the St. Louis Symphony and an animal care organization (Britton loved cats).
A reformed alcoholic, he was an AA sponsor for many from very different walks of life.
Britton was a teacher.
He held weekly sessions at his home that amounted to seminars on history, politics, arts and public policy for legislators he thought had the potential to be future leaders of the state -- and many did.
Skeptics might think Britton was simply trying to build the foundation of relationships that would be of benefit.
But his students would disagree. Some he schooled were among the toughest opponents to the issues sought by Britton's clients. More than a few have bragged to me about voting against Britton's clients.
While Britton was an incredibly unique figure in Missouri's statehouse, his commitment to the government process and to the leaders in that process is a quality I have found in many lobbyists I have covered -- not all, but many.
They represent a very different reality than what I suspect is the public perception.
Many, I have found, share John Britton's respect for government and for the people who serve in government.
With legislative term limits, these senior lobbyists are becoming the foundation of institutional knowledge and policy perspective in Missouri government.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]