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In Jefferson’s shadow

The Missouri State Capitol, the largest state capitol building in the United States, stands in the shadow of a magnificent bronze statute of Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States, Father of the University of Virginia, statesman, farmer, and visionary whose dream for a new nation swirled around the idea of common men elevating democracy through self-governance. The statue of Jefferson wears a subtle, knowing smile.

In the upper chamber of the great limestone building, a man who has distinguished himself in his own regard steps for the last time onto the floor of the Senate Chamber, a place that has been his second home for two decades. It is September 12. It is the last day of a regular legislative session for a lawmaker who, more than most, fulfilled Jefferson’s dream. His friends and his neighbors in the deep hills of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways know him as Danny… Danny Staples. But in Missouri’s most exclusive legislative arena, he is universally known as the Senator from Shannon.

He always enters the chamber, greets other early arriving colleagues, and walks past the press table manned with journalists from networks and major newspapers. No one, not even Staples, knows what he is going to say, but it always is the right word at the right time. Sometimes he asks about an ailing spouse, sometimes he chides a correspondent about his coverage. Sometimes, it’s a joke at his own expense. But when the Senator from Shannon talks, everybody listens.

His seat is at the rear of the chamber … a prestigious row occupied only by the most senior members. For Staples, it’s been a long and remarkable journey to that back row of seats, a journey marked by thousands of votes, countless requests from constituents trying to find their way through a vast state bureaucracy, and a remarkable record of legislative success that has saved more jobs and poured more concrete per square citizen than any other living lawmaker can rightly claim.

Between sessions, guides lead citizens on tours through the upper galleries that surround the Senate chamber below. They often begin their explanation of the Senate not by describing the rich walnut dais or the hand-chased fixtures that grace the elegant chamber, but by pointing to the back-row seat that bears the number “20” on the front.

“That’s Senator Staples’ desk,” it is explained. “When he gets up to tell one of his stories, the whole place gets quiet so everyone can listen…”

Staples began his legislative career in 1976 in the Missouri House of Representatives. But it would be in the Senate that he would find an arena fitting his own unique style of debate that visiting English professors would classify as the genre of frontier humor in the vein of Mark Twain.

The Senate, which conducts its debate under a manual written by Thomas Jefferson, has voted to end debate only twice in Missouri history. And in the arena of unlimited debate, the Senator from Shannon is second to none.

The Senate is the older and more deliberative of the two legislative chambers. It is a complex and demanding place where tension, tempers and stakes run high. Those who stand in debate — sometimes extending for days on a single issue — face relentless interrogation. When you stand to speak in the Missouri Senate, you engage in a match of wits, and only the foolish arrive unarmed.

Sen. Jim Mathewson, a Sedalia Democrat, is the only lawmaker in Missouri history to serve four consecutive terms as the Senate president pro tem — the highest elected office in the Senate. He and Staples often find themselves on different sides of the same issue, but he praises Staples in the role he has played in guiding the Senate.

“I will miss all of my colleagues, but l’ll miss Staples the most … almost like a brother,” Mathewson said. “When we in the Senate reach our wit’s end, when we are about to kill each other, he stands up and starts talking about his horse Trixie or going to school in his mamma’s one-room school house, or the big boys taking his ball and not letting him play, and he calms us down and brings us back to where we need to be. He is “just miraculous.”

Indeed. Within months of being elected to the Senate in 1982, Staples had made a most unlikely ally in Sen. Richard M. Webster — one of the most powerful men in state government during a career that spanned five decades.

Webster had warned that electing Staples to the Senate would be the worst mistake Missouri could make, but within weeks of the election, Staples’ down-home Missouri horse sense and quick country wit had won the admiration of the veteran Republican, who retracted his warning and presented Staples with a sizeable campaign check.

Staples never cashed the check, keeping it instead in his top desk drawer as a reminder that in the Senate even political adversaries could become real friends. When Senate debate would grow hostile, Webster would rise, and inquire of the Senator from Shannon. They would discuss Jesse James, and Belle Starr, and a decisive military engagement Webster said his grandmother described as “that recent unpleasantness between the states.”

They were known as the Dick and Danny Show. And while their extended exchanges revisited the state’s rich history, their floor debate acted as a safety valve that passed bills that needed to be passed and killed bills, as Webster would explain, that simply “needed killin’.”

Staples, of course, had allies on his side of the aisle. State Sen. John Scott, who served three terms in the Senate’s top office, had an office next to Staples’ on the Fourth floor of the Capitol. When one wanted to see the other, they simply screamed their names in the halls, rather than picking up the phone.

Scott, a successful, self-made businessman from south St. Louis, would in his South-city accent likely describe his friend Staples as, “The best Senator this state ever had except for me.”

State Sen. Mike Lybyer, a Democrat from Texas County, shared Staples’ outstate roots. Lybyer rose to serve as Appropriations Chairman, one of the most demanding roles in state government. A fixture in Staples’, office, he made a tradition of observing at least once each day that “That Staples, I tell ya, there’ll never be another one like him.” While legends grew around his remarkable floor skills, Staples managed remarkable legislative feats of his own. In 1984, the Mental Health Commission had voted to close Farmington State Hospital, which would have eliminated more than 700 jobs in a community of then 7,000 people. Working one-on-one with top officials from both parties, he hammered out a remarkable coalition of House and Senate colleagues, as well as unlikely allies, such as then Republican Gov. Kit Bond.

When Staples had finished, he’d convinced the governor to use bond money to convert the facility to a correctional center and won legislative approval to build a new mental health facility that would bring even more jobs to the area.

His honest, down-to earth style, ability to handle tough issues and his likeable manner enabled him to work one-on-one with circles of citizens ranging from coffee shops and city councils in his district to the governor’s office and hearings with top executives from huge corporations.

He was appointed chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, and helped change laws to make Missouri a banking hub, he won approval for legislation to build a prison in Potosi to bring much-needed jobs to Washington County, he fought and won funding for an Interpretive Center at the historic site of the battle of Pilot Knob, and helped win state funding for Missouri’s community and junior colleges. Later, another correctional facility would be added, this time at Bonne Terre.

In the Senate, Staples’ outstate style frequently found him at odds with “big city” lawyers and their stuffy, courtroom demeanor. Once, while being chided by a Senator from an urban area, who demanded of Staples, “is that justice, Senator, is that justice?”, Staples shot back, in a chilling tone that was pure Ozark straight-talk: “Senator, you wanna step out back, I’ll show you some Shannon County Justice.”

The score? Staples one, big-city lawyer zero.

Other detractors met with similar ends. A well-dressed, newly elected Senator criticized Staples for challenging the newcomer’s questionable use of state video footage of a committee hearing, a practice allowed under House rules, but forbidden in the Senate.

“Senator, that’s just arrogance,” the rookie contended.

“It may be arrogance in your district,” Staples replied, but where I come from, it is called charisma.”

While Staples’ style may have rubbed some urban officials the wrong way, it found favor with major newspapers. In a profile article several years ago, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch described Staples in the Senate as a “Peacock in a flock of turkeys.”

Staples, who received press coverage from as far away as Anchorage, Alaska, when a newspaper ran a photo of him appearing on the floor of the rather serious Senate with an arrow through his head after he lost a key floor vote, never lost sight of his purpose as a lawmaker.

A visiting campaign strategist visiting his office once told Staples “This is a business, Senator.” Staples leaned across his desk, picked up a thick stack of telephone messages from constituents who had called for his help, and held them out to the campaign pro. “It may be a business for you,” Staples said, “But for me, it is about helping these people right here …”

And for more than two decades, in the upper chamber of the Missouri General Assembly, for one remarkable state Senator, it has been just that: one citizen lawmaker helping the folks who sent him to the Capitol to work on their behalf.

On September 12, the last regular session ended for the Senator from Shannon. One last time, he got in his truck, and headed out for the long drive back home to his wife, Barbara, his family and grandkids including that youngest one, Danny Ray, who bears his name.

The last bill will have been passed, the last constituent helped through the complex bureaucracy, the last speech given, the last big city lawyer set right with straight, country talk.

As he heads for home, where the grass needs cutting, and fences on the farm need mending, he’ll leave behind a state capitol that stands in the shadow of a magnificent bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson, a statue of a man with a knowing, subtle smile and a dream for a nation where common men elevate democracy through self-governance.

Editor’s Note: This story was written by Mark Hughes, a Farmington native, director of communications for the Missouri Senate and who worked closely with Sen. Staples for more than a decade. The story was first published in the Daily Journal Sept. 12, 2002, following the final day of session for Sen. Staples.

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