180902phillbrooks

The death of John McCain has led me to reflect about his similarities with a Missouri state senator.

Like the deceased Arizona senator, the person about whom I write was a true maverick in his Republican Party, regularly standing up to pressures from GOP leaders to tow the party line. Like McCain, he reached out to Democrats, even when it upset his fellow Republicans. Like the former GOP presidential nominee, this GOP Missouri senator made the growing financial dominance of special interests in politics a major legislative target.

The person I’m writing about is Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph.

Schaaf was so focused on curtailing what he termed “dark money” of hidden special-interest funding that he made it the only two bills he introduced in this, his last year, in Missouri’s Senate.

Similar to John McCain’s experience with a Republican president, Schaaf came under attacks from Eric Greitens for Schaaf’s criticism of the Republican governor — particularly for Greitens’ acceptance of large amounts of money from secret donors. The former governor’s anger was displayed when Greitens’ secretly funded advocacy organization disclosed the senator’s personal cellphone number in digital-media attacks.

Both McCain and Schaaf had the courage to speak out about their party’s top leader, despite the consequences. That boldness of political independence in challenging party leaders is at the heart of what I find the most striking similarity between the two.

Schaaf regularly stood up to party pressures for conformity.

This year, he led a bipartisan multiday filibuster against an electric-utility bill pushed by party leaders that critics attacked for allowing rate increases without prior approval by the Public Service Commission. He caved in only after Republicans leaders threatened to shut off his debate with a parliamentary procedure normally used only against filibusters by the minority party.

Schaaf came under statewide public attack for his resistance to the efforts for a prescription drug monitoring program because of his concerns about privacy protections. The attacks suggested Schaaf simply was trying to protect fellow physicians from scrutiny. But there’s another side to this story.

Some of those bills would have let a government worker with access to the records report a doctor’s prescriptions to police without a court warrant. Few of those bills recognized the difference in prescriptions by most doctors compared to those with many patients in hospice care needing end-of-life pain-killing drugs. It was a compelling debate that got overshadowed by the attacks on Schaaf.

I fear the voices for senatorial independence and bipartisanship may be fading. Nationally, commentators have predicted there may not be anyone to replace the strong voice of John McCain for independence.

Here in Missouri, after Rob Schaaf’s term-limited departure in January, I’ll be watching to see if another senator rises in Missouri’s Senate with outspoken courage Schaaf displayed.

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 Missouri Digital Network and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism.