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Bob Griffin, longest-serving Missouri House speaker, dies

Bob F. Griffin, who served as speaker of the Missouri House for 15 years until he was forced to resign in the face of a federal criminal investigation, died Wednesday (July 7, 2021) in Columbia. He was 85.

Griffin was the longest-serving speaker in the state’s history. During his tenure as speaker from 1981 to 1996, the General Assembly passed bills to add significant new funding for public schools; a bond issue that built new buildings for higher education and new prisons for the Department of Corrections; and promoted many women to committee chairmanships that had previously been the exclusive domain of male lawmakers.

“Bob gave the women of the House new opportunities,” said former state Rep. Gracia Backer, who was elected to the House in 1982.

Griffin entered politics in 1962 when he won election as Clinton County Prosecuting Attorney. After two terms as prosecutor, he was elected to the Missouri House in 1970. He was selected by his colleagues as speaker pro tem in 1977 and defeated House Majority Leader Joe Holt in the Democratic caucus contest for speaker in 1981.

Backer, who replaced Holt, said she told Griffin in their first conversation that she had worked on Holt’s campaign for speaker.

“Bob was very gracious,” Backer said. “Bob never pressured me to vote in any way whatsoever.”

Former state Rep. Chris Kelly of Columbia, a close ally, said Griffin earned loyalty by working to make rank-and-file members successful. Kelly was named vice-chairman of the House Budget Committee  in 1985, during his second term, and became chairman of the Budget Committee during Griffin’s tenure.

“I said, if I am vice chairman of budget, I don’t care where my office is, I don’t care where I park, I don’t care about anything else but my committees,” Kelly said. “I got the committees I wanted and it made a huge difference.”

One of the most significant bills passed during Griffin’s tenure was Senate Bill 380 in 1993, which increased personal and corporate income taxes to support increased funding for public schools. The bill was spurred by a court decision that Missouri was not providing adequate funding for schools early in 1993, soon after Gov. Mel Carnahan took office.

Griffin’s tenure as speaker, more than 15 years, is seven years longer than any House member can currently serve because of term limits.

The only serious challenge to Griffin’s tenure as speaker came when House Majority Leader Tony Ribaudo tried to unseat him in 1989. After defeating Ribaudo, Griffin assigned him to work in a windowless office.

The federal investigation that forced Griffin’s resignation looked at his relationship with lobbyist Cathryn Simmons and whether the payments she made to Griffin were bribes or payments for legal services. Griffin was indicted in October 1996 and pleaded guilty in 1997 to two counts of bribery and one count of mail fraud.

Griffin was sentenced to 48 months in federal prison, but the sentence was commuted by President Bill Clinton during Clinton’s final days in office in January 2001. Since his release from prison, Griffin lived quietly and took little part in politics.

That love of being in the center of the action may have been Griffin’s worst flaw, Kelly said.

“I was always against term limits but Bob stayed too long,” Kelly said. “It was a classic example of a guy who did a lot of good but stayed too long.”

This article by Rudi Keller is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.

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