Bob Griffin, longest-serving Missouri House speaker, has died at age 85

Bob Griffin House Speaker Obit (Photo courtesy Tim Brommel - Missouri House of Representatives)

(Missouri Independent) – 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 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 the 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.

In a series of tweets Wednesday, Roy Temple, a top aide to Carnahan, recalled the conversations about the bill with legislative leaders.

“When he told the Gov he’d need his help with some votes for it to have any chance, I waited anxiously, concerned he’d say we had to find 75 or 80 and that he’d find the rest,” Temple wrote. “Instead, he grinned and said, ‘Can you find the first ten, because right now, nobody is for it but me.’”

When he told the Gov he’d need his help with some votes for it to have any chance, I waited anxiously, concerned he’d say we had to find 75 or 80 and that he’d find the rest. Instead, he grinned and said, “Can you find the first ten, because right now, nobody is for it but me.”

— Roy Temple (@roytemple) July 7, 2021

Former state Rep. John Hancock, who is also a former Missouri Republican Party chairman and now works as a consultant to GOP candidates, said he considered Griffin a friend.

“Strong, determined leadership,” is how Hancock described Griffin. “Bob Griffin got things done and whether you liked the things he got done or not, you couldn’t argue with the fact that he got them done.”

Griffin’s tenure as speaker, more than 15 years, is seven years longer than any House member can currently serve because of term limits. Hancock, who said he supported term limits when they were on the ballot in the early 1990s, said he has changed his mind.

“As it has played out, I trust the voters to pick who they want to pick without having these arbitrary limits imposed,” Hancock said.

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.

Griffin could have retired at any time and been a highly paid lobbyist because of his knowledge and connections.

“We tend to forget the kind of power that House speakers used to have,” Hancock said. “I think that was very alluring to Bob and he didn’t want to leave.”

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.”

Former House Communications Director Rob Crouse, who was a school teacher in Griffin’s hometown of Cameron when they met, said Missourians will never know all the ways Griffin improved their lives. 

Along with the education bill in 1993, Griffin shepherded the Children’s Health Insurance Program to passage, Crouse said.

“I loved the man,” Crouse said. “He was a mentor and he was just one of those people in my life who made a huge difference.”

Griffin encouraged Crouse to work for the House and it opened doors for him. He was the top speechwriter for Govs. Mel Carnahan, Roger Wilson, and Bob Holden and recently retired after more than a dozen years as communications director for Westminster College in Fulton. 

“If it were not for Bob Griffin, who totally changed my life, I would be today a retired teacher from Cameron, Missouri, and never had some of the wonderful opportunities I had to know the great legislators, to know governors, and work for governors, and to work on presidential campaigns.”

(Photo by Tim Bommel/Missouri House of Representatives)

Rudi Keller

https://www.missouriindependent.com

Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy, and the legislature. He’s spent 22 of his 30 years in journalism covering Missouri government and politics, most recently as the news editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune. Keller has won awards for spot news and investigative reporting.