A daylong conversation with Rep. Tom Flanigan

Brennan Stebbins

It’s 8:15 a.m. and Rep. Tom Flanigan (R-Carthage) is already deep into the first of several packets concerning tax credits.

Far too early in the day for such business, in my mind. But Flanigan pores through the thick binder, jotting down notes with a pencil, pausing for a sip of coffee.

It’s been nearly six months since Flanigan was elected, more than three months since he was sworn in. In two weeks, his first session as a legislator ends.

***

Flanigan eats a small breakfast at his seat in the committee room in the basement of the Capitol. For two hours he takes notes, refills his Styrofoam cup and follows testimony line by line in his tax credit packets. It’s 10 a.m. now, but there’s no rest for the first-year legislator from Carthage. The House Budget Committee hearing isn’t close to being finished, but the representatives are being summoned to the House chamber to begin work on the day’s business.

Flanigan looks more comfortable and at home now in Jefferson City than during the early days of January. It’s not that he was ever out of place, but it takes a certain number of days and weeks before one can even navigate the building without taking a few wrong turns.

“It’s been a big learning curve,” Flanigan says. “I’ve told you that before. There are a lot of things that go on. This is an institution, and with an institution there are a lot of traditions and ways things are done. It takes a bit of time just to figure it out.

“I guess the biggest surprise I’ve had is the amount of reading and time necessary. You’ve been with me today, I started off at seven in the morning because we’ve got to read all the stuff and be prepared for it. We’re going to go tonight until probably midnight; tomorrow we crank ‘er up again at 7 a.m. and sometime in there you’ve got to prepare for the next day. When I get out of here, when we close down at midnight, I go to my office and sit down and start reading what we’re going to do tomorrow, the proposed amendments and the proposed bills. It’s a lot of time, and I don’t think people realize how much time is involved.”

From a quick glance around his office, it is apparent the place has all the things you’d expect to see in a college dorm room. There is a microwave, mini-fridge and a small television set. Look closer, however, and you can tell what kind of a legislator Flanigan is. Numerous photos of the Jasper County Courthouse in Carthage, a black and white photo of a “Carl Junction Welcomes You” sign, framed photo of Abe Lincoln above the desk.

A thick binder with “Lobbyist Directory” on the spine sits conspicuously on a small desk near the door, but the binder sits halfway off the desk, teetering close to a trash can just below.

Elsewhere in the office, a Boy Scouts mug holding a Mizzou flag sits on a bookshelf. Numerous FY 2010 budget books are scattered around, there’s an Ultra Thin Reference Bible on one shelf and a yellowed Carthage Press on the bottom.

***

As the session draws to a close, Flanigan’s proudest accomplishment is nothing he did single-handedly, but rather the FY 2010 budget passed by the House. As a member of the House Budget Committee, Flanigan has spent countless days in committee hearings readying the 13 budget bills, and nine additional budget bills concerning stimulus and stabilization funds.

“What I like about this is you have an absolute cross section of people here,” Flanigan says. “You have people all across the state who will come together to govern this state and do the one thing we’re constitutionally required to do, a budget. You’ve been with me on budget and you know that’s a complicated process. We’ve got many, many hours on the budget this year and we’re not through with it yet. We’ve got two weeks to go, we haven’t finished it yet and it may come down to the absolute last day before we finish up with our budget bills.

“Constitutionally the budget bills are due next Friday at 6 p.m., they have to be on the governor’s desk,” he adds. “It’s going to be a long week. This week will be long, next week will be long.”

Flanigan is one of two freshman legislators on the budget committee, and he expects more progress next session after learning the game and becoming comfortable with the process.

“There’s no book that says day one you do this and day to you do this, it’s all learn as you go,” he says. “Is that good or bad? You’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to stumble, you’re going to make a lot of friends that help you through the process, but it’s just so much to wade through all of a sudden and it takes a lot of hours and a lot of time to get to where you’re comfortable with it.

“The first session you kind of sit back, listen a lot and ask a lot of questions, learn your way around the floor and learn your way around committees, how they work, how they function, then you come back the next session and you’re a lot more comfortable.”

***

It’s after noon now and the House session has recessed for a few hours, so it’s back down to Hearing Room 3 for Flanigan, as more tax credits need to be studied. Lunch is served, and he takes his usual seat in the second row, right side, and cuts into a pork chop while the Department of Economic Development guides the lawmakers through nearly 150 pages of tax credit reports.

While the Budget Committee might be new for Flanigan, public service is not. He served on the Carthage City Council twice, once from ’83 to ’88, then again from ’04 until he was elected last November. He’s been mayor pro tem of Carthage, served on the McCune Brooks Hospital Board of Trustees, served as president of McCune Brooks Hospital Health Care Foundation, Boy Scouts, Ozark Trails Boy Scout Council, Rotary Club, Carthage Chamber of Commerce, Carl Junction Chamber of Commerce, the list goes on.

“You know I’m 55,” he says, “I’ve been in several groups.”

It was no surprise, then, when Flanigan’s name appeared on a ballot and later he was decorating a new office at the Capitol.

“I’ve always wanted to do it,” he says. “I’ve always had an interest in politics since I was 10 years old. I’ve always been involved with local politicians. I worked for (former U.S. Rep.) Gene Taylor when I was still in college, went to Washington with him in 1973, got a degree from the University of Missouri in political science. Worked on and off for several politicians and political campaigns over the years.”

Some might wonder why it took him so long, then, to run for a state office.

“My children are out of high school, my kids are all graduated,” he says. “I’ve got three kids in college. You’ve got the time to do it now. When you have kids you’re committed to them, you’re going to go to ball games, plays and school events to support your children and I have that freedom now to do this that I didn’t have when my kids were younger. I wanted to support them, not shortchange them at all.”

***

Public service runs in the Flanigan family.

While Flanigan serves in the 95th General Assembly, 120 years ago his great-grandfather served in the 35th.

“He served in this House in 1888, I came in 2008, 120 years later and I serve the same district that he represented 120 years ago,” he says. “That’s pretty neat.”

Flanigan’s great-grandfather, the well-known John H. “Fire Alarm” Flanigan, was the Republican leader in the House in 1888, earning his nickname after frequent arguments with Democratic House leader Clarence Cannon. The pair argued constantly, and Democrats started calling John Flanigan, a Carthage attorney, the “Human Fire Alarm.”

“He was quite the orator in his day,” Flanigan says.

But will the Fire Alarm return to the House chamber again?

“My friends call me that for fun,” Flanigan says, “but probably not. That was his nickname and that was what he did.”

Much has changed in the Chamber in those 120 years. No longer do lawmakers have to make themselves heard across the vast room with a large booming voice, as Fire Alarm once did, because microphones now deliver a message even to the upper reaches of the fourth floor gallery.

“He had a loud voice, but that was the way they did things,” Flanigan says. “They totally did things different in the old days. Here a lot of things are done in committee, a lot of things are done by just members going to members’ offices and asking for help on a bill or asking to explain certain sections of the bill. If someone has a problem with the way something is written, how can we work it out and reach a compromise to move this thing forward?

“A lot of what we do here, not all of it is done on the floor. A lot of this is done in members’ offices because you have an interest in legislation. You’re going to go to members of that committee, or key members of the opposing party and you’re going to talk to them and you’re going to say ‘how can we do this? I know you’ve got a problem with this. What happens if we take this out, put this in?’ It’s a give and take and that’s how legislation is crafted.”

***

It’s the late 1970s, a 20-something just out of college is working for KMTC-TV and KTRX radio in Springfield, and his name is Flanigan.

He started in the news department, writing news scripts for the 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. broadcasts, and hosted a public affairs program on Sunday afternoons.

“In those days you got to do everything,” he recalls. “You got to run the camera. You couldn’t switch and run the camera, but you run the camera, read the news, and sometimes when the weatherman wasn’t there for whatever reason you got to do the whole thing. We had guys do the whole thing, which is pretty cool because you have to wait for commercial then move the camera over to the weather guy. It was an interesting time, but the news is the news. It’s an interesting business.”

Later, Flanigan was a stringer for The Carthage Press, where he quickly mastered news and feature writing form.

“When you need money you start looking for ways to make money and stringing at that time could pay a little bit,” he says. “You write a story, if they bought it they’d pay you some money. You’re not going to make a living at it, but you’re going to be able to buy some groceries and at that time in my life I needed to get some money in my pocket and the one thing I could do is write.

“Newswriting is its own style and once you get that style down and styles for feature writing, you could write thousands of feature stories because they all had the same basic format. It’s good for gasoline.”

***

It’s now an hour and a half into the second half of the House Budget Committee hearing, but Flanigan must leave. The Public Safety Committee has begun its own hearing, and Flanigan is a member. He grabs another unruly binder and ducks out the door, returning in 20 minutes.

It’s 1:50 p.m., and still no time for a breather. The Budget Committee is finished, and the House will go back into session in 10 minutes. Two more hours, then a call for recess. At 4 p.m., the day is winding down outside the Capitol, but Flanigan heads back to Hearing Room 3 for a caucus, where he spends another two hours.

Despite the daylong frenzy, it’s easy to see Flanigan gets a kick out of what he’s doing. I bait him with a question, wondering if he’s willing to divulge his future plans in politics.

“I think my future plans are to come back in the second session of this assembly and be a more effective legislator and representative and be someone who represents Jasper County,” he says.

He was a stringer, and he knows how journalism works.

“My loyalty to what I’m doing is to represent Jasper County and my district to the best of my ability and talk to the people there and reflect what they want,” he adds. “We’ll let everything else take care of itself.

“But I think after this first session we’ll be better next session and I always go back home and talk to people at the coffee shops, at church, the supermarket. People come up to you and you talk to them about what’s going on. That’s how you figure out what’s going on. This is not about me, it’s not about what Tom thinks, it’s not about what I want to do. If that was the case I could just go over there, press the button and do whatever I wanted to get done. But what I do is constantly listen to people in Jasper County so you have to take into consideration what they want.”

***

The caucus is finished, and Flanigan is back on the House floor, kneeling down next to another lawmaker, discussing the upcoming agenda. Things are shaping up for another long night in the chamber.

I send a doorkeeper to get his attention, and we walk over to one of the large marble pillars holding up the Capitol roof.

“This building is made out of Carthage limestone,” Flanigan says. “It’s a real privilege to be here.”

He reflects on his first session and the 160 hours spent in committee to pump out the House’s version of the state budget. He says it’s the first year since 1821 the House has done two separate state budgets, one being the usual state budget, and another taking into account stabilization and stimulus funds.

“In 1821 we did a territorial budget and our first state budget,” he says.

Has the experience been addictive?

“This is why I come here at 7 a.m.,” he says. “I come here at seven in the morning and I have a lot of reverence for this place.

“Last week, I got in about a quarter to 7 a.m., I came and there’s a little room off the chamber where I always go and have some reflective time,” he continues. “I can sit down and write my Capitol report or just do a little bit of reading and I was sitting back here and it was raining when I came in and the chamber was dark. I noticed the door was open so I walked in and it’s just dark, there’s nobody here, but see that dome up there? You hear this rain coming in, it was just awesome.

“I’m the only guy in here and I’m just sitting here thinking about all the debate that was going to go on that day and all the debate that’s happened and all the people that have been here before me and all the people to come after me. This is where the state activity takes place, and what a privilege it is to be here. You think of all the debates have happened since statehood.

“I was reflecting on the spring of 1861 when these guys are debating secession. That’s tough, that’s something else. But look at all the stained glass up here. It’s all so ornate. I think if you get people to come up here to Jefferson City this is a place you need to come to.”

It’s close to 7 p.m. now, and I have to leave, but I know Flanigan will still be here at midnight.