The next battle in Big Labor’s fight for its life might be determined by a few emoji-riddled sexts.
As with many of the year’s most dramatic political stories, this one is set in Missouri.
The Kansas City Star reported on Wednesday that the Show Me State’s speaker of the house, Republican Representative John Diehl, had exchanged tawdry text messages with a female college freshman who was interning in the state capitol.
The unnamed student and the Speaker traded pictures, made plans to meet up, and pined away for each other, according to the report.
She stored his contact information in her phone as “Frank Underwood,” accompanied by a sideways-glance emoji.
He sent her photos from a trip to Europe with Governor Jay Nixon and promised to leave her “quivering.”
The paper published screenshots showing their conversation, and the intern initially told the paper that those images were doctored. But Diehl—who is married and has kids—confessed and apologized a few hours later.
“I take full responsibility for my actions and am truly sorry to those I let down,” he said in a statement, per the Kansas City Star. “I apologize for the poor judgment I displayed that put me and those closest to me in this situation. I also regret that the woman has been dragged into this situation.
“The buck stops here. I ask for forgiveness. I will begin immediately working to restore the trust of those closest to me, and getting back to the important work that is required in the final days of session,” he said.
The story has primarily gotten national media attention because it’s so salacious. “Intern” plus “sext,” after all, equals clicks.
But the scandal could have real public policy consequences, too.
That’s because Missouri legislators are locked in a tense battle over a Right to Work bill that would bar businesses from requiring employees to pay union dues.
Missouri would be the 26th state to implement that kind of legislation.
While Republicans control both chambers of the Missouri legislature, a Democrat—Jay Nixon—is governor. And the Ferguson protests that gripped the nation last summer have left Nixon hobbled, according to Missouri politicos.
“Not only is he a lame duck, but he carries the legacy of Ferguson with him now wherever he goes,” said Tim Jones, former Republican Speaker of the House. “He is vilified by Democrats and Republicans on nearly a daily basis.”
Since the St. Louis suburb became a metonym for everything that’s wrong with American policing and race relations, the state’s legislature hasn’t been particularly kind to the governor.
Republican legislators have overridden his vetoes with alacrity, using their formidable majorities to implement a 72-hour waiting period for abortions and to allow gun owners with concealed-carry permits to openly carry their weapons anywhere in the state.
This is where Right to Work comes in.
On May 12, Republican state senators used an unusual procedural move to stop a filibuster on the Right to Work legislation and pass it through the chamber. Democrats raged against the move, an the Belleville News-Democrat reported that Republican Senator Bob Dixon criticized the action too.
Republicans in the legislature have been cautiously optimistic about their prospects of overturning Nixon’s inevitable veto.
The initial votes on the bill didn’t pass with the requisite two-thirds majorities per chamber to guarantee an override. And corralling the necessary votes won’t be a walk in the park. To get the override, Republicans would need 23 votes in the Senate—where it initially passed 21-13—and 109 votes in the House, where 91 members voted for Right to Work in February.
Though Republicans have two-thirds majorities in both chambers, some of those members of their members don’t relish backing the controversial legislation. Getting enough stragglers on board with the legislation will likely take blood, sweat, tears, and a lot of arm-twisting. Assuming Nixon vetoes Right to Work (an iminently safe assumption), the legislature would vote to override sometime in September.
That’s why Diehl’s sexting fiasco matters.
Thanks to a tawdry relationship, House Republicans have a time-consuming, soul-sucking mess on their hands. As of late afternoon Wednesday, 30 of the chamber’s Democrats had signed a petition that would force a vote requiring Diehl to step down as Speaker. They’d need 82 signatories to make that vote happen.
“Having that dark cloud over the general assembly inhibits our ability to do the job which we’re elected to do, which is to help Missourians,” said Representative Gina Mitten, who is circulating the petition.
If more details about Diehl’s relationship with the student emerge, and if they’re as ugly as the ones already in the press, the calls for his resignation could intensify. That would force the chamber’s top Republicans to scramble for new leadership in the midst of an aggressive lobbying effort in favor of the historic anti-union legislation.
And it would make everything more complicated.
Opponents of Right to Work are crossing their fingers that it will play out that way. Jeff Mazur, the executive director of AFSCME Council 72 in Jefferson City, said he doubted Republicans would be able to get the votes regardless.
But, he added, the sexting scandal is only helpful to the pro-labor side.
State Representative Gail McCann Beatty, the assistant minority floor leader, said she was agnostic as to how the now-public sexts could impact the fate of Right to Work. She also said Diehl needs to step aside.
“I think if we are going to maintain public trust, then we should be looking at different leadership,” she said.
It’s an open question as to whether Republicans’ trust problem will be Labor’s win.