Emory Melton's senate story stands alone
Longtime Senator heralded for face-to-face campaign technique
In 1950, Cassville's Emory Melton said he swore he would never seek public office again.
But, that plan changed in 1972, when he ran for State Senate for the first time in what would wind up being a 24-year career at the capitol.
In 1996, only weeks away from his last active session in the Senate and only months away from his departure, Melton sat down with Will Sarvis to do an interview for the State Historical Society off Missouri's Oral History Program.
In the interview, Melton detailed his time in the Senate, discussing everything from his accomplishments, to goals he wished he had achieved, to his opinions on many legislative issues, some of which continue nearly 20 years later.
Melton said even after six terms the Senator from District 29, his goals in end mirrored his goals in the beginning, and the nature of government was partly to blame.
"[My goals when I began are] the same goals I have today -- very little I've been able to accomplish," he said. "But, government has grown far too large. Government is power. Nothing in the world but sheer, raw, brute power. And you find the special interests wanting to use government, wanting to use the power of government."
Melton said this manifests itself most in the lobbyists, which continued to grow in number throughout his tenure in hopes of garnering some of that governmental power.
"You can see it every day in Jefferson City," he said. "That's the reason you've got 2,000-some registered lobbyists in Jefferson City. Each year it grows a little. You can see it. There's more and more of them wanting to use the powers of government to enrich themselves."
Melton said he has also always complained bitterly about the increase of the number of people in government.
"The legislature can't do much about this, because most of the blame belongs on the executive branch of government," he said. "I don't think the governor ever checks to see if the people in the Department of Health are doing their job, putting in eight hours. I call Jefferson City and I get one of three answers: he's either away from his desk, he's in a meeting or he's out of town. Now, if I can't get through, what about ole Joe Blow sitting out here paying taxes? He's not going to get through either.
"And, they just hold interminable meetings. Always having meetings, meetings, meetings, meetings. My foot. You make the decision and you live with it. Everybody in government always wants to be sure that his backside's covered, so he's only thinking about himself. He's not thinking about doing what government really is set up to -- government is set up to serve the people. And in many instances it does. In most instances it does. Government does many good things."
Melton said government works at its best when operating on a lean budget, which is largely why he ran for office two begin with.
"Government runs best when it's on a real lean budget," he said. "It's when you have a big year or a prosperous year -- you've got a lot of money, such as 1996 -- and you have more hands in the trough than you can possibly manage at all. And, they go out and they start new programs and, once you start a new program, that constituency is going to see that they never lose it.
"There's nothing that approaches eternal life on this earth like a government program. And, that's what I objected to in 1972. That's why I ran for the Senate. Maybe I have, at times, been able to throw the brake on a little bit. Mike Lybyer, who [was] the chairman of the appropriations committee said, 'I'm really going to miss you.' He said, 'If I didn't want to fund something, all I had to do was look over at you and you'd say, Take it out.' And, that's it."
Melton was a traditionalist when it came to running campaigns, and he enjoyed getting out in the public, shaking people's hands and making a solid and lasting impression. He said he funded his first campaign himself in 1972, and he never faced an opponent in the five campaigns that followed.
"I've always been an exponent of personal contact," he said. "The first campaign I made in 1972, I spent a year making it. Now, I didn't campaign every day for a year, but that year, I would say that I probably campaigned two-thirds of those days."
Melton said the best way to campaign was in rural areas, where impressions could be made that would make its way to the more populous areas.
"On Christmas Eve of 1971, I was out campaigning, going to houses [and] knocking on doors," he said. "And, I did that in the rural areas. I didn't do it so much in the towns, because I've always had a theory that if you campaign the rural areas good, the word will get to town about how hard you're working."
Melton said an example of this tactic holding true can be seen in the 1972 election in the Longrun township of Ozark County.
"[there were] not many votes over there," he said. "That's hill country. I was in a heated primary. My opponent -- he didn't represent that precinct -- but he represented a good portion of Ozark County, and had for 10 years in the General Assembly. And, he was a respectable fellow. I was up against the first team. I didn't know a soul in that precinct. As a matter of fact, I didn't know a half a dozen people in all of Ozark County when I started."
Melton said he went to Longrun on a hot summer day aiming to campaign at every single house in the precinct, including the Ozark County commissioner, who was a strong advocate for his opponent.
"I thought, 'This will be an acid test here if I can carry this precinct, [so] we'll see what happens,'" he said. "So, I did. I campaigned every house in that precinct. I had me a tract map of the precinct and where the landowners and houses were, and campaigned the parents of the commissioner. They were an elderly couple.
"When the votes were counted -- I just campaigned the one day in there. I spent the whole day campaigning. There were 27 votes cast and I got 24 of them."
Melton said he never tried to spend more than five minutes campaigning to a voter.
"If you do, you're liable to say something that will poison the waterhole," he said. "You just make your pitch, listen to what they have to say and get out of there before you gum the thing up and do something wrong. A candidate -- particularly if you're on your first term and you're running for office -- a candidate wants to create all of the favorable attention that he can.
"I suppose you can get drunk and jump out of an airplane and create attention, but that's not the way you want to do it. You want to create a favorable impression if you can."
Melton said he recalled another instance in Douglas County, when he saw a farmer cutting hay across a creek, and he could not find a bridge to cross it.
"I can see a fellow over here-- a man named Smith, who was cutting hay," he said. "It was a small creek. It wasn't deep. And so, finally, I just parked my car. I parked it where he could see it, threw off my shoes and socks, waded the creek, went over and campaigned him. [I then] waded back across the creek, got in the car, and went on.
"And, I'm satisfied that he told everybody who would listen to him about that candidate that waded the creek to see him. That creates a favorable impression. That shows you want the job."
Melton said he continued with that campaign strategy, no matter the time of year or the favorability of the weather.
"I'd get up about 5:30 or 6 o'clock in the morning, and there's no place to eat, so you don't eat breakfast," he said. "You just start campaigning. And, you see these farmers out in the field, probably with their lights on on their pickup trucks feeding their cattle.
"Well, now if you want to make an impression on a fellow, you go out -- cold as blixen -- and you go out there and campaign him when he's feeding his cattle at that hour of the morning, and he'll remember you. That's the way I won that primary campaign."
Melton said even through the age of television, he preferred to maintain his contacts on the ground, rather than to buy up ads in media.
"Now, I did use some television," he said. "I had a friend up at Springfield who does that sort of thing. He was a public relations man and he made me some television spots and I used them. But, you [have to] stay in touch with your people, and any time they have a problem, you take it as your problem, too."
Melton said during his tenure as a State Senator, one of his greatest accomplishments was being able to get so many amendments added to bills.
"Every year, I would offer more amendments to bills than any other senator," he said.
"They were usually amendments that maybe either did or didn't amount to anything of statewide significance. But, I always tried to travel on somebody else's bill. [Paul] Bradshaw and I authored the Missouri Code of State Regulations bills. And, by and large, I think we were successful in what we were trying to do.
"I was trying to stem the powers of some of the agencies of government. And, I think probably we did succeed in that. But, I think my proudest accomplishment was the number of amendments that I'd get put on bills."
Melton was also instrumental in dropping the number of hours legislators spent in Jefferson City.
"The amount of work to be done can be done in four months, and [legislators] get out of there and go home and make a living under the laws you've passed, and then you'll see what you've done," he said. "I had an amendment. It started out as the basis that they used to pass the annual session act in the election in 1970. That's when the legislature started having annual sessions, and they sold it on the idea: 'You cannot intelligently appropriate for a two-year period.' I think there's merit to that."
Melton said many of the bills were just duplicates every year, especially concerning appropriations.
"You got to whet up all your knives and get set for them to kill them again and again and again," he said. "So, I introduced a constitutional amendment. I had to give up the idea that we could only use it for appropriations and emergency bills. It was passed by two-thirds, I think is what. I probably made a mistake because I didn't ask anybody to sign on it with me. But I got it through the Senate, got it out of committee, got it on the floor, got it past the Senate, got it over to the House, got it passed through the House committee. They took it to the House floor and they made some changes in it, which really didn't hurt it all that much."
Melton said the bill would have stopped the clock at 6 p.m., and there was a conference committee where everyone agreed, but then the bill was not allowed to be brought up.
"Harry Wiggins was the floor leader and, of course, he was just acting under orders from John Scott and some of them who were opposed to it," he said. "And, they wouldn't let me take it up and didn't let me take it up. You've got to get the floor. You've got to go through the floor leader to get the floor. That was one of the disappointments.
"Later on, Wayne Goode and I co-sponsored another one. We did get it passed. It cuts back the sessions -- not as much as I wanted to -- but it cut them back and stopped the clock at 6 o'clock on Friday night."
Voting in the legislature
In his time in office, Melton saw a number of controversial issues, some of which still continue to this day. He maintained a good senator would know how his constituents would fall on a certain issue, and most often, he would vote along their wishes. One example of this was the Equal Rights Amendment, which was passed by congress and has still not been ratified in the state of Missouri. The amendment states equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.
"I was opposed to it. My district would have been," he said. "If they had voted on it, I'm sure they would have voted ninety to ten percent against [the Equal Rights Amendment]. There's no necessity for it."
Other issues were not as clear to discern, such as the Blue Law, which regulates alcohol sales in the state.
"There was about 50 percent for it and about 50 percent against it," he said. "But, I took the 50 percent who were against it simply because that 50 percent was the most volatile, most verbal bunch you ever saw.
"It was a hot issue. It's no issue at all now, but it was a hot issue at that time. But, that one caused me to lose some sleep."
Melton said his five-time reelection with no opponent showed him he had a good feel for how his constituents wanted him to vote.
"I've always thought that a senator who does not have the pulse of his constituency on almost every issue, he doesn't deserve to be in the Senate," Melton said. "I think I did that pretty well, because I ran without opposition on either ticket five times. And you don't do that if you're very wild and can't be tamed. I always considered myself to be most fortunate in the area that I represented."
Some of the issues that still cause a stir in the state legislature are right-to-work, abortion and the lottery. Melton said he was in favor of right-to-work, but was not surprised to see the referendum for it fail in 1978.
"I think that cost us seats in the Senate that we shouldn't have lost," he said. "That was a very ill-advised thing. I'm for right-to-work, but I've always been opposed to bringing it up again, because it'll kill us. You're not going to win that thing."
Melton said he was also opposed to abortions, and in some cases, believed the state was encouraging it.
"I'm opposed to abortion, principally on moral grounds [and] religious grounds," he said. "That's just my personal philosophy. I oppose abortion. And I don't think the state ought to condone it. In some instances, I think the state encourages it. They would use public money to fund abortion clinics if they were permitted to do so.
"In that, I think I'm in the majority in the legislature. But that's one in which I've never taken an outspoken position, never really campaigned on it or never said anything about it in any public appearances of any kind. I just think it's wrong and that's that."
Melton said the lottery and gambling was a slow crawl of becoming more and more legal, and it all started with the Reader's Digest sweepstakes in about 1976.
"Reader's Digest was sponsoring Reader's Digest Sweepstakes, and it was not legal in the State of Missouri," he said. "And, I began to get letters from over the district [saying], 'Why can't we participate in the Reader's Digest Sweepstakes?'
"Well, Reader's Digest, back at that time, and even [in 1996], is the very essence of respectability. I'm sorry to say I voted for that. But that set off -- if I'd have been perceptive -- that set off the general slide to where we're going to see open casino gambling statewide in the State of Missouri. Now, it's coming. I don't think we'll rest until we get there."
Melton said gambling restrictions in the state began to lift over time, piece by piece, and starting with bingo after pari-mutuel horse racing was voted down numerous times.
"They came along and they said, 'Well, bingo. You know, with churches all engaged in bingo, and bingo was alright. We can stand that,'" Melton said. "So, what'd we do? We amended the constitution again to permit bingo. Well, the next one was a little stronger -- the lottery. 'We'll make all kinds of money out of the lottery for the state.'
"The voters swallowed that one. And they swallowed pari-mutuel betting for horse racing. It wasn't strong enough. They swallowed it again. Then, we come down to riverboat gambling. By that time, we'd gone so far on this slide, there was no turning back. So, we adopt riverboat gambling. The next logical step is open casino gambling."
Melton said he voted against every gambling proposal since the Reader's Digest incident, as he could see where it was heading.
"You know, if you've got some bitter medicine to take, if you'll water it down and water it down enough, after a while you can take the bitter medicine and it won't taste so bad," he said. "That's exactly what's happened. And, I'm sure as I'm sitting in this chair, that organized gambling has called the tune on the way these things were introduced. It was just about two- to three-year lapses between them. If you go back and look at the records, you'll see that that's how it happened."
Melton also sided with his constituents on laws like the mandatory seat belt law.
"My people down here were opposed to it," he said. "You look around here. You won't see anybody wearing seat belts [in 1996]."
Melton also was in favor of term limits and limiting campaign contributions, but even 'yes' votes on the latter did not do much, he said.
"I think I've always voted for [campaign contribution limits], but they don't amount to a hill of beans," he said. "It's useless to try to control that by legislation. You can't do it. The Supreme Court has said you have a right to put as much money as you want to in whatever you want to -- freedom of speech. In my judgment, there is no practical way to limit that."
A full transcript of Melton's interview with saris may be found by searching Melton's name at the State Historical Society of Missouri's website, http://statehistoricalsocietyofmissouri.org.