WOSTER: Knowledge was power in Barnett-led HouseThe most complete legislator I knew in four decades of covering state government was Republican Rep. Joe Barnett, of Aberdeen.
By: Terry Woster, The Daily Republic
The most complete legislator I knew in four decades of covering state government was Republican Rep. Joe Barnett, of Aberdeen.
I met many, many lawmakers I liked and admired. Barnett, though, was something else. He was highly intelligent and nearly always personable, and his work ethic was a thing to behold. He had an Old World charm about him, and a barking laugh that shook his whole body. In spite of the eyeglasses, he could see flaws in legislation — and the opportunities for amendments — quicker than any other legislator I covered.
He started his legislative career in 1967 and moved swiftly into a position of leadership among the senators and representatives. He moved quickly in part because of his intelligence and ability to analyze legislation. He also advanced rapidly because he read every word of every bill, every committee report, every amendment and every House or Senate agenda and journal. In short, he knew what was going on throughout the Capitol from opening gavel to adjournment sine die. When other lawmakers were rushed, they asked Joe what a bill was all about. Knowledge is power.
When he was speaker of the House in the mid-1970s, his office was on third floor behind the chamber, just around the corner from the steps I walked after each day’s legislative reports had been written and filed on the overnight wire. I worked long days, but I can only recall a couple of times when I reached the third-floor landing and didn’t see a ribbon of light under the door to the speaker’s office — and a wisp of smoke from the cigars Barnett smoked as he read bills late into the night.
When I think of Joe Barnett, the first image that comes to mind isn’t of that accomplished lawmaker, however. My first memory is of the evening before the final day of the 1970 session. Virtually all of the bills had been passed or killed. All of the reports were finished. The budget was tallied and rechecked. All that remained was the ceremonial closing on the Friday, which in those days often included a visit by the governor to thank the lawmakers for their efforts and to wish them a safe journey home. Thursday evening, then, was a time when legislators got together to share memories of the past weeks and to say their farewells.
I was out and about that evening, too, visiting various gatherings with my AP boss at the time. At one stop, we happened on a group of legislators that included Barnett and the late Jack Adams, a Democrat member of the House from Chamberlain. Those two worthies had argued fiercely sometimes during the session, but there they were, singing Irish ballads, and I will always remember what a steady, strong voice Barnett had and how moved he appeared to be by the lyrics of songs I’d learned as a child from my sainted Irish mother. Adams knew the same songs, and he sang with enthusiasm and feeling.
What sticks with me, I guess, is the idea that these legislators — elected leaders who had been about the business of the people’s business — were, you know, human, just like you or me. My mother would have thought she’d arrived in heaven had she been with me that evening.
My second favorite Joe Barnett story is one I heard from the late Gov. George Mickelson. Mickelson recalled being a freshman legislator summoned to the speaker’s podium during a debate. Here’s how I recall the story: “This bill has no redeeming value,” Mickelson says Barnett told him. “Get up and kill it.” Mickelson responsed: “OK.” Pause. “Uh, how do I do that, Joe?” Grinning broadly at the memory, Mickelson said the speaker glared fiercely and whispered, “Do I have to tell you everything?” Barnett spent his legislative career in the House, rejecting efforts by Brown County Republicans to persuade him to run for the Senate “The Senate,” he’d say, “is too staid. The House is a little rowdy, more like the people we represent.” He died in office in 1985. Had he lived, Brown County voters probably would have continued sending Joe Barnett to the people’s House as long as he was willing to serve.