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Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2014

Your view: A team effort

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A number of people, and this paper, have said some nice things to me about our effort to avoid the privilege of joining Union Pacific's St. Louis to Houston corridor. Of course, I appreciate it.

But before we close the book on this episode, it seems to me some last words of credit are due to others.

To begin with, this truly was an all-Scott County effort. Many people may not know that nearly half of the names on the petition of 3,000 came from north Scott County. That effort was organized by Dan & Brenda Heeb of Oran. They also provided research in some extremely important areas.

In Sikeston, the petition drive was never fully organized. It was done by dozens of people passing the forms around their neighborhoods and among their friends. I suspect there were more than a few people doing this, as well as signing the petition, who thought it was a "done deal" but they did it anyway.

Theirs was an act of faith, and I hope they have a deep sense of satisfaction from their efforts. Sikeston has always been a "can do" community, and for legal and technical reasons far beyond the political, that effort was absolutely vital.

On the political side, there are many who deserve some credit. Locally, please credit your Mayor for not giving in, and the council for backing him. The Scott County Commissioners never wavered either despite some serious misgivings by some railroads workers in north Scott County.

Beyond the local, however, three stand out. The first is State Senator Jason Crowell. Not only did he ask what he could do to help, he came back several times and asked if there was anything more he could do. It's hard to ask more of someone than that.

The second, not surprisingly, was Jo Ann Emerson. What few people know perhaps is that on six different occasions, (long before the first signature on the first petition) she summoned either the chief lobbyist or the CEO of Union Pacific to her office in Washington for "consultations."

Jo Ann Emerson's nickname in Washington is "the Tigress." I suspect these individuals now have no doubts about how she got that nickname.

But for all these efforts, Union Pacific was still determined to proceed. They spent untold amounts of money in anticipation of a positive ruling. Eighteen months after their filing before the STB, and sustained opposition from Sikeston, they took the first formal steps to proceed on July 26. Things were coming to a head.

On August 12, Mike Marshall, Michael Jensen and I met with Jo Ann Emerson and Senator Jim Talent. We laid out the case, and talked for two hours.

Jo Ann struck the grace note of the meeting. She said, "I can do what I can do, but I'm a Congressman. There's nothing like having a United States Senator involved." Amen.

Senator Talent had been briefed by his staff, and quite obviously by Jo Ann, but he still had some questions. He also had some ideas all his own.

I happened to sit next to him at the table. He opened a notepad on which he'd written some ideas. I peeked.

Toward the end of the meeting Senator Talent asked a good, but somewhat awkward, question. He asked if we knew how many other communities had won their fight against the railroads.

There was a poignant pause. Everyone in the room knew the historical odds were not good. The Senator made it clear it made no difference to him, and he gracefully, and graciously, moved on.

At the end of that meeting, all three of us from Sikeston left with the same take. The message we'd received from Jo Ann Emerson and Senator Jim Talent was: "We'll take it from here." Two weeks later Union Pacific withdrew their petition.

Who did what? Who called whom? How tough did they have to get? Maybe one day Lloyd Smith will write his memoirs, and we'll find out. For now, we'll have to be content to just know that it happened, not how.

On the day UP announced their withdrawal, Sikeston's Washington attorneys called Doug Friend. They were, in their own words, "flabbergasted." Never in the history of the Surface Transportation Board, or the Interstate Commerce Commission before it, they said, has a railroad withdrawn a petition. We can now answer Senator Talent's question: Once.

Unless the world has changed a great deal, I suspect our Washington lawyers will now boast up and down K Street that they represented the city that beat the railroad. In pitching to their prospective clients, they may forget to mention that our Senators and Congressman were independent, forceful and effective. We should not.

For the young people of this community, it seems to me there are some lessons here for when it's their "watch" and the next time Sikeston and Scott County's vital interests are challenged----.and there will be a next time.

First, when people put aside their partisan differences (in this case a stalwart Democrat Mayor and Democrat County Commissioners and a Republican Congressional delegation), surprising things can happen.

Second, the system works. We live in the United States of America, not some third world country where money buys everybody and the big fish always get to eat the little fish. You have to make the system work for you, and it helps a great deal to believe in it. But we are Americans and don't have to be victims just because the other guy is bigger and richer.

Our forefathers gave that gift to each and every one of us. Our veterans preserved it for us. Yet if we don't know it's true, and don't occasionally use it, we can lose by default. Generally, that's what the big fish count on--

..winning without a fight.

At one point, the Union Pacific spokesman called our mayor and asked: "Do you really think one small town in southeast Missouri can stand in the way of the largest railroad in this country?" Mike Marshall replied: "yes, in fact, yes I do." It seems the people who drained the swamps and cleared the land still have what it takes.

Third, and quite simply, all great debates are won in the library. Particularly when the other guy is very, very big and very rich, it helps a lot to be right. There's one final thing you have a right to know. When we were in the heat of this contest, and the outcome was far from certain, there was a news story to the effect that over the past five years, special interest groups had spent some $50 million on some 24,000 "power trips" for Senators, Members of Congress and their staffs.

We've all heard of these things before. The fact-finding trips to Vail and Aspen. The issue briefings at Palm Beach. The paid junkets to the Grand Caymens, etc. (and just for the record the "junkies" are about equally divided between R and D.)

For the most part we pay little attention to these reports other than to become a bit more cynical in general. But this time I paid attention because the report said the Association of American Railroads was a major sponsor of these trips. So, I got access to the list of the 24,000.

Do the railroads pay for those trips to gain influence for cases just like this? You bet they do. Do they have influence throughout the Congress and the federal bureaucracy? You bet they do. The power of their lobby is legendary.

But it seems that with our delegation, they have no more influence than the merits of their case can justify. I am pleased, and yes proud, to tell you that neither Kit Bond, Jim Talent, Jo Ann Emerson, nor any of their staff are on that list. You have a right to know that, and they deserve to have you know it.

It's not the sort of thing that makes headlines: "Senators and Congressman pass up perks offered by special interest groups." Perhaps it should be. Don't think for a minute they don't get their share of offers.

We can be proud of them and proud of ourselves for sending them to Congress. Make no mistake, Union Pacific hired the best political talent money could buy. We had Bond, Talent, Emerson and Lloyd Smith.

The entire Sikeston and Scott County community stood up to mighty Goliath, and the legendary Union Pacific lobby, armed with a slingshot. Jo Ann Emerson and Jim Talent stepped up right beside us, with a higher caliber arsenal, and said: "We'll take it from here." They did.

Union Pacific and Burlington Northern are not just large railroads, they are a national asset. Sometimes, however, large organizations make poor decisions and forget their obligations to be good neighbors as well. All we wanted to do was point that out to them, and ask them to reconsider.

In the end, and to their credit, Union Pacific did reconsider. I don't think they ever really listened to us, but they had a little help from our friends. Like us, Jo Ann Emerson and Jim Talent are not against the railroads by any means. They simply said "not here, not this time." In the process, they made a little history.

Josh Bill