Editor’s note: The following news analysis was submitted by award-winning journalist, author and public relations professional Brent Engel of Louisiana
Integrity, empathy and a boundless drive are among traits new state Rep. Chad Perkins says he’s taking to Jefferson City amid the financial, social and racial issues facing Missouri.
The 42-year-old Republican from Bowling Green will represent the 40th District made up of parts of Monroe, Pike, Ralls and Lincoln counties. The job, which pays $35,915 a year with an expense account of $119 per day during legislative sessions, begins Jan. 6.
“This is my home—always has been and always will be,” Perkins said. “I want to see it grow. I want to see the folks here be successful. I think I’m uniquely qualified to go and fight for those things.”
The energy level Perkins exudes isn’t just the giddiness of embarking on a new journey. Proof can be found, of all places, in his bedroom.
“I sleep about four hours a day,” he said. “And I sleep four hours a day because I’m thinking about accomplishing what comes next.”
Perkins had four GOP opponents in the August primary, but ran unopposed in the November general election.
The absence of a Democrat challenger shows the dramatic shift in local politics. For decades, and as recently as 10 years ago, Republicans could do little but dream of beating a rival from the other party.
That began to change when Jay Houghton was elected to the Missouri House in 2010 by defeating Linda Witte, wife of Vandalia Democrat Rep. Terry Witte, who was prevented by term limits from seeking re-election. A Democrat has not held the seat since. Before redistricting, Monroe County had a Democrat representative until 2012.
Perkins argues that it’s not as much about party affiliation as it is issues. He believes that nationally, Democrats do not “represent the values of rural America” anymore and that leftist positions on topics such as federal spending, constitutional questions, gun rights and abortion do not equate with the core beliefs of most residents in his four counties. He ran on the GOP ticket, but considers himself “conservative” first.
“If the Republican Party ever stops being the party of family values and personal responsibility, I’ll stop being a Republican,” he warns.
The view that limited powers and constitutional freedoms are the best form of governance came at an early age. Perkins, a bachelor, is the only son of Bill Perkins and Letha Ebers, known widely throughout the region for their singing and performance abilities. He has a younger sister, Jessica King.
Perkins, who shares the family talent as a musician and composer, was nine when his interest in politics was stoked. It happened during the presidency of a Republican hero, Ronald Reagan, who was not the choice for Monroe and Ralls counties in 1980, but swept all four counties in 1984.
Perkins remembers a conservative neighbor who talked with him about the 1988 race between Republican George Bush, Reagan’s vice president, and Democrat Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. The neighbor explained what she saw as the differences between the two.
“I said, ‘I think I’m a Republican,’ ” Perkins recalls, before adding a caveat. “I can’t tell you I’m a lifelong Republican—I’m a lifelong conservative.”
Perkins practices the work ethic he preaches. One of his first jobs came at age 15, when he was a weekend announcer on what was then KPCR Radio in Bowling Green. His father would drive him to the studio next to the Pike County Fairgrounds. The studio is now KJFM, and Perkins still gets behind the microphone there regularly.
After getting a diploma from Bowling Green High School in 1997, Perkins attended John Wood Community College in Quincy, Ill., before graduating from the University of Missouri Police Academy in 2001.
As mayor of Bowling Green—a position his father also held—Perkins gained political experience. As a small business owner, he kept an eye on economic development efforts. And two decades in law enforcement taught him lessons that will serve well at the capital—the ability to listen attentively and a capacity to avoid hasty decisions.
“How you treat people makes all the difference in the world,” he said. “I’ve known people in law enforcement who can make a traffic stop on someone who was legitimately speeding and deserving of a summons and give them a warning. People can end up hating cops because of how they’re treated. I’ve arrested people multiple times who still consider me a friend.”
Two big priorities
A lot of the issues that make headlines aren’t necessarily those which Perkins wants to address.
But one thing that goes to his fiscal prudence is clear: He is highly unlikely to support any measure that doesn’t have a specified, approved funding source.
Missouri lawmakers are constitutionally required to pass a balanced budget, and Perkins calls the Hancock Amendment—the 40-year-old mandate which requires voter approval to raise state taxes—the “saving grace for Missouri.”
“It saves Missouri from becoming an Illinois,” which faces a budget deficit of almost $4 billion this year, Perkins said. “There is no choice. Missouri must spend less than it takes in. It’s just the rule.”
One concern most media rarely look at is high-speed internet connection and data transmission for rural areas, called broadband. Ralls County has been particularly adept in upgrading its technologies over the last decade, and 17 Missouri broadband providers were awarded $346 million in federal funding a few weeks ago to expand high-speed internet.
Perkins is encouraged. He said the state could help by looking at incentives that would allow rural electric cooperatives and cellphone providers to enhance the efforts. Revenue probably would have to come from increased electricity or phone bills, but Perkins believes the result would not only be good for business and economic development, but for health, education and lifestyle.
“If COVID taught us one thing, you’ve got to be able to go the doctor and to school from home,” he said.
Another big concern for Perkins is the Grain Belt Express, an 800-mile electricity transmission line from Kansas to Indiana that would cross Monroe and Ralls counties.
Missouri regulators initially rejected the controversial project. Then, the state Supreme Court ruled a precedent used in the decision was incorrect. The Missouri Public Service Commission approved the transmission line in 2019, but the fight continues.
One of the biggest worries for opponents is Grain Belt’s proposed use of eminent domain—the right to take private property for public use as long as there’s compensation to landowners.
Grain Belt has tried to appease skeptical property holders, including a pledge in early 2020 to provide broadband capabilities along the route. The developer, Invenergy Transmission LLC of Chicago, argues it is a public utility regulated by federal and state agencies. Perkins disagrees.
“I don’t believe it’s a public utility,” he said. “It’s not being traded (on the markets) on a daily basis. It’s a small group of people looking to make a lot of money by, in my mind, stealing land from farmers in Missouri. It’s a horrible thing.”
Perkins’ 40th District predecessor, Republican State Rep. Jim Hansen of Frankford, waged an unsuccessful campaign in the 2020 legislative session to block Grain Belt’s use of eminent domain, but Perkins said he will “do anything I can” to keep developers from using it.
Although the COVID virus remains problematic, new cases reported across most of Missouri during Christmas Week declined.
Republican President Donald Trump and the private sector streamlined vaccine development and production, and the first shipments arrived in Missouri on Dec. 14.
Fewer than 1 percent of residents in all four 40th District counties had contracted the disease as of Dec. 25. The death total for the four counties was 45—or .0004 percent of the entire population.
Perkins does not downplay COVID, but he is glad Missouri has not taken some of the radical steps and limits to freedom that other states have enacted during the pandemic.
“I’ve always believed I don’t need the government to protect me,” he said. “I need the government to leave me alone. My party is the party of personal responsibility.”
One bright spot of the pandemic has been in the workforce. Although the jobless rate climbed to an average of almost 10 percent last spring in the 16 counties of Northeast Missouri, it had dropped to 3.3 percent by November. The 40th District counties had numbers ranging from 2.8 percent to 3.6 percent for the month—closer to the historic lows that preceded COVID as part of the economic surge fueled by Trump.
“I think we’re on that road to recovery,” Perkins said.
One area of uncertainty is Medicaid expansion. Missouri voters last August approved a constitutional amendment that greatly expands services offered by the health care program for the poor.
An estimated 230,000 more people could be eligible for Medicaid when the expansion takes place next July. Projections range from a savings to the state of $39 million to a cost as high as $300 million. Perkins, who opposed the expansion, believes any cost could be made up. Thirty-seven other states already have experience with Medicaid expansion.
“I think you’ll see some out-of-the-box ideas,” he said. “I think you will probably see some discussion in Jefferson City about online betting or online poker. There are some areas where you could make that money up without raising taxes.”
Democrat governors in some states have enacted bans that curtailed religious services or shuttered houses of worship. Even with a Republican governor and GOP majorities in the General Assembly, Perkins predicts the protection of constitutional guarantees will draw the attention of lawmakers in 2021.
“There is absolutely no clause in the U.S. Constitution that limits a person’s religious liberties during a pandemic,” said Perkins, a member of the Bowling Green Church of the Nazarene. “If there is a separation between church and state, that means the government cannot say ‘yes’ to church, but it also means it cannot say ‘no’ to church.”
Because of COVID, some states are considering massive tax increases to offset revenue losses. Missouri is not among them, but even as the next session begins, there already have been Republican proposals to lower and raise fees.
Perkins said he would support a “wayfarer tax” on internet sales because “currently you don’t pay taxes on things you buy online, which is unfair to brick and mortar businesses.”
He also would back a state gasoline tax increase of 3 cents a gallon, as long as the revenue was specifically dedicated to transportation needs. Missouri has the nation’s seventh-largest highway system and the sixth-most bridges, but its 17-cent-per-gallon gas tax has not been raised in almost 25 years. Only Alaska has a lower fuel tax. Missouri voters rejected similar hikes in 2014 and 2018, and would have to approve any new proposal.
For Perkins, the discussion comes with an addendum. He is adamant that if some taxes are raised, other fees would have to be lowered to “level the playing field more.”
As for education, Gov. Mike Parson announced $209 million in cuts to schools last summer, but some of the money is being made up through federal COVID-relief funding. Perkins does not see the need for significant changes.
“I think the (school funding) formula actually works pretty well,” he said.
As with all elected officials, Perkins has heard the calls for criminal justice and police reforms.
The veteran law enforcement officer, who as a state representative must give up his sheriff’s deputy job, is not unaffected. He says change must begin with the mindset in individual agencies. At the same time, Perkins understands the anguish expressed by peaceful protestors.
“I don’t know how much a good police officer will cost you, but I know how much a bad police officer will cost you,” he said. “In my opinion, I don’t know that you need to reform the whole (system).”
Parson last year created a School Safety Task Force. One of its recommendations was that every public school employ armed protection. Perkins said he supports the proposal, but is not sure a statewide mandate is needed to make it happen. The decision, he says, should be left to each district.
Amid the opioid crisis, which has swept the nation, Missouri is the only state that does not have a prescription drug monitoring program.
Supporters say such a database would help keep track of controlled substance prescriptions and go a long way toward cutting the number of deaths from opioid abuse. States have reported a rise in cases since the COVID pandemic began.
Perkins favors a monitoring program for controlled substances, but believes he’s in the minority.
“There are those that might think it’s government overreach, but I think it’s ridiculous that you can go from doctor to doctor and pharmacy to pharmacy without anybody regulating the amount of pain medication you can get,” he said.
One topic that may get more attention is election security. Missourians for the first time in 2020 were allowed to vote by mail-in ballot. Perkins lauds the state and counties for being very professional in handling the November election and avoiding counting inaccuracies that happened in other places. But, he says, Missouri should “never again” allow mail-in ballots, and he would be willing to sponsor a bill saying so.
As of Christmas, Perkins had pre-filed a bill that would require food stamp recipients to comply with federal work requirements. He is pro-life and supports the Second Amendment, with a promise as a member of the National Rifle Association to curb as much as possible federal threats to infringe upon gun rights. He says the “job of a good representative is to bring back to the district” as much benefit as possible.
“I think voters chose me because I’ve been involved in so many issues for a very long time,” he said.
Even so, there are big shoes to fill. Perkins said Hansen has been “gracious all along” in helping him to prepare.
“Jim did the job for the right reasons,” he said. “Jim was never in it for personal glory. There were issues he was passionate about and that’s why he was there.”
Perkins, who often can be seen wearing a large cowboy hat, is looking forward to his committee assignments. He’s already met with some of the power players in Jefferson City, and has drawn attention outside his district, including a recent appearance on an episode of “Politically Speaking” with Jason Rosenbaum of St. Louis Public Radio.
One more thing
Perhaps the most important guide for Perkins will be his Christian faith.
And a foundational Biblical passage will come from the Apostle Paul’s second letter to Timothy. Locked in a Roman prison and facing execution, Paul encourages Timothy to stand firm and endure despite difficulties.
“I feel like I’m pretty well-prepared to start,” Perkins said.