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Lawyer legislators describe rocky decision to run

Rep. Wes Rogers is not quite done with politics, though he’s not running for re-election this time.

Rogers is 15 years into his law career. He said he had maintained a full docket as a solo practitioner while representing Kansas City in the Missouri House for the last four years.

But he described it as “treading water” in his practice rather than growing it, while trying and failing to balance his role as a legislator, a lawyer and most importantly, a father. This year, his family won out.

“I chose my kids over running again,” Rogers said.

Rogers said that the best time for a lawyer to run for office is before they have children — or after their kids and their practice are fully matured.

His Democrat party affiliation in the red state of Missouri also changes Rogers’ political goals. Rather than talk to his wife about navigating ambitions to run for higher office in the state, their conversation was shaped around how Rogers could spend more time with the family.

Rogers stressed that The Missouri Bar provides exceptional support for lawyer-legislators. But to encourage more lawyers to run, a pathway to stability needs to be paved. 

On the opposite side of the state, Rep. Peter Merideth, another lawyer who has represented a St. Louis House district for six years, is at a similar stage, where life is split between public service, an attempt at a law practice and a family with three kids.

When Merideth first entered office, he realized he couldn’t be a legislator and practice law full time. He handed his clients off to other attorneys and now consults on the occasional case.

Access to childcare became the largest barrier to Merideth running for another term after his youngest daughter was born. He wasn’t sure his wife, who works full time as a lawyer herself, and his parents could handle his absence while he was in Jefferson City for nearly half the year.

Merideth asked the Ethics Commission to provide an answer whether campaign funds can be used for childcare. The commission at first declined, waiting to hear a proposed bill that never got a hearing. Then he and another attorney filed language identical to a federal commission that would permit this use.

“If I need supplemental childcare this coming year, I would feel comfortable that I can use campaign funds to do that,” he said.

As the chair of the House Democratic Committee for the last few years, part of Merideth’s job was to recruit candidates.

Merideth said that before term limits, lawyers made up a larger slice of the General Assembly. But when someone is looking down the barrel of a political career eight years at a time, it’s hard to convince lawyers and people in most industries to run for public office. 

Merideth’s handful of promising recruits for a replacement all preferred to wait for Merideth to finish his term. So a week before the deadline, he filed to run again. Meanwhile in Kansas City, Rogers was able to recruit a non-lawyer to replace him.

As he finishes his term, Rogers said he’s “caught the political bug” and is running for a seat on his local city council, which manages a $2 million budget and doesn’t require him to spend two days out of town every week.

And Jefferson City may not see the last of Rogers after the end of his term. He said he may return to Jefferson City in 20 to 30 years if voters take him back.

“I want to make it clear that I love being a legislator,” Rogers said.