UNIVERSITY CITY, Mo. (AP) -- The state and local politicians, civic leaders, neighborhood block captains and Missouri governor came to honor an ailing state lawmaker. They left with a firm challenge from state Rep. Rory Ellinger to squabble less and cooperate more.
Too weak to walk or talk as he battles aggressive liver cancer, the University City Democrat received a pair of standing ovations in what is likely his final act of public policy. Wife Linda Locke read a statement in which Ellinger, 72, shared a "plea to set aside personal differences and ideological conflicts."
The Legislature did just that with an Elllinger-sponsored bill to prevent nursing mothers from being penalized for breast-feeding in public or being required to serve on juries. Senators approved the measure 31-0 Monday after it passed the House 150-0 late last week. Gov. Jay Nixon signed the bill into law Thursday at University City Hall, coming to Ellinger's district for the ceremony after earlier touring the damage from an EFI tornado that touched down 2.5 miles away in a University City neighborhood.
"I can tell you, Boeing didn't even get that kind of treatment," said state Sen. Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis, referring to state efforts to lure an aerospace manufacturing project here late last year. Keaveny shared a Jefferson City apartment with Ellinger, a former Vietnam War-era student activist whom his part-time roommate said probably was the Legislature's most liberal member.
The new law allows nursing mothers to be be excused from jury duty with physician approval. Breast-feeding in public or private could not be deemed as sexual conduct, and cities are barred from enacting ordinances to restrict breast-feeding in places where mothers and children otherwise are allowed.
State Rep. John Diehl, R-Town and Country, called Ellinger a worthy ideological adversary and a "gentleman of great candor and class."
Ellinger was the press secretary for Tom Eagleton when he was Missouri's lieutenant governor. He lost a 1972 election to a state House seat covering part of central Missouri's Boone County by 870 votes and lost in the 1984 Democratic primary for another House district. According to his biography, Ellinger was a bodyguard for Martin Luther King Jr. and marched in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery. He served on the University City School Board for a dozen years and first won election to the Legislature in 2010.
He initially planned to seek re-election later this year before his condition deteriorated. Ellinger was hospitalized in March and might soon enter hospice care, according to friends of the family.
Nixon said that the bipartisan cooperation on Ellinger's bill sent a strong message to a public more accustomed to seeing its elected officials bicker.
"That is what democracy is all about," he said.