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Missouri Senate rejects governor's pick for health director over support for COVID vaccines

Donald Kauerauf, the director of the Department of Health and Senior Services, speaks during a press conference at the Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City on July 21, 2021.
Missouri Governor's Office
Donald Kauerauf, the director of the Department of Health and Senior Services, speaks during a press conference at the Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City on July 21, 2021.

Gov. Mike Parson appointed department General Counsel Richard Moore as acting director of the state health department Tuesday night after Don Kauerauf resigned from the position.

The Missouri Senate refused to confirm Donald Kauerauf as Gov. Mike Parson’s health director on Tuesday, leaving Kauerauf banned from the position for life.

Hours later, Parson named Richard Moore, the Department of Health and Senior Services’ general counsel, as acting director of the agency. He slammed senators who blocked Kauerauf’s nomination and called the events of the week “nothing short of disgraceful, unquestionably wrong and an embarrassment to this state and the people we serve.”

“It’s unfortunate that we now have to disrupt state operations and the leadership at an entire department because the Missouri Senate chose to indulge a few men’s egos,” Parson said.

The Senate Gubernatorial Appointments Committee voted to confirm a slate of Parson nominations Tuesday afternoon, but declined to take a vote on Kauerauf’s appointment as director of the Department of Health and Senior Services — thus killing his chances of continuing in the job he’s held since September.

Kauerauf had to be confirmed by the end of the week in order to remain in the job, per a provision of the Missouri Constitution that stipulates department directors appointed when the legislature isn’t in session must be confirmed within 30 days of the Senate convening.

Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, said it’s frightening that Missouri may have no health director amid the pandemic after “Republican extremists won the day.” He said Republican senators sank Kauerauf’s appointment, “because he wouldn’t say that vaccinations were a bad thing.”

“It was like a Facebook page come to life,” he said.

On Monday, over 100 demonstrators rallied at the Capitol in opposition to Kauerauf and efforts to boost vaccination rates that they believe would take away people’s choice. Protesters chanted outside a hearing room where senators questioned Kauerauf on everything from his view on vaccine and mask requirements to abortion.

Despite Kauerauf adamantly stressing he was against mandates, some senators remained unconvinced.

Parson even came out with a statement in staunch support of Kauerauf Monday, describing him as “the best qualified candidate for the job.”

But in a letter Parson sent to the Senate withdrawing remaining appointees who could not be confirmed before the legislature adjourned for the week, Kauerauf’s name was absent.

If senators had sent Kauerauf’s nomination back to Parson, the governor could have chosen to reappoint Kauerauf to DHSS as acting health director. Previously, department directors of other agencies have served long-term on an acting basis, like former Department of Social Services Acting Director Jennifer Tidball.

Rizzo said he couldn’t speak to why Parson didn’t withdraw Kauerauf’s nomination, but that Republican senators in opposition to Kauerauf “were very much holding the Senate hostage until they could be assured definitively that he would not move forward, not just now, but in the future.”

Parson again defended Kauerauf in his statement Tuesday evening, reiterating that Kauerauf stated he was opposed to mandates and was against abortion.

“Yet, senators chose to believe baseless rumors and outright lies on social media rather than the facts in front of them,” Parson said.

A looming snowstorm caused lawmakers to end the week early and cancel work for Wednesday and Thursday. The early dismissal left Kauerauf’s confirmation with few options to move forward.

Shortly before 2 p.m. Tuesday, Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, indicated that Kauerauf’s confirmation did not have a path forward.

“It does not appear at this point that the Senate is going to return that nomination to the governor,” Eigel said on the Senate floor.

Sen. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, held the Senate floor for hours Tuesday morning, delaying other committee work in order to make clear his opposition to Kauerauf’s confirmation.

Moon met Eigel’s news with hesitance, noting “there is a question of trust,” because he wasn’t part of the negotiation “and you know the games that are played often.”

Eigel reassured Moon that he felt optimistic and there would be further opportunities to have discussions if necessary.

Moon ultimately ended his filibuster, adding that the questions he peppered Kauerauf with Monday were aimed at raising the concerns of those who had reached out to him with reservations.

“I asked the questions that I asked,” Moon said. “I didn’t get the answers that I was hoping to get.”

Rizzo said he’s concerned that the hostility Kauerauf faced will mean a more difficult time finding qualified candidates who are interested in being Missouri’s health director in the future.

“I don’t know a lot of people that are willing to go through the animosity and treachery that he went through to make it to the other side,” Rizzo said.

Throughout the confirmation process, senators catered to political gain, rather than taking into account the harm done, Parson said. He added that he was praying “that honor, integrity, and order can be returned to the Missouri Senate and that it comes sooner rather than later.”

“I’ve been a conservative Republican my entire life,” Parson said, “and contrary to what some senators believe, tarnishing a man’s character by feeding misinformation, repeating lies and disgracing 35 years of public health experience is not what it means to be conservative.”

This story was originally published on the Missouri Independent. It has been updated since it was first published on kcur.org to include additional comments.

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