A veteran Missouri lawmaker who’s finishing her 16th and final year in Jefferson City is most proud of her successful team effort to prevent the Bellefontaine Habilitation Center in her district from closing.

State Sen. Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, presides over the Missouri Senate in Jefferson City on May 13, 2020 (file photo courtesy of Harrison Sweazea at Senate Communications)

The facility is operated by the Missouri Division of Developmental Disabilities, which is part of the state Department of Mental Health (DMH). State Sen. Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, notes former Governor Matt Blunt (R) and some others proposed closing the facility in 2005.

“It’s a home for folks with developmental disabilities, and people would often call them children but they’re grown adults who have been there since childhood. Many people have lived their whole lives there,” Walsh says.

The center serves residents with developmental disabilities like cerebral palsy and epilepsy. Former Governor Blunt cited allegations of abuse, for his 2005 proposal to close the facility.

Then-State Rep. Walsh and then-State Sen. Tim Green, D-Spanish Lake, helped to secure $20 million in improvements at Bellefontaine, which built four new buildings and renovated others. Walsh says while the old facility looked like a prison, it’s beautiful campus now.

The facility opened in 1924.

Senator Walsh credits former State Reps. Jim Mulvaney, D-Florissant, and Walter Meyer, D-north St. Louis County, for fighting to protect the facility as well, when they were in office.

“Mulvaney came to me when I was first elected and he said I don’t care what you do. He says but don’t get too big of a head and make sure you take care of the folks on Bellefontaine Road,” says Walsh.

Former Representative Mulvaney, who served in the House from 1967-1975, was referring to Bellefontaine Habilitation Center.

Gina Walsh was elected to the Missouri House in 2002 and served four terms from 2003-2010. She was elected to the Senate in 2012 and re-elected in 2016.

During an interview with Missourinet last week reflecting on her 16 years of legislative service, Senator Walsh was candid about her priorities and the importance of keeping your word.

She admits she was “noisy and loud” on the Bellefontaine issue. She says it was and is important to keep those services in her district and across the state. She says if lawmakers wanted help from her in Jefferson City on the budget, they had to guarantee her funding for the Bellefontaine Habilitation Center.

Walsh is also known at the Capitol for being pragmatic. She says she compromised with Republicans many times over the past 16 years, to protect labor unions.

Senator Walsh notes there are currently only eight Democrats in the 34-member Missouri Senate, and 47 House Democrats in the 163-member chamber across the Capitol Rotunda. When Walsh entered the House in 2003, there were 73 House Democrats.

“I took a lot of heat from my labor community through the years. Some of them thinking I was giving away everything but the kitchen sink,” Walsh says. “But you have to compromise to accomplish, to save things a lot of times.”

Walsh praises Missourians for overwhelmingly rejecting a right-to-work referendum in 2018. She campaigned against it, across the state. More than 67 percent of Missourians voted against Proposition A. The vote was about 937,000 to 452,000. Walsh notes it was defeated in almost every county.

Right-to-work says a person cannot be required to join or refrain from joining a labor organization, as a condition of employment.

Walsh also says it’s important for labor leaders to remember that GOP right-to-work bill sponsors were also all re-elected in 2018. She’s referring to State Reps. Holly Rehder, R-Scott City, and Don Rone, R-Portageville. She says there are Republicans and independents who also belong to organized labor.

Walsh says her sprawling 13th senatorial district has the largest number of labor union households in Missouri. She says it used to be all building trades like pipefitters, carpenters and bricklayers. While there are still building trades members, there are also teachers and members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in the district.

She says unions provide a way of life, and helped build the middle class.

Walsh says the best part of her job as a legislator was answering the phone and helping people, emphasizing the importance of constituent service.

She says while she’ll miss serving in the Capitol, she looks forward to her new full-time job with a labor union.

Click here to listen to Brian Hauswirth’s interview with State Sen. Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, which was recorded on December 21, 2020:

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