When Dean Plocher was sworn in as a member of the Missouri House for the first time in January 2016, all of his fellow Republican colleagues had been in office for at least a year already.
Just two months earlier, Plocher had won a special election to fill a vacant seat representing parts of St. Louis County. That meant that in a job where seniority counts, he was at the bottom of the ladder.
“I got a lot of mileage out of telling everybody that I was the lowest ranking Republican in the state of Missouri,” Plocher, 50, said with a laugh. “The goal there is you keep your expectations low, so that way, anything you do, everyone is happy.”
Those who know him say that’s vintage Plocher — always quick with a joke, often at his own expense.
But starting this week, when the Missouri General Assembly returned for the 2021 session, expectations got a lot higher.
Plocher became the majority floor leader in the House, having been tapped for the job by his fellow Republicans in November.
As the second-highest ranking member of the House, Plocher has control of the chamber’s debate calendar, giving him tremendous influence over what bills ultimately find their way into law.
Along with the new speaker of the Missouri House, Rob Vescovo, he will guide the 163-member chamber through a legislative session being conducted during a still-raging pandemic.
And he will also be on the inside track for the House’s top job when term limits force Vescovo from office in two years.
“Dean’s a fun guy, and people underestimate him,” said Jean Evans, executive director of the Missouri Republican Party who previously served with Plocher in the House. “He kind of hides how smart he is. He’s playing chess and people don’t know it. He’s managed to be a very effective legislator without making a lot of enemies.”
During his stint in the House, Plocher hasn’t avoided controversial issues — most notably over the last year as a key figure in the successful effort to repeal a nonpartisan redistricting process. But even those on the other side of those debates seem to speak highly of Plocher.
House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, said there aren’t a lot of policy areas where she and Plocher have found common ground over the years.
“He handled a lot of controversial bills as chairman of the General Laws committee,” she said, “and always in a statesman-like way. I hope he continues that as floor leader.”
From judge to lawmaker
Plocher grew up in St. Louis. His father was in sales, which put him on the road much of the time, and his mother was a homemaker.
He knew he wanted to play football in college, but he wasn’t getting attention from the top tier schools.
“Recognizing I wasn’t going to be playing for Mizzou,” he said, “I went looking for a good school where I’d get to play instead of just ride the bench.”
He chose Middlebury College, a division three school where he played offensive guard.
St. Louis was still home, but he wasn’t quite ready to return after graduation from Middlebury. So he moved to San Francisco to work for the investment firm Franklin Templeton Investments.
After a few years, he decided he wanted to go to law school. And more importantly, he said, he was ready to come home.
“So, St. Louis University was a no brainer,” he said.
He graduated in 1997, and went to work for a small firm before going out on his own in 2000.
In 2005, Plocher was appointed to serve as a municipal judge in the 21st Judicial Circuit in St. Louis County.
The next year he got married. Rebecca, his wife, is a nurse who grew up in south St. Louis County. The couple met when he was in private law practice.
They have two children — a 13-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter.
“She’s a powerhouse in and of herself,” Evans said of Rebecca. “It’s good that she will be there to bring him back down to Earth if he ever gets too cocky.”
During his decade as a judge, Plocher says he saw things he felt needed changing in the system. But he didn’t believe he had the authority to do so from the bench.
“A judge interprets the law, and sometimes that means you’re doing something that you disagree with, because it’s not your job to agree or disagree with the law. Your job is to interpret the law,” he said. “But as a legislator, you’re writing the law.”
Plocher said he was pondering a future run for the state legislature, and thought he had plenty of time to weigh his options. He lived in a district that was represented by Republican John Diehl, who by 2015 had risen through the ranks to become speaker of the Missouri House.
But Diehl was not long for the legislature.
That spring, the Kansas City Star revealed Diehl had been sending sexually charged text messages to a 19-year-old House intern, forcing him to resign in disgrace.
With the seat vacant, Plocher threw his hat in the ring, eventually winning a special election that November.
He was sworn into office in January 2016.
When Plocher talks about legislative accomplishments during his time in the House, he doesn’t typically focus on high-profile bills.
He mentions an amendment he got into legislation aimed at reforming municipal courts, or a time he helped a constituent get in touch with the state department of transportation about a persnickety stop light.
Yet what most outside his district probably know him for, if they know him at all, are his efforts in support of Amendment 3.
He was outspoken in his support of the constitutional amendment, which was aimed at repealing Clean Missouri, a previous amendment approved by voters in 2018 that established a nonpartisan redistricting process.
Like most of his fellow Republicans, Plocher was highly critical of the 2018 amendment. He was a key early sponsor of repeal legislation, and chaired the committee that ultimately approved the language that went on the ballot in November.
His critics accused Republicans of attempting to overturn the will of the people and enact a new system solely designed to solidify GOP control of the General Assembly for years to come. They argue that by opening the door to excluding non-voters, specifically children and non-citizens, from the population used to draw districts, the amendment tilts the political scales toward older, whiter, more rural areas of the state.
Plocher, however, said his main concern was ensuring legislative districts were as compact as possible, fearing that in trying to ensure districts were competitive the nonpartisan plan would create sprawling new legislative districts.
“It was important to me to keep communities compact and contiguous,” he said, “so the representatives who are sent here are more reachable by the people they are supposed to represent.”
In November, the GOP-backed proposal was approved by voters and the nonpartisan plan was repealed.
Plocher said he has worked hard during his time in the House to build relationships, both within his caucus and with Democrats across the aisle.
He said he wants to continue that as majority leader.
“The Republicans have a supermajority,” he said, “but we have to be cognizant of the fact that there are lots of Missourians who voted for Democrats.”
Plocher is a “super nice guy who wants to make people happy,” Evans said. “That’s a challenge in leadership, because there are so many demands. He doesn’t like telling people ‘no,’ but sometimes the answer has to be ‘no.’”
But, Evans said, over the years she’s gotten to know him, Plocher has proven he is also a tough negotiator.
“I think he’ll be tough,” she said, “a lot tougher than people give him credit for.”
For his part, Plocher knows he still has much to learn as he assumes his new leadership role.
“You can tell I have no problem talking,” Plocher said. “But I don’t need to talk as much. It’s one of the things I do need to learn in this role, to be a better listener.”
Ultimately, Plocher says his relationships with his fellow House members are based on a respect for their willingness to serve.
“We don’t always get along by any stretch,” he said. “But there is a level of respect for service and the effort it takes to commit to this job, with little pay and so much time away from family. I think all of us up here have to believe in a higher purpose.”
This story was republished with permission from the Missouri Independent, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering state government, politics and policy.