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Missouri’s health director resigns after Senate fails to approve his appointment

 Former Health Director Don Kauerauf speaks to Sen. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, during his conformation hearing Monday, Feb. 2
Sarah Kellogg
St. Louis Public Radio
Former Health Director Don Kauerauf speaks to Sen. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, during his conformation hearing Monday, Feb. 2

Gov. Mike Parson’s choice to lead Missouri’s health department, whom opponents loudly demonstrated against in the Capitol, quit Tuesday after a Senate committee did not take action on his appointment.

On Tuesday evening, Parson appointed department General Counsel Richard Moore as acting director after Don Kauerauf resigned from the position.

The confirmation of Kauerauf ran into vociferous opposition from activists who claimed he was in favor of mask and vaccine mandates and abortion rights. Kauerauf and Parson vigorously denied those claims, and there is no evidence they are true. Kauerauf has said that masks can help and that people should get vaccinated, but he hasn’t advocated for mandates. He also described himself as “pro-life.”

Senators had only days left to approve Kauerauf’s appointment as head of the department, but an impending snowstorm has ended the legislature’s workweek. The session has been canceled Wednesday and Thursday, and there was nothing scheduled for Friday.

Members of the Senate Gubernatorial Appointment Committee voted Tuesday to advance other Parson appointees but did not vote on Kauerauf.

Kauerauf, whom Parson appointed in July 2021, had already served as the department head since September. However, senators must confirm all gubernatorial appointments that occurred outside of session within 30 days of the legislature reconvening, which began on Jan. 5. Failure to appoint Kauerauf within this window meant he would not be able to serve and could not be reappointed.

Parson blasted the committee for failing to vote on Kauerauf.

"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 in a statement. “The events that have transpired over the past few days surrounding Don's Senate confirmation hearing are nothing short of disgraceful, unquestionably wrong, and an embarrassment to this state and the people we serve.”

Parson also said “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.”

He said that senators chose to believe baseless rumors and outright lies on social media rather than the facts.

Kauerauf could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday evening.

Sen. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, held the Senate floor for hours Tuesday speaking against Kauerauf’s nomination.

“I did this because I believe there were some 1,000 people who commented or contacted me, either by text … by email, some by phone. Because they were concerned,” Moon said.

After a promise that Kauerauf’s appointment would not be considered and so other appointees could go through, Moon ended his speech. That promise was upheld, and Kauerauf’s name was not brought up for consideration.

Speaking after the Senate did not take further action on Kauerauf’s appointment, Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said there was doubt whether Kauerauf had enough support.

“It came down to: Do we have the votes, and do we have the ability to get him done in a tremendously shortened week? And the answer, at some point became pretty clear, that the answer probably to both of those questions was no,” Rowden said.

Parson had issued a statement Monday reiterating his support of Kauerauf, saying his office was ready to address any concerns over the appointment.

However, Parson did not take further action on the nomination, such as withdrawing and then resubmitting it, which would have reset the 30-day clock.

The decision comes one day after Kauerauf underwent questioning during his Senate appointment hearing. Members of the committee spent over an hour Monday questioning Kauerauf, while all other appointment hearings took fewer than 15 minutes.

Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville, used his time to clarify Kauerauf’s stances on both mask and vaccine mandates.

“If you were to be confirmed as DHS director, you would oppose any state-level vaccine mandate?” Luetkemeyer said.

Kauerauf said he was against both vaccine and mask mandates, saying the state should not recommend them.

Most questions to Kauerauf came from Moon, which were primarily on the COVID-19 pandemic and abortion. 

“I’m pro-life, but I'm also pro-public health and making sure that those kids when they grow up, they have the greatest chance of success and live the longest, most healthy life possible,” Kauerauf said.

The same day as the appointment hearing, over 100 people came to the Capitol for a rally against his appointment that included speeches from several conservative caucus members.

Many attendees wore stickers opposing his nomination and after the rally’s conclusion camped outside the packed appointment hearing. Chants against Kauerauf could be heard throughout the hearing.

After fielding many questions about the pandemic, Kauerauf said his position was more than just responding to COVID-19.

“It's much more. It's about lowering infant mortality, it's lowering diabetes, it's getting a handle on the excessive smoking rates in the state. That's what public health is,” Kauerauf said.

Moon agreed those issues are important but said the response to the pandemic, including the matter of mandates, is what’s happening now.

“You're going to be an integral part of that if you're confirmed. And that's why I think the outpouring of interest from a lot of folks. And I think that's good, they need to be involved. This is one way they can do it,” Moon said.

Sen. John Rizzo, D-Independence, asked why Kauerauf wanted the position after facing all the vitriol over his nomination.

Kauerauf said he took the job because he was committed to the Missourians who don’t have a voice when it comes to public health.

Some senators had supported Kauerauf’s nomination, including Sen. Brian Williams, D-St. Louis. He said during the hearing Monday that Kauerauf was qualified for the position.

“I think that you are experienced and in a very unprecedented way that makes you uniquely fit for this particular job,” Williams said.

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Missouri Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer.

Copyright 2022 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Sarah Kellogg is a first year graduate student at the University of Missouri studying public affairs reporting. She spent her undergraduate days as a radio/television major and reported for KBIA. In addition to reporting shifts, Sarah also hosted KBIA’s weekly education show Exam, was an afternoon newscaster and worked on the True/False podcast. Growing up, Sarah listened to episodes of Wait Wait...Don’t Tell Me! with her parents during long car rides. It’s safe to say she was destined to end up in public radio.