JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri senators on Tuesday effectively ousted the new state health director following conservative blowback, despite the health czar's stances against abortion and mask and vaccine mandates.
Senators on Tuesday adjourned for the week without taking up Department of Health and Senior Services Director Don Kauerauf's nomination. The deadline to confirm him is Friday, and because Republican Gov. Mike Parson didn't retract his nomination, Kauerauf will be barred from serving after this week.
“We had an overwhelming outpouring from the people of Missouri from all over the state, and their voices were heard,” said Republican Sen. Mike Moon, Kauerauf's main opponent in the Senate. “We acted on their will.”
Parson accepted Kauerauf's resignation, according to a statement released Tuesday evening from the governor's office, and has temporarily appointed Richard Moore, who serves as general counsel for the department, to lead the agency as acting director.
He also criticized the Senate for its handling of Kauerauf's nomination.
“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 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."
Kauerauf took over as the state’s health director in September after his predecessor, Randall Williams, left the job in April 2021 without publicly citing a reason.
A health department spokeswoman declined to comment to The Associated Press on Tuesday.
At least 100 protesters rallied Monday at the Capitol to oppose Kauerauf's confirmation. Many carried signs describing his leadership at the agency as “medical tyranny.”
Like Parson, Kauerauf has repeatedly stated that he doesn’t support government mask or vaccine mandates to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. He told senators that the decision about whether to get vaccinated should be made between a patient and their doctor and that he respects individuals’ decisions on vaccination.
Still, he said the vaccines are effective and has sought to increase the state's vaccination rate, which he previously described as “atrocious.”
On top of his support for COVID-19 vaccines and other government efforts to stem the spread of the virus, Moon questioned the strength of Kauerauf's personal stance against abortion.
During a confirmation hearing Monday, the health director told senators that he's anti-abortion and believes life begins at conception. That wasn't enough for some conservatives.
Moon called Kauerauf's ouster a “sweet victory.”
“Maybe it will encourage others to get in the fight — and fight against the tyranny that we actually are seeing take away our freedoms,” he said.
Parson on Monday publicly defended his choice for health director.
“To set the record straight, Don is strongly pro-life and anti-abortion and against government mandating mask wearing and COVID-19 vaccinations,” Parson said in a statement. “Those were his views and beliefs when I appointed him, and they remain today.”
Part of the roadblock to Kauerauf's nomination was an impending snowstorm expected to hit the state starting Tuesday night, which led the state House and Senate to cancel work for the rest of the week.
“It was going to be tough, if not impossible, to get it done in the time frame we had," Senate Republican Majority Leader Caleb Rowden said.
Senate Democrats bemoaned Kauerauf's departure.
“Missouri is in the middle of a health crisis and now the state is without a health director because a small but loud group of extremist Republicans are against fighting a disease that has killed 17,000 of our fellow Missourians,” Senate Democratic Leader John Rizzo said in a statement. “Misinformation and lies have defeated professionalism and integrity.”
Ballentine contributed to this report from Columbia, Missouri.