JEFFERSON CITY • Republican lawmakers gathered in a closed-door ceremony to induct conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh into the Hall of Famous Missourians Monday, but it remains unclear whether a bronze bust of the Cape Girardeau native will be displayed alongside other inductees in the state Capitol.
Democrats have questioned whether House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, has the authority to decide which items are placed in the rotunda. None of Tilley's previous inductees has been challenged, but Limbaugh's induction has been a point of contention for several weeks due to his often-controversial remarks.
During the induction ceremony, Tilley praised Limbaugh as the "voice of conservative America for more than a decade."
Republican Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder said he considers Limbaugh to be among the "pantheon of Republican heroes" alongside President Ronald Reagan.
"Rush's success demonstrated a nationwide market not previously catered to," he said.
Limbaugh, speaking from the House chamber dais, credited his family for the honor.
"This is something I never, ever considered would happen to me," he said.
The induction ceremony was not open to the general public, and Missouri Highway Patrol officers guarded the entries to the House chamber.
"With the controversy surrounding (Limbaugh), I thought it was acceptable to do an invitation-only event," Tilley said after the ceremony.
Opponents have used a recent incident in which Limbaugh called a Georgetown law student who publicly advocated access to contraceptives a 'slut" and a "prostitute" as an example of why he should not be included in the display.
Some famous Missourians appearing in the hall include Sacagawea, Mark Twain, Walt Disney and Bob Barker.
Tilley made light of the "controversy or two" that Limbaugh has been embroiled in at various points in his career. Calling him the "most successful person in talk radio history," Tilley noted that Limbaugh is in the Radio Hall of Fame as well as the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
"He may say things that strike a nerve — he's right most of the time — and he even may say things that I disagree with from time to time," Tilley said. "That doesn't undo everything he has accomplished in his career. It doesn't provide a reasonable excuse for why he shouldn't be honored by his home state for his many accomplishments."
Limbaugh thanked Tilley for not bowing to the critics.
"He laughed at them when they called his office, which is what you have to do because they're deranged. They literally are deranged," Limbaugh said.
House Minority Leader Mike Talboy, D-Kansas City, said he is "very confident" that the bust won't go in the rotunda alongside other inductees.
"It is still my hope that the citizens of Missouri don't have to have someone like that in the Hall of Famous Missourians," he said.
He said the bust could be placed in other areas controlled by the House, including the speaker's office or the House floor.
According to an Office of Administration report released by Gov. Jay Nixon's office, the state Board of Public Buildings holds the authority over what items are placed in the Hall of Famous Missourians because of its location in the rotunda. That authority has been delegated to the State Capitol Commission but can be revoked at any time, the report states.
The 12-member commission includes the commissioner of the Office of Administration, four appointees by the governor, two Republican lawmakers, two Democratic lawmakers, the lieutenant governor, a Senate employee and a House employee.
The commission drafted a policy for the Hall of Famous Missourians in 2008, but it has not been followed in practice. Under that policy, only Missourians who have been dead for at least 10 years can be inducted.
"Based on the findings of the Office of Administration's review, the governor looks forward to working with the Board of Public Buildings and the State Capitol Commission to review the purpose and governance of the Hall of Famous Missourians and to develop a comprehensive strategy regarding where all busts, statues and other monuments are displayed in the Capitol," Nixon's spokesman Scott Holste said.
Assistant House Minority Leader Tishaura Jones, D-St. Louis, said the Limbaugh induction was in 'sharp contrast" to the public ceremony held last week to induct ex-slave Dred Scott into the hall. That ceremony was broadcast on the Internet. Traditionally, honorees are inducted while the chamber is in session.
"It is quite clear from their handling of the Limbaugh ceremony that Republicans were ashamed of what they were doing and wanted as few people as possible to witness it," Jones said. "When you take great steps to hide what you're doing, it usually means that you know what you're doing is wrong."
Kansas City sculptor E. Spencer Schubert said he received about 700 emails from people on the matter, most of whom wanted him to refuse to make the Limbaugh bust. He did not appear to be worried that his work could become a target for vandals.
"That's the thing about bronze — it's insanely durable," he said.
Virginia Young of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.