U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay and state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal don’t have a lot of commonalities. But they’re both good at winning elections.
Inspired and fueled by their successful mentors, Clay and Chappelle-Nadal have withstood strong challenges to survive and advance through Missouri politics. Now, the two University City Democrats are putting their unblemished electoral records on the line in a battle to represent the 1st Congressional District.
This is a battle that’s been years in the making, spurred on by divergence in policy and in politics. And while Clay has advantages in endorsements, campaign money and name recognition, Chappelle-Nadal is hoping a relentless door-to-door campaign can pay off during the Aug. 2 primary.
The three-way 1st District Democratic race -- the third person is St. Louis School Board member Bill Haas -- is arguably the most spirited congressional primary in the St. Louis area. Whoever wins will likely be favored in November, since the 1st District is arguably the most Democratic congressional seat in Missouri.
When patrons entered the new Starbucks in Ferguson last month, they saw what was probably a familiar face behind the counter.
Dressed in a green apron, Lacy Clay spent a June morning chatting it up with the relatively new business’ customers and employees. It’s the type of thing that’s probably old hat for Clay, who has been in public life since the 1980s.
“The voters are quite intelligent in this district,” Clay said. “So I count on them to look at my record of service to this community and make a determination: ‘Am I the person they want to represent them in Washington and to be there for them and to vote in their best interest? Or is there someone else?’ So I’m confident this time that the voters will make that decision that they want me to continue to represent them.”
The Clay family has loomed large in St. Louis politics for decades. Lacy Clay’s father, Bill Clay, was first elected to Congress in the 1960s and made an indelible mark on St. Louis life through his civil rights activism — and cultivating a stout political organization.
After graduating from high school and college in Maryland, the younger Clay was elected to the Missouri House during a 1983 special election. He later was elected to the Missouri Senate in 1991 until he succeeded his father in Congress after the 2000 election cycle. He currently serves on the House Financial Services Committee and the House Oversight Committee.
Most of Clay's congressional elections have been fairly uncompetitive — until 2012. That's when when he was drawn into the same district with then-U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan. After an acrimonious Democratic primary, Clay emerged victorious by a landslide.
“I take one election at time. I put my record up against whomever I’m running against,” Clay said. “Four years ago was a much more competitive election, because I was running against another incumbent congressman who had more money than me. That’s not the case in this one.”
Indeed, Clay has a big financial advantage over Chappelle-Nadal — and endorsements from ward and township organizations. He was a big supporter of having the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency relocate to north St. Louis and designating part the region as a Promise Zone.
He’s also stepped up his advocacy for gun control and has chastised members of the Democratic Party who he says aren’t aggressive enough on the issue.
“It’s both parties who tow the line for the NRA and their lobbyists, and don’t want any kind of safeguards in the interest of public safety for Americans,” Clay said. “Look, I’m proud of my zero rating from the NRA. I’m zero. Because I don’t think anything that they offer is common sense.”
On a sweltering weekday morning, Chappelle-Nadal was scooping up door-knockers from a Volvo she calls “Ruby.” The roughly 25-year relic has been a staple of Chappelle-Nadal’s public life — including her successful state House and state Senate campaigns.
She’s well aware her electoral fight against Clay isn’t going to be easy (“I am David. He is Goliath,” she said.). But she added “people say if you are going to complain, you better do something about it.”
“So that’s what I’m doing,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “I’m running for Congress because someone needs to roll up their sleeves and make sure that all of the challenges we are facing are addressed.”
Chappelle-Nadal comes from a civic-minded family. Her father, Alonzo Chappelle, worked on a number of political campaigns and became a city marshal. Her mother, Cecilia Nadal, is the executive director of Gitana Productions.
Before she was elected to the Missouri House in 2004, Chappelle-Nadal worked for Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell. During a 2013 interview, Chappelle-Nadal said Maxwell offered her “courage and examples of being courageous every single day. ... When he gave a speech, you really knew that he meant it and felt it,” she said.
With the exception of a 2014 election where she faced no major party opposition, Chappelle-Nadal has faced a primary challenge each time she’s run for office. Her most spirited one came in 2010, when she beat three other Democratic opponents to win election to the Missouri Senate. Since that time, she's often been at the center of issues involving firearms, law enforcement, radioactive waste and union rights. And she's sparred (in sometimes dramatic fashion) with some high-profile officials, including the (now former) head of Missouri's education agency or Gov. Jay Nixon.
But few events had a bigger impact on how Chappelle-Nadal maneuvered through public life than the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson.
"Ferguson is what drew me to think more about our second-chancers. A lot of people didn’t have any hope whatsoever," she said. "And Ferguson inspired them. You cannot pay for inspiration. You cannot legislate inspiration. And so there are a lot of folks who are out there that I work with who are dreaming, who want to contribute to society. But we have to have programs for our second-chancers. That is absolutely important."
She says she’s putting her undefeated electoral record at risk because thinks the 1st District needs better schools, a more proactive posture on cleaning up radioactive waste and a serious plan to fight economic divestment.
“We have so many second-chancers who are not given an opportunity. And part of it is jobs, right? Obviously. It’s easy to say we need more jobs,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “But when you look at neighborhoods in North City, they look like the street of Beirut. They didn’t happen overnight. It’s gotten worse over the last two decades. And when there are children who are walking to school and all they see are vacant buildings, what kind of impression does that leave upon them?”
Clash over Ferguson response
It’s fair to say that Clay and Chappelle-Nadal have been on a political collision course for some time.
For instance: The two were sharply at odds in 2014 over a bill overhauling the state’s school transfer law. Chappelle-Nadal played a big role in shaping the bill that Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed, while Clay released a statement opposing the measure. And during that year’s election cycle, Clay and Chappelle-Nadal supported opposing candidates in contested primaries and competitive general election bids.
One of Chappelle-Nadal’s biggest criticisms of Clay is that he didn’t come to Ferguson quickly enough after Brown’s shooting death.
She went onto say "that people are sick and tired of the same old thing over and over and over again," adding that it's time to bring "new blood" into the mix after either Clay or his father represented the 1st District for nearly five decades.
“Now, I will admit. There is no playbook for a human disaster like this. But at bare minimum, you show up,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “I didn’t know how to respond exactly, but I know that I needed to be there with the people. I held grown men cry. I held mothers who were crying who saw their sons and daughters as Michael Brown. You know, I was trying to keep people on public property so that they wouldn’t be arrested. I was calling out anyone who had been a nuisance to the community. People had a right to stand up for their rights.”
For his part, Clay said that his response to Brown's death including sending a letter to the Department of Justice soon after Brown’s death calling for a federal investigation. That federal inquiry, he said, had a profound impact on how Ferguson operates.
He points to "the strongest consent decree ever enacted in this country. And this will bring formative change to a police department and a court system in Ferguson that was Draconian in nature, that was predatory in nature," Clay said.
He went onto say that "what I think voters want is not a lot of talk -- they want action."
“Because we know that some of the underlying causes for the unrest in Ferguson was the economic deprivation of the citizens," Clay said. "And so you have establishments like Starbucks who have a program that eagerly hires the young people or people from this community who didn’t have a chance before. And so, those are the kinds of change that I think I’ve been a part of and that this community needs.”
The wild card
The third candidate in the Democratic primary is probably familiar to a lot of St. Louis voters — St. Louis School Board member Bill Haas.
The Yale and Harvard Law School graduate (and recently published author) has run for numerous local, state and federal offices over the years. His record on that front is mixed: At times, he racked up fairly small shares of the vote (such as when he ran for the 1st Congressional District in 2000), did a lot better than people expected (like when he won a Democratic primary in the 2nd Congressional District or placed third in an eight-way lieutenant governor primary in 2012) or won elections outright (his school board races).
At some point in his personal and professional life, Haas said he came to believe “he had a contribution to make to public service.”
“And people say ‘what’s in it for you?’” Haas said. “Why I do it is I care about the problems. I think I have contributions to help solve them. And what’s in it for me is the satisfaction of doing an important job that I care about well.”
How Haas will do in this race remains to be seen. But if wins the primary and the general election, he’d like to focus on curtailing animal abuse, providing a massive amount economic aid to the Middle East and helping improve schools.
He’s especially passionate about making public education better in the St. Louis region, particularly in the area of improving third grade reading scores.
"Washington needs to make that a priority,” Haas said. “Reaching across the aisle doesn’t have much meaning often. But on third grade reading scores, who’s going to be against better education? It solves your crime. As I mentioned, it solves your jobs. It solves the ‘how do you make St. Louis better’ [question]. It solves your economy.
“There’s a conventional wisdom that the powers that be are against educating poor people,” he added. “Because what if they’re all educated and they don’t have enough jobs to go around? There’s going to be a revolution on our hands. I’d like the opportunity in my lifetime to see how that goes.”
William Lacy Clay
Born: St. Louis
Elections: Missouri House, 1983; Missouri Senate, 1991: Congress, 2000
Quote: "I count on them (voters) to look at my record of service to this community and make a determination."
More information: http://www.lacyclay.org/wp/
Born: University City
Elections: Missouri House, 2004; Missouri Senate, 2010
Quote: "People are sick and tired of the same old thing over and over and over again."
More information: http://www.maria2016.com/
Elected: St. Louis School Board, 1997, 2001, 2010
Quote: "What’s in it for me is the satisfaction of doing an important job that I care about well.”
More Information: http://votebillhaas.com/