Back when he was living near Dallas, Texas, as a child, U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver and his family used to pile into his father’s Oldsmobile and, in their drives, they'd often go through a town called Saginaw.
The Kansas City Democrat recalls that when his father crossed over that city’s border, his mother would urge him to slow the car down – even though he wasn’t driving particularly fast.
“My father would be driving 20 miles per hour and he’d slow down to 5. Because Saginaw had a reputation for giving traffic tickets,” said Cleaver on a recent episode of Politically Speaking. “That’s how they maintained their municipal operation. Whenever you have that kind of contact between the police and the public, you cannot expect a lot of good things to happen.”
Cleaver is part an unusual political coalition taking aim at municipalities’ ability to absorb traffic fines. As the Missouri legislature passed a tough update to the so-called Macks Creek law, Cleaver is preparing a federal bill that could cause police departments to forfeit Justice Department grants if they take in too much fine revenue.
Self-described liberals like Cleaver and U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, have joined libertarian-leaning Republicans like U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and state Rep. Paul Curtman, R-Union, in pushing for municipal court changes. But the state’s two black congressman are at odds with some African-American officials, especially those who lead small cities in St. Louis County.
While Cleaver and Clay have heard the concerns from municipal officials, they’re not exactly sympathetic to their arguments.
“If you have based your revenue on tickets, no I’m not concerned about whether those towns will survive or not. I’m really not,” Clay said late last month. “If you’re basing your revenue on traffic ticket revenue, then you need to really look at justifying your existence.”
Many push forward, some push back
Much ink has been spilled on Sen. Eric Schmitt’s efforts to overhaul the state’s municipal court system, which received a wave of unflattering coverage after Michael Brown’s shooting death.
What started as an effort to lower the percentage of fine revenue a city could keep morphed into an arguably much stronger bill. Under the version of the legislation on Gov. Jay Nixon’s desk, cities that don’t remit excess fine revenue to schools face disincorporation elections. It also requires cities to adhere to minimum policing or financial standards – an effort that House Speaker John Diehl, R-Town and Country, has championed for years.
While the bill racked up substantial support from across the political spectrum, it faced pushback from two entities in particular: the Missouri Municipal League and some African-American officials.
Some black state lawmakers, such as state Rep. Clem Smith, D-Velda Village Hills, questioned why there’s a different revenue threshold for St. Louis County cities and rural communities. Smith – who late last year expressed a great interest in strengthening the Macks Creek law – said last Friday "we’re all Missourians. We should all be treated equally when it comes to this legislation."
"If the percentage of [traffic fines is] an issue in St. Louis County, it should also be a traffic issue or a serious concern in Dunklin County or Texas County or Pemiscot County," Smith said.
(It should be noted that Schmitt's bill received 'yes' votes from a number of African-American lawmakers, including all three black state senators and a number of House members.)
Other detractors of the municipal court crackdown are African-American mayors of the small, St. Louis County cities – many of which lead towns that have faced criticism for taking in high percentages of traffic fine revenue. They contend Schmitt’s bill will be a death knell for the municipalities, which in turn will lead to diluting black political power throughout St. Louis County.
Normandy Mayor Patrick Green earlier this year recounted a familiar argument: Small cities like his need a robust police force to stop people from speeding on the highway and to prevent crime from seeping into small communities.
In an interview that contained a number of colorful analogies, Green said: “People are acting like, you know, Harry Potter wands here. It’s not. Crime comes in vehicles.”
“No one’s walking around with a sandwich board ‘saying I’ve got a warrant for my arrest,’” Green said. “They pick it up when they run your plate, because it’s tied to all who you are. The person who owns that vehicle. Guns come in cars. Drugs come in cars. Crimes come in cars. And so this idea that officers shouldn’t be ticketing people or pulling people over out of suspicion is just a mythical delusional state of people who are making these statements.”
'You’re asking for trouble when you do this'
Cleaver may have more insight into political pushback like Green’s than other Missouri political figures.
Before he was elected to Congress in 2004, Cleaver served as the first African-American mayor of Kansas City. He was also the president of a nationwide group of black mayors, which he noted included a number of African-American mayors from St. Louis County.
“And I understand what they’re saying,” said Cleaver, who added that he’s talked with some black mayors about the issue. “Here’s the problem: You’re asking for trouble when you do this. When you’re stopping people to raise money. And one of the things that I suggest to mayors saying ‘No, we’ve got to keep giving these traffic tickets’ is this: If you can’t function without getting traffic tickets, maybe it’s time now for you to enter into some kind of relationship with a county police force.”
Some St. Louis County municipalities contract with the St. Louis County Police Department for police protection. And leaders of predominantly African-American cities, like Dellwood and Pasadena Hills, that do so say they’ve had a good experience with the arrangement – which usually stipulates that the county police aren’t going to hand out a lot of traffic tickets. Other cities, like Ferguson, have resisted such a move.
Regardless, Cleaver said the momentum behind federal and state efforts to curtail municipal courts is overwhelming. He’s received a call from Paul, a GOP presidential hopeful, that he wants to carry his bill in the U.S. Senate.
“We’re working together,” said Cleaver. “And so the mayors had better take a look at the people who are coming together on this. This is not some kind of right-wing plot to damage small cities. This is the wave of the future.”
Cleaver went onto say that what “we’ve got to preach here in Washington is that small towns are going to have to figure out ways in which they can work together, form consortiums and work together to save money.”
“Efficiency is going to be the new order of the day,” he added.
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.