It's fair to say that Deb Lavender is quite persistent.
The Kirkwood Democrat ran unsuccessfully for a state House three times before finally winning election in 2014. None of the races were easy: She had to knock on a lot of doors, raise a lot of money and lose to former Rep. Rick Stream three times before reaching the legislative promised land.
So what was Lavender’s payoff for winning? Being a part of one of the smallest Democratic caucuses in modern history. It’s not exactly some great reward – but Lavender is looking on the bright side: After all, even though she’s from suburban St. Louis, Lavender gets to serve on a House Agriculture Policy Committee – an assignment that she "loves."
“We’ve always talked about the urban-rural divide,” Lavender said. “For being able to have those relationships with those people, I think that they listen to me better on the floor. I think they’re more interested in my district and what’s happening from our district from a farming point of view.”
For most people who live in St. Louis or parts of St. Louis County, chances are high that a Democrat like Lavender represents them in the Missouri House. But doing that job effectively has gotten harder throughout the years as the party slipped farther and farther into the super minority.
In a chamber that’s run in a majoritarian manner, the Democrats’ low numbers gives them rather little influence on the flow of important legislation. And some are openly wondering if there’s actually light at the end of the tunnel.
“If we don’t change the numbers, it’s going to get worse,” said state Rep. Rochelle Walton Gray, D-Black Jack. “And heaven forbid it goes further in the other direction, there’s just no coming back. When I say no coming back, it would take a very long time. Probably not in the next decade at least.”
With 45 members, the House Democratic Caucus has shrunk dramatically over the past couple of decades. The party’s numbers are so low, that Republicans can generally override a veto without any Democratic help – depriving the minority party of a key leverage point.
There are other big disadvantages – even compared to a few years ago when Democrats had more members: Democratic House members can rarely pass bills that evoke even the slightest bit of controversy. And House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, D-St. Louis, said his party sometimes has trouble finding people for certain legislative committees – including aforementioned agriculture-related ones.
“It’s no secret that we have very few rural members left,” said Hummel, who is leaving the House this year due to term limits. “Serving on some of these agriculture committees has been difficult. But we’ve worked to find people. [Rep. Tracy McCreery] owns a farm in outstate Missouri, even though she’s from the Olivette area. So, we’ve able to fill it, but certainly that has been a challenge.”
As Hummel mentioned, the House Democrats’ geographic reach has substantially constricted. Roughly eight years ago, Democrats occupied districts all across outstate Missouri. Today, the party’s membership is primarily relegated to the St. Louis and Kansas City area. Former House Republican Campaign Committee executive director Scott Dieckhaus once posted a Missouri map on his Facebook page that almost completely red, with some blue splotches around St. Louis, Kansas City, Columbia, St. Joseph and Springfield.
While members of Republican leadership have often supported some St. Louis-based economic development projects, McCreery said the GOP’s dominance in the House can create some challenges for the state’s urban centers.
“I don’t know if ‘hurts’ is the right word. But it does make it more challenging to get things done,” McCreery said. “One of my big frustrations, as someone who represents a large portion of St. Louis County, is that we do a lot of things here in the Missouri House that actually can be harmful to what I consider to be Missouri’s economic engine. And at times, I feel outright hostility toward the St. Louis region. So that does provide challenges.”
From bad to worse
How did the situation for Missouri Democrats get so dire?
One reason is that the people and interest groups that fund political campaigns often contribute to people that will serve in the majority – and that can put Democrats in tight races in a bad position. Another rationale is that Republicans have created a well-funded and sophisticated campaign organization, the House Republican Campaign Committee, to capture and defend House seats. (It doesn't help matters there are no campaign contribution limits in Missouri, which, among other things, allows the HRCC to shuttle lots of money directly to candidates.)
“HRCC was one of those things that were founded in the 1990s when Republicans were a low,” said Dieckhaus last year, who left the HRCC a few months ago. “[GOP leaders] got together and said ‘Hey, we have to do something here. We have to pool our resources or Republicans are going to stay in the minority a long, long time.'”
Democrats like Hummel point to an unfavorable map that arose out of the 2011 redistricting process. (It should be emphasized that a panel of judges – not legislators – created the legislative districts.) But that may not tell the whole story.
Case in point: Former state Rep. Paul Quinn, D-Monroe City, lost to state Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Frankford, in 2012. That district includes Monroe, Pike and Ralls Counties, which are some the most traditionally Democratic areas in the state. Among other things, Quinn said socially conservative voters in northeast Missouri might have become uneasy with the national Democratic Party’s leftward tilt on gun control and abortion rights -- and that, in turn, hurt state representative candidates.
“Some people right now don’t fully understand to look at the person. You know what I mean? Don’t look at the party,” said Quinn, who added that his 2012 became more difficult after much of Monroe City was placed into a different district. “Vote for the person.”
Then, there's candidate recruitment. This year, lawmakers in districts that were Democratic two or four years ago are running unopposed – including Hansen and Randy Pietzman, R-Troy. State Rep. Jeremy LaFaver, D-Kansas City, said it’s not an easy proposition to get people to vie for seats – even potentially winnable ones.
“When I talk to my colleagues on the other side and they kind of razz me about our recruitment levels, I say ‘Look at the tools I have in my toolbox,’” said LaFaver, who decided against running for re-election. “Leave what you have, maybe a good job or your farm’s going well or something, and come to the legislature where you get to make fiery speeches on the floor on occasion. On their side, they get to go these folks and say ‘Hey, check this out – in a couple of years you could be chairman or vice chairman and then in eight years, who knows? Maybe you could be the speaker of the House of Representatives.’
“That’s a much bigger pull than the tools I have in my toolbox for sure,” he added.
While it’s clear that things are pretty grim for House Democrats. But that doesn’t mean the situation is completely hopeless.
For one thing, GOP House Speaker Todd Richardson said he’s tried to give Democrats a fair shake in his chamber. And the Poplar Bluff Republican can relate to the Democrats’ plight: His father, Mark Richardson, was a member of the House when the GOP was in the minority.
“We always have our disagreements – they’re deep philosophical divides between the parties,” Richardson said. “And obviously we’re in a position to control the agenda. But on those things that we can work together on, and they do exist, I was proud to work with them and they had meaningful contributions on a lot of things they did.”
There’s some evidence that Richardson is onto something: An expansion to last year’s municipal overhaul contained changes to state disincorporation statutes. Rep. Bob Burns, D-St. Louis County, had sponsored that bill for years, and got enough Republicans to agree that it was a good idea.
State Rep. Mike Colona, D-St. Louis, said if Democrats are OK with giving somebody else credit, they can make an impact even within the super minority.
“It’s not rocket science,” Colona said. “Every two years when folks come in, I have the same chat with them one-on-one. And that is, again, it’s not rocket science. You can find allies in the Republican majority that you can to and pitch your issue to. And believe it or not, there are a lot of folks that agree with a lot of things that we want to do.”
And Democrats can also help out when the GOP doesn’t agree on something: Three Republicans joined three Democrats in a committee to torpedo a constitutional amendment legally shielding individuals or businesses that deny certain services to same-sex couples. And enough Republicans opposed so-called "right to work" legislation in 2015 to prevent a veto override.
Things can only get better?
Some Democrats like Hummel are bullish that Donald Trump’s place on the presidential ballot can help state representative candidates. But notwithstanding Trump’s tendency to make, to put it mildly, provocative statements, it’s still very possible the billionaire businessman could win Missouri – and thus may be helpful to GOP candidates.
That Trump effect will matter quite a bit for Lavender, since there's no guarantee she'll be in the Missouri House next year. She’s engaged in a highly-competitive re-election battle against Kirkwood attorney Mark Milton. And even if she wins, chances are high she’ll return to rather small Democratic caucus.
But regardless of what voters decide, Lavender and other members of the super minority see value, and a bit of pride, in their presence.
“I think we represent more Democrats than our numbers might demonstrate,” Lavender said. “And if we’re not here with our voice, then our voice isn’t heard. And that’s for every Democrat across the state. So I honor that as much as being in the super minority – there’s a good reason for us to be here.”
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.