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Government, Politics & Issues

Obituary of Patricia S. Martin: An activist for tax reform and fair elections

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 15, 2009 - Many of the people who will show up for Pat Martin's memorial service on Saturday probably had never heard of progressive tax reform before they met her. Then, they heard a lot about it.

Mrs. Martin, founder of Missourians for Tax Justice, made educating people about fair and equitable taxation her life's work. For Pat Martin, "tax" was not a dirty word, but merely a system for community care.

"She taught all of us," said Barbara Ross, vice chair of Missourians for Tax Justice. "Without Pat, we would not have known what a regressive tax system was. She was especially astute about things related to money and taxation and was totally committed to a system of fair taxes."

Until about two weeks before her death of lung cancer on April 9, Mrs. Martin, at age 76, was still working into the wee hours at her computer, continuing the fight she'd begun in 1991 when she formed MTJ.

On the wall of her home in Kirkwood, where she had lived for the past 30 years, and where she died, hangs a framed quote by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen: "One should never put on one's best trousers to go out to battle for freedom and truth." The quote is from "An Enemy of the People," but Mrs. Martin was anything but.

"Pat was progressive to her core; she knew instinctively when the people were getting the short end of the stick, and she never could stand for it," Ross said. "She was courageous in her willingness to stand up and speak up to any of the powers that be; she would not be cowed."

It appears that Mrs. Martin, who was born during the Great Depression in Idabel, Okla., came by her spirit naturally.

"It goes back to her childhood," said the Rev. Benjamin (Ben) C. Martin, a former pastor and Mrs. Martin's husband of 53 years. "She saw and appreciated the positive role government could have in the life of people."

Mrs. Martin saw her father, the owner of a small grocery, "give away the store so people could have food," Rev. Martin said. Her father also led projects for the Depression-era jobs program, the WPA (Works Progress Administration), in Oklahoma, including leading the efforts to build a dam and a state park, which Mrs. Martin would visit all of her life. She also watched her mother, in her role as communications director for the American Red Cross during World War II, helping soldiers keep in touch with their families.

The communications skills she needed to push for tax reform legislation came in part from her bachelor's degree in journalism, which she received from the University of Oklahoma in 1954, and her master's degree in religious education from Yale Divinity School in 1958.

Among the positions she held, two were particularly useful in her eventual work on tax reform: Research assistant to state Sen. James Conway during the mid-’70s (in 1977 she helped run the successful campaign to elect Conway as the Democratic mayor of St. Louis), and her advocacy work as a legislative representative for Legal Services of Eastern Missouri in the late '70s and early '80s.

"In her work as an advocate for Legal Services," said Rev. Martin, "Pat saw that most Missourians were not aware of how regressive the tax system in Missouri is. She was committed to creating broad public support to encourage legislators to bring about a fairer and more balanced tax system."

She was the primary mover behind the progressive tax legislation to rewrite the Missouri tax structure, a change that has been offered to the Missouri Legislature several years in a row, each time in a slightly revamped form. It's being offered again this session. The bill's sponsor is Jeanette Mott Oxford, who was elected to the Missouri House while serving as a member of Missourians for Tax Justice.

"For years, Pat has been the person I turn to for really good ideas for tax reform and how to educate the public," Rep. Oxford said. "She was really tireless in her efforts; a real unsung hero and a person with deep values."

While some battles were ongoing, she also saw successes.

In 1997, Missourians for Tax Justice was instrumental in an effort to exempt food from the state's general sales tax, and Mrs. Martin's efforts also paid dividends on the Busch Stadium financing, resulting in more private funds being used to build the stadium.

Mrs. Martin's most recent brainchild is the Tax Justice for a Healthy Missouri Campaign, which brings together more than 20 grassroots organizations. The campaign is hosting workshops throughout Missouri, providing basic education on Missouri's tax structure and the need for it to change from what Mrs. Martin saw as an inadequate, outdated and unsustainable model.

Her numerous affiliations, which enhanced the work of Missourians for Tax Justice, included the League of Women Voters, New Democratic Coalition of Metropolitan St. Louis and Missourians for Honest Elections, which eventually led to the state campaign disclosure law limiting campaign contributions.

She earned several awards for her work to create tax awareness among Missouri citizens, including the Meritorious Service Award from the St. Louis Metropolitan New Democratic Coalition in 1981, and recognition from the Missouri Association for Social Welfare "for outstanding contributions to the advancement of social welfare and importance in the quality of life for all Missourians" in 1992.

Friends say another Ibsen quote may best describe Mrs. Martin's work: "A thousand words will not leave so deep an impression as one deed."

"She would organize people, but no one did more of the work than Pat. She was a workhorse," Ross said. "A just tax system was a labor close to her heart, and no one worked harder, better or smarter toward this end."

Mrs. Martin was preceded in death by her parents, Joe and Betty Sue Sessions, and all of her five siblings, Joe Sessions Jr., Nyanza Woods, Betty Sue Sessions, John Sessions and Jane Mitchell.

In addition to her husband, Mrs. Martin is survived by her three children, Stephen Martin of St. Louis, J. Logan (Mary Knight-Martin) Martin of St. Petersburg, Fla. and Susan Blair Martin (Ken Shadlen) of London; three grandchildren, Benjamin C. Martin II, Kate M. Martin and Louisa Martin Shadlen; a niece, Jana Wheeler, and in-laws, Lena Sessions, Mary and Harmon Hoffman, Lorine and Harold Kieler, and Sarah and David Purdy.

A memorial service will be at 2 p.m. Saturday, April 18 at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 5300 Delmar Boulevard, at Union.

Mrs. Martin donated her body for scientific research to Washington University School of Medicine.

Memorial contributions may be made to Citizens for Tax Justice (www.ctj.org ), 1616 P Street NW, Suite 200, Washington D.C. 20036, or to another community or social justice organization of the donor's choice.

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.

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