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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

Campaign trail: Nasheed says Senate transition will change more than just her title

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 19, 2012 - In a few short weeks, state Rep. Jamilah Nasheed will be switching up her official title when she makes the move from the Missouri House to the Missouri Senate.

But that may not be only thing changing for Nasheed.

When Nasheed goes to the Senate in January, the St. Louis Democrat said she will "be a little bit more to the left than I’ve ever been before as an elected official." That transition, she says, can be traced to the structural difference between the House and Senate.

She said she doesn't have to “play so many games"as she did in the Missouri House where members of the minority party have much less power. Of the 163 seats in the House, Democrats held 57.

Nasheed defeated state Sen. Robin Wright-Jones, D-St. Louis, and state Rep. Jeanette Mott Oxford, D-St. Louis, in the Aug. 7 primary for the 5th state senatorial district. With no Republican opposition in the general election, Nasheed automatically became one of two state senators representing St. Louis.

To be sure, Nasheed wouldn't have been pegged as ideologically conservative during her House tenure. She sponsored legislation to hike the state's cigarette tax and to establish a statewide foreclosure mediation program, initiatives that aren't embraced by many  legislators on the right.

But beyond her verbal scrapes with lawmakers from both parties, Nasheed drew plenty of attention over the years by breaking ranks and voting with Republicans on key issues. She was one of four Democrats who voted for a congressional redistricting effort that effectively ended U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan’s career. And in 2008 she voted with Republicans to eliminate campaign donation limits, a decision that substantially altered Missouri politics. 

That legislative maneuvering may have won her some clout in a Republican-dominated House, but it didn’t make her popular member in the Democratic caucus. The Riverfront Times’ lengthy profile of Nasheed last year showcased how Democratic legislators became increasingly fed up with her "allegiance" with Republicans.

And Oxford told the Beacon earlier this year that Nasheed's campaign finance vote was a "terrible" decision made "out of raw emotion" that wound up "not being helpful to the cause of social justice."

But Nasheed said she plans to take a different strategic course now that’s she’s moving to the Missouri Senate. After all, she says, an individual member there can have more sway than in the majoritarian House.

"Everybody’s on an island of their own," Nasheed said. "And there’s a lot that can be done. I’m looking to work across party lines and build that bipartisan machine. However, you’ll see me moving a little bit further to the left.”

While Nasheed didn't provide specific examples, she did vote to sustain a veto on legislation allowing entities to exclude abortion, contraception or sterilization from insurance coverage. Conservative rural Democrats ended up providing the crucial votes to overrule Gov. Jay Nixon's objection.

It should be noted that it’s far less unusual for Senate Democrats to join with Republicans on controversial bills. For instance, five Senate Democrats, including then-Sen. Chris Koster of Harrisonville, voted to undo campaign finance limits in 2008.

And three Democrats from the Kansas City area – including outgoing Senate Minority Leader Victor Callahan, D-Independence, and Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City – voted to override Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of the congressional redistricting map. (Also worth noting, though, is that the outcome of those bills was in doubt in the House.)

No matter how she votes, state Sen. Joe Keaveny – the other Democratic senator from the city – said Nasheed will be a change from Wright-Jones.

“She brings a completely different personality. Sen. Wright-Jones is a little more laid back. Sen. Nasheed is very hard-charging. Very opinionated. Very vocal,” Keaveny said. “Wright-Jones wasn’t always quite that vocal. We’ll see what happens. There’s a big difference between conducting yourself in the House and conducting yourself in the Senate. I would expect Sen. Nasheed to quite possibly alter some of her approach on things.

“Sometimes – especially when you’re in a super-minority – sometimes you’ve just got to bite your tongue,” he added. “And I would expect Sen. Nasheed would probably do that. Especially your first year. It’s not necessarily the time to be confrontational.”

Strange Bedfellows, Part 394

Of all the unlikely alliances in Missouri politics, the political bond between Nasheed and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay may take the cake.

Nasheed, after all, was one of the more prominent officials calling for Slay’s recall in 2007 after he demoted St. Louis fire chief Sherman George. But political relations with the three-term mayor have warmed since then, culminating with Slay’s endorsement of Nasheed in the 5th District contest.

So it’s not that surprising that Nasheed is backing Slay’s bid for an unprecedented fourth term against St. Louis Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed. She noted that “Slay was with me every step of the way. And I’m with those who are with me.”

What changed? Nasheed alluded to former President Abraham Lincoln’s quote: “The best way to destroy your enemy is to make him your friend.”

“In many cases, enemies become friends and allies,” Nasheed said. “And I’m not saying he’s my friend. But I am saying he’s been an ally to me on the state level in terms of the issues that impact the city of St. Louis.”

Her detente with Slay, she said, showcases how she sees one of her roles in the Senate.

“While I will work across party lines and look at the bigger picture overall for the Missouri benefit, I’m still here to represent the city of St. Louis,” Nasheed said. “So anything for and about the city of St. Louis, you will see that I will have my hands in it.”

More than anything else, the Slay-Nasheed alliance could confirm former U.S. Rep. William Clay’s axiom that there are “no permanent friends, no permanent enemies – just permanent interests.”

Campaign Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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