On the Trail: A look back at Missouri's eventful and exhausting political year
Out of the seemingly infinite adjectives to describe politics in 2016, the one that came to mind is exhausting.
This year featured enough twists, turns, surprises, setbacks, revelations, triumphs and defeats to fill a set of encyclopedias. From competitive presidential and statewide primaries to epic general election battles, 2016 will clearly be remembered as a watershed year in the Show Me State's political history.
Admittedly, this reporter struggled with how to organize the year’s important events. Do I answer my own questions? Should I list big takeaways? Could I pair big news events with wrestling gifs (again)? After minutes of wrenching introspection and soul searching, I decided to keep things relatively simple. Here's a baker's dozen worth of political events that defined a whirly-burly year in Missouri politics:
The St. Louis Rams transform into the Los Angeles Rams
While most of the buildup occurred in 2015, NFL owners provided a decisive crescendo this year to the NFL’s presence in St. Louis. They approved Rams owner Stan Kroenke’s request to move his team to the Los Angeles area, pulling the plug on a decidedly up and down tenure in the Gateway City.
Sure, much of the Rams’ relocation saga focused on whether it was a worthy endeavor to expend public resources to secure a NFL franchise. But politics was directly intertwined within a bid to build a publicly funded riverfront stadium, a messy process with long-standing implications on state and local politics. It’s obvious that backers of a St. Louis professional soccer stadium are taking hard lessons to heart, including the necessity of the public having a direct say in whether facilities get funded.
The bottom line is, though, that the NFL is gone from St. Louis for the foreseeable future. But since the city probably made more money filling the Dome with conventions and boat shows, the departure of a bad football team may be a net positive for the city’s psyche.
Ferguson agrees to a consent decree with the federal government
It wasn’t always pretty or without conflict, but the decision of Ferguson officials to enter into a legally binding concord with the federal government marked a new chapter in the city’s crisis-filled recent history.
The consent decree requires Ferguson to substantially change its government and police department. It will cost the cash-strapped city a lot of money. But many hope the changes made within the city will provide guidance to surrounding municipalities.
Then again, it’s an open question whether President-elect Donald Trump’s Justice Department will legally push other St. Louis area cities to transform their governments. Without external pressure, changing one city may not make much of a difference on the lives of African-American residents – which may require non-governmental groups like ArchCity Defenders to fill the void.
Legislative ethics push gets mixed results
After high-profile resignations of House Speaker John Diehl and Sen. Paul LeVota, lawmakers from both parties promised that an ethics overhaul would be a major priority for the 2016 legislative session. And Gov. Jay Nixon signed a bill barring sitting lawmakers from becoming political consultants and placing a short “cooling off period” before departing legislators could start lobbying.
But curbs on lobbyist freebies ran into substantial opposition in the Missouri Senate. And after Rep. Don Gosen resigned over an extramarital affair, some lawmakers openly questioned whether curbing lobbying regulations or lobbyist meals could stop grown men from making bad moral decisions.
Both Gov.-elect Eric Greitens and House Speaker Todd Richardson promised to keep pushing to revamp legislative ethics laws. Whether this effort overhauls the culture of the capitol is an open question.
Donation limits return to Missouri – for now
One reason some lawmakers didn’t like the focus of the aforementioned ethics push was that it didn’t include limits on campaign donations. Sen. David Pearce quipped that legislators were more interested if lobbyists bought him a cheeseburger than if that same person handed him a huge campaign check.
But conservative activist and businessman Fred Sauer maneuvered around a hostile legislature with Amendment 2, which essentially ended the “grand experiment” of Missouri’s unlimited campaign finance system. Voters backed Amendment 2 by a huge margin and, in turn, ushered in a new financial era for Missouri politics.
Still, there’s uncertainty about whether parts of Amendment 2 will survive legal scrutiny. Even if the amendment stands, the lack of limits on third party groups, as well as municipal and county candidate committees, could still make it easy for big money to flow into Missouri politics.
Missouri matters again in the presidential scramble – at least in the primaries
In the afterglow of a general election campaign that was, to put it mildly, absolutely bonkers, it may be easy to forget that GOP and Democratic presidential primaries were competitive. In fact, these intraparty races were so close that presidential candidates spent quite a bit of time in the Show Me State to nab precious, precious delegates.
In the weeks leading up to the primary, then-presidential hopefuls Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sander held sizable rallies all over the state. Trump’s events were particularly well attended – and extremely contentious. Protesters interrupted Trump’s St. Louis rally numerous times, prompting the eventual GOP presidential nominee to remark that the protesters “contribute nothing” and are “so bad for our country.”
Ultimately, Trump and Clinton narrowly prevailed in Missouri’s primaries. Because Democratic delegates are allotted proportionally, Clinton and Sanders basically received the same number of delegates. Trump ended up with most of Missouri’s delegates, which helped him march toward the GOP nomination.
SJR 39 rocks the Missouri General Assembly
Arguably the most controversial fight within the Missouri General Assembly this year was SJR 39, a constitutional amendment that would allow certain businesses to deny service to same-sex couples. Senators needed to use a filibuster-squashing maneuver to get the amendment out of the Senate, propelling it to the House Emerging Issues Committee.
In one of the more emotional speeches given in a committee hearing in recent memory, Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Frankford, tearfully declared “this law is, to me, asking me to play God – and I’m not God.” His "no" vote effectively sunk SJR 39, and in turn delivered a big victory for LGBT rights in the Show Me State.
Initiatives such as SJR 39 may become less common over the next few years. Trump is widely seen as more accepting of LGBT rights than other Republicans. And Gov.-elect Eric Greitens eventually came out against the amendment, pointing to potential negative consequences for Missouri’s business climate.
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay unleashes mêlée for mayor
In late March, Slay appeared ready to battle all comers to win an ultra-historic fifth term. He even gave an unequivocal "yes" to a question about whether he would run against in 2017.
But Slay reversed himself on April 8, announcing he would not run for re-election. His stunning decision prompted at least seven candidates to file to replace him and opened a power vacuum within the city’s robust political community.
The race to replace Slay is already getting testy both through traditional media and on the World Wide Web. It’s safe to say that the outcome of this electoral scramble will be a major storyline throughout the first months of 2017 – and beyond.
Republicans engage in epic statewide primaries
For the first time in decades, elections for most of Missouri’s statewide office featured no incumbents. That produced competitive, and at times contentious, primaries for the posts – especially on the Republican side.
Greitens, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, John Brunner and Catherine Hanaway's scramble for the GOP gubernatorial nomination turned out to be one of the most expensive primaries in the Show Me State’s history. The fight feature a nearly endless string of debates, harsh advertisements and enormous influxes of direct and indirect money. Greitens emerged victorious by a comfortable margin, a major step in his eventual march to the governorship.
Primary season was also decisive for Republicans running for lieutenant governor, secretary of state, treasurer and attorney general. Since Lt. Gov.-elect Mike Parson, Secretary of State-elect Jay Ashcroft and Attorney General-elect Josh Hawley all won their general election by landslides, it could be argued that winning their primaries was tantamount to election.
Bruce Franks shocks the system with resounding redo election victory
With one notable exception, Hubbard family members have been experts at winning election in St. Louis. But Bruce Franks pledged to be different when he challenged state Rep. Penny Hubbard, D-St. Louis, in the 78th House District.
It wasn’t easy, but Franks followed through. After narrowly losing the August primary to Hubbard, Franks filed a successful lawsuit that resulted in a rainy September special election. The result of the re-do election wasn’t close: Franks won win more than 75 percent of the vote, unleashing one of the most raucous victory parties in recent memory – and, perhaps, ushering in a new era in St. Louis politics.
Franks will have his work cut out for him as he navigates the Missouri House as a member of the superminority. And he’ll face much more scrutiny as a public official than an upstart challenger. But after cobbling together a diverse coalition to get elected, Franks will have a lot of allies when he gets to Jefferson City.
Money and attentions flows into ballot initiatives
It’s not unusual for candidates to take center stage during an election season. But ballot initiatives can often provide an intriguing sideshow, especially when proponents and opponents spend big for their particular side.
This year, large and less large tobacco companies spent millions of dollars on an unsuccessful bid to raise tobacco taxes for early childhood education. And Missouri REALTORS doled out huge amounts of cash to pass a constitutional amendment barring sales taxes on services.
But proponents didn’t need a lot of money to approve an amendment authorizing a photo identification requirement to vote. Huge Republican turnout and a smallish opposition campaign ensured the passage of the longstanding GOP priority.
Thousands flock to Washington University for presidential debate
For a few days in October, Washington University became the center of the American political universe when the private university hosted the second presidential debate. The event attracted thousands of journalists, political types and protesters – and made Metro East native Ken Bone a superstar briefly.
The showdown came a few days after the release of a vulgar Access Hollywood tape that, at the time, appeared to torpedo Trump’s chances at the presidency. Most pundits believed Clinton outflanked Trump in St. Louis, but the debates ended up making a marginal difference in the outcome of the election.
While the debate featured lots of arguing and gasps from a lack of an opening handshake, it didn’t feature any questions about criminal justice policy or policing – even though Washington University is just a few miles from where Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson.
Kander and Blunt duke it out
National pundits initially gave Democratic Secretary of State Jason Kander little chance to beat U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt. But Kander’s campaign received much more national attention (and national money) after he released an ad putting together a gun while blindfolded.
Yet while Kander received high-profile assists from U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vice President Joe Biden, it wasn’t enough to beat Blunt. There’s little question that Trump’s huge win in Missouri boosted Blunt’s disciplined campaign.
Despite his three-percentage point loss, the same national pundits who doubted Kander’s Senate chances have floated the Kansas Citian’s name as Democratic National Committee chairman – or even a presidential candidate. But with Trump as president, Blunt’s practical influence gets a big boost – especially when it comes to recommending key federal appointments.
Trump ushers in Republican landslide throughout Missouri
Speaking of Trump’s big Missouri victory, the president-elect’s nearly 19-point margin in the Show Me State helped Republicans to win seven statewide elections – an unprecedented result for a once-beleaguered party.
Gov.-elect Eric Greitens’ six-point win over Democratic nominee Chris Koster ensures that Republicans will have free reign to reshape Missouri’s government. Previously intractable initiatives such as “right to work” and school vouchers now have a much easier pathway to implementation, thanks in part to Trump’s coattails.
The Nov. 8 election also leaves Missouri Democrats with an uncertain future, especially if the Republican dominance of rural Missouri is permanent. There’s little chance of the party being able to climb out of its superminority status in the legislature without gains in places like northeast, central or southeast Missouri.
Since Republicans now have complete control of Missouri state government, they also assume complete responsibility for how the state performs. And if Greitens and his legislative cohorts encounter controversy, they could face a less friendly reception at the ballot box.
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.