Blunt’s retirement among the top 5 political stories of 2021
2021 featured a number of major moments that served as key transition points for new eras in Missouri and Illinois politics.
Locally, St. Louis ushered out a longstanding political faction and brought in a new one. And statewide, a longtime political figure chose to step aside — while a public policy battle that lasted more than a decade and a half came to a conclusion in dramatic fashion.
Even with the advent of vaccines, COVID-19 continued to play an outsize role in society and in politics. That became especially clear as local governments struggled to figure out whether to pare down or keep in place mitigation measures against the virus.
As is tradition, St. Louis Public Radio’s political team picked the top stories of the year.
1. Roy Blunt steps aside and spurs scramble for a Missouri U.S. Senate seat
Blunt’s decision led six prominent Republicans to enter the race to succeed him. That set off a domino effect of candidates for other offices taking the plunge, namely two open congressional seats in southwest and western Missouri.
It’s likely that much of 2022 Missouri politics will be dominated by whoever comes out of the Aug. 2 Republican primary to succeed Blunt. Some Republicans are trying to make sure it’s not former Gov. Eric Greitens, who is trying to make a comeback after resigning amid a torrent of scandal in 2018.
Another plotline to watch for is whether Missouri Democrats will be able to rebound from a terrible string of election cycles. Doing so will likely require nominating a candidate who can resurrect the party’s coalition of urban, suburban and rural voters. But whether that can actually happen in a midterm election that could be fruitful for Republicans remains to be seen.
2. Medicaid expansion finally becomes reality
Many thought the debate over Medicaid expansion ended last year when voters approved a constitutional amendment providing access to people who earn up to around $18,000 a year.
But then Missouri lawmakers refused to appropriate funding to get Medicaid expansion running. Several women who could have benefited from access to Medicaid filed a lawsuit. The Missouri Supreme Court unanimously decided that people within the expansion population should get access to the program, which prompted thousands of people to sign up late in the year.
From a political perspective, 2021 marked the official end of a debate that began in 2005 about how expansive Medicaid should be.
But signups for Medicaid expansion have been slow compared to other states — and it will likely be up to social service organizations as opposed to the state government to get the word out.
3. Tishaura Jones becomes St. Louis’ first Black woman mayor
St. Louis went through an unusual election cycle this year. It was the first election featuring the approval voting system, in which voters chose as many people as they wanted in the first round, with the top vote-getters going to an April runoff.
That election pitted then-St. Louis Treasurer Jones against Alderwoman Cara Spencer, a contest in which Jones ended up on top thanks to piecing together a multiracial coalition throughout the city. With the win, Jones not only avenged her narrow loss in 2017 to Lyda Krewson, but also became the first Black woman to become mayor.
Jones’ win also ushered in a more progressive political faction to the mayor’s office. Jones will help oversee the appropriation of hundreds of millions of federal relief money.
4. COVID-19 vaccines and mask mandates dominate the discourse
The COVID-19 vaccine rollout wasn’t smooth: When shots were scarce in urban areas, many people traveled into rural Missouri to get their doses. When the shortage subsided, Missouri policymakers soon realized that a large percentage of the state wasn’t going to get vaccinated — which made a summer Delta variant wave especially fierce in some parts of the state.
Near the tail end of the year, President Joe Biden’s plan to require workers at larger companies to get vaccinated or tested sparked outrage among Republicans — and a number of GOP legislators to target public and private vaccine mandates.
The other major COVID-19 storyline was how the legislature, the courts and Attorney General Eric Schmitt challenged the ability of some to impose COVID-19 restrictions. That fight is ongoing at the end of 2021 and will continue to be a source of conflict with the Omicron variant looming.
5. St. Louis County Executive Sam Page battles a hostile council
Page became county executive amid a burst of goodwill, especially since his predecessor Steve Stenger was roundly detested across the political spectrum. But 2021 showcased Page's immense difficulty in navigating a hostile county council.
Trouble started early in the year when several of Page’s allies made a failed attempt to reelect Councilwoman Lisa Clancy as chairwoman. After a judge reversed that decision, Page suddenly had an adversary in Chairwoman Rita Days, who generally held together a bipartisan coalition making the Democratic chief executive’s life difficult.
Things didn’t get much better throughout the year. Page and the council went through an acrimonious back and forth about reinstating a mask mandate.
Here are some stories that were important enough to be on some of our team’s lists — but didn’t quite make the top five:
- The departure of Michael Madigan from the speakership of the Illinois House after decades in power.
- Illinois’ congressional redistricting process. Illinois Democrats crafted a map that will put several GOP members of the delegation out of a job.
- Gov. Mike Parson’s decision to not call a special session for congressional redistricting. Because of that choice, the dynamics of the once-every-10-years process will be a bit more complicated than expected.
- Redistricting for the St. Louis Board of Aldermen to cut the body in half. Unlike a lot of tales about map drawing, this one had a fairly happy ending, which featured zero "no" votes.
- How the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection placed a brighter political spotlight on Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, the first Republican senator to announce he would object to President Joe Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania.
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum