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Blunt’s retirement among the top 5 political stories of 2021

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) speaks to the media on Friday, Oct. 1, 2021, at the site of the future National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency headquarters in St. Louis, Mo.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, who is retiring next year, speaks to the media in October at the site of the future National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency headquarters in St. Louis.

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.

Politically Speaking: The biggest stories of 2021
St. Louis Public Radio's political team breaks down their selections for the top stories that affected Missouri and St. Louis politics in 2021.

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.

lincoln days
Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Missouri Republicans congregate at the 2021 Lincoln Days celebration in Kansas City on June 11.

1. Roy Blunt steps aside and spurs scramble for a Missouri U.S. Senate seat

Beginning with “a personal message from Roy” the Republican senator announced he would be retiring in 2022 after two terms, ending a lengthy and consequential time in public service.

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.

Bram Sable-Smith
James Dickerson (left) learned he could be eligible for Medicaid from a flyer on the door of Affinia Healthcare in St. Louis, where he sought care for an ear infection. Within about five minutes, Dickerson supplied application counselor Sunni Johnson with all the information she needed to submit his Medicaid application online.

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.

 Tishaura Jones takes her oath of office on April 20, becoming the first Black woman lead the City of St. Louis.
Wiley Price
St. Louis American
Tishaura Jones takes her oath of office on April 20, becoming the first Black woman to lead the City of St. Louis.

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. 

Wesley Westmaas and Sheryl Meyering, of Shrewsbury, present their COVID-19 vaccination cards on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021, before a performance of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra at Powell Hall in St. Louis, Missouri.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Wesley Westmaas and Sheryl Meyering, of Shrewsbury, present their COVID-19 vaccination cards on Dec. 3 before a performance of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra at Powell Hall.

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.

A collage of St. Louis County Council chairwoman Rita Days at left and County Executive Sam Page at right.
Brian Munoz and David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Council Chairwoman Rita Days (left) has led a bipartisan coalition that has often rebuffed County Executive Sam Page's policy agenda.

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.

josh hawley 2021
Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, during his speech on June 11 at Lincoln Days in Kansas City.

Honorable mentions

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:

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.