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Term limits force GOP veterans into musical chairs over Mo. senate seat

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: July 2, 2008 - Don't get Jane Cunningham started. She likes nothing better than a good political fight over failing schools, and she doesn't mind being a lightning rod of criticism for her views on reforming them. To some voters, she's the enemy of public education; to others, she's the savior of good kids who deserve an alternative to bad schools.

The contrasting reactions to this woman from Chesterfield are due to her tendency to lean toward hot-button social conservative issues, such as school vouchers. She has been passionate about raising money and lining up votes for voucher-related school reforms - so passionate that some observers might be surprised to learn that she has other political interests besides wanting to give poor children access to schools that are as good as those in her wealthy House district in West County.

"I'm not a one-issue candidate," Cunningham says in explaining that property tax relief will be among the causes she will champion if she wins the state Senate seat in the 7th District.

Her opponents in the three-way GOP primary are Gina Loudon, the wife of outgoing 7th District Sen. John Loudon, and Neal C. St. Onge, who chaired the Transportation Committee in the House. The victor in the primary is expected to prevail in the fall election in this safe Republican district.

Like St. Onge, Cunningham is in the race partly because of term limits. In the House, she chaired the Education Committee and made lots of news as a result of her ties to organizations like All Children Matter, a national group that has poured thousands of dollars into the campaigns of pro-voucher candidates in Missouri. Though the money went to many candidates, voters tended to associate one name -- Cunningham's -- with the group because she was perhaps the most vocal about its cause.

Speculation among political watchers of the 7th district Senate race is that the campaigning may get negative. The best guess is that Loudon would use Cunningham's support for open enrollment against her. The idea of opening up affluent suburbs schools to inner-city children from the city's failing districts is not popular in West County.

Her aim, she says, was simply to rescue the one in five Missouri children who attend unaccredited school districts. This statistic concerns her, she says, because many of these children are likely to "end up in the streets, jail or the grave. That's a life-threatening crisis. If this were a health crisis, we'd not let it go on."

Anti-Tax Fever

On the matter of property taxes, Cunningham praises SB 711, which will require taxing districts to roll back some of their rates, but she says Missouri needs to go further.

"We now have the wrong motivation," she says. "We tell property owners that if you improve it, paint it, improve the driveway, we're going to charge you. That's no motivation for people to improve their property."

She says Missouri also needs a better system for allowing homeowners and taxing districts to predict the revenue that's needed, then freeze the rate at 1 percent of what the property owner paid for the property and remain at that rate until the property is sold.

Loudon echoes these anti-tax sentiments in even stronger terms. Missouri has the Hancock Amendment, which already limits the amount of tax revenue the state can collect. But Loudon has embraced the Americans for Tax Reform group's "Taxpayer Protection Pledge," which calls for candidates and incumbents to oppose any and all tax increases.

"I'm the only candidate in the race who has signed it," Loudon says of the pledge. "The others have had six to eight years to sign and haven't. I think that speaks volumes."

Amy Blouin, head of the Missouri Budget Project, says the ant-tax pledge would be harmful but not nearly as devasting as some other initiatives, such as the "Taxpayers Bill of Rights" or TABOR, which would have limited budget growth and cut Missouri spending by more than $3.8 billion by 2013 had it been enacted by the Legislature.

Even so, Blouin says the anti-tax pledge would tie lawmakers' hands as they try to deal with a general revenue shortfall of $500 million and a projected loss of $700 million in federal transportation funds in the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2009.

Loudon says this issue isn't so much about cutting services as it is about reducing government waste. 

"This is about priorities," she says, "about government living within its means. We're hit by high gas prices. We're hit by high property assessments beyond what we can sell our homes for. This is about working to reform government, cutting waste and making government more efficient."

But, pointing to cuts in state spending since 2001, Blouin doubts that enough money would be found to make up for the projected shortfalls.

A Sprawling District

The 7th District covers a huge amount of territory. It is sandwiched between the Missouri River on the west and Interstate 270 on the east, and it runs from Hazelwood in the north to Ellisville in the south, taking in Bridgeton, Town and Country, Chesterfield and Ballwin along the way. Oddly, all the candidates live in the far west or southern ends.

Asked if residents of the northern end may feel alienated because no candidates hail from that area, Loudon says, "We're all concerned about the same issues. People in some areas may pay higher property taxes than those in other areas, but we're all concerned about this common issue of a high tax burden."

Loudon also is a little more frank about the GOP chances of winning three open Senate seats in St. Louis County -- the 1st District seat vacated by Harry Kennedy; the 7th District seat vacated by her husband; and the 15th District seat left by Mike Gibbons, who is running for state attorney general.

"Of the three seats in play, this (7th District) seat is the strongest Republican seat," she says. "This (7th District) may well be the last Republican to hold a seat in St. Louis County, the last chance for our party to have a specific voice in the region. I'm suggesting it (the region) could be the first time ever going completely Democratic."

Not that she wants this to happen.

"We need to make sure we don't just send any old Republican to Jefferson City, but send one who can make a difference," she says.

As of the April 15 campaign report, Loudon had raised about $100,000, not a small sum for a candidate seeking office for the first time. She also has nabbed the endorsement of the Missouri State Teachers Association.

But the big winner in money and endorsements is Jane Cunningham. By the end of the April 15 reporting period, she had raised about $300,000 and had picked up the backing of former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, who previously served as a U.S. senator, governor and attorney general for Missouri.

Reaching Across the Aisle

St. Onge, who had raised about $125,000 and has been endorsed by the Missouri AFL-CIO, feels that Cunningham hasn't produced any major legislation, and he says the Senate isn't a good place for Gina Loudon to get started in politics.

His own work in the House has included support for funding for bridge repairs, easing some of the fuel cost for public transit agencies and keeping those with drunk driving convictions off the roads. One of the big challenges in the next legislative session, he says, will involve finding ways to fund highway work when the federal government begins cutting highway spending in 2010. He says his focus would be on fighting for public transit spending if he is elected to the Senate.

"I believe that transportation is always an important issue because we can greatly improve our economy with a good public transportation system," he says.

In addition, he says, he stands apart from his challengers because he can work better with Democrats.

"We need to start reaching across the aisle and working with people," he says. "That's what I would do."

Cunningham also notes that many education issues that she has championed also cut across party lines, and that she has a record of reaching across the aisle to work with Democrats who have embraced some of her causes.

Different districts, common goal

By David Drebes, Special to the Beacon 

It might not be possible to find two St. Louisans any more different than Reps. Jane Cunningham and Rodney Hubbard. Cunningham is white and dresses like she's president of the local bridge club; Hubbard is an African American who grew up in the Carr Square housing project in north St. Louis. 

Her district is the affluent area of Chesterfield; he represents some of the most challenging neighborhoods in the inner city. She's a pro-life Christian; he's a pro-choice Muslim. Her constituents are predominantly Republican; his largely Democratic.

The two do share an ambition for higher office. Each is trying to make the leap from the House to the state Senate. Cunningham is running for Sen. John Loudon's seat while Hubbard seeks to replace Sen. Maida Coleman. Both Loudon and Coleman are term-limited. However while both are going door-to-door talking to voters, they're knocking on very different doors, speaking to very different voters.

One of the intersections of their disparate ideological positions is the public policy area of urban education.

They are both proponents of "school choice," a phrase encompassing a range of policies. At its heart is a belief that the current model of public education isn't working in some areas, and that students would be better served if they could choose the school they attended. Theoretically, student choice would infuse competition among the schools and bring market-results to the field of education.

Legislation that Cunningham and Hubbard have worked together on included what's called "open enrollment." That would allow students in a failing school district (like Hubbard's) to enroll in a neighboring district (like Cunningham's) of their choice.

Another legislative proposal would have granted a tax credit to individuals donating to scholarships for students to move from public to private schools. This year's legislation was actually much narrower than that. It would have focused solely on autistic children, allowing them to transfer to schools that better meet their needs.

The school choice movement is politically polarizing. Many liberals see it as selling out the public education system while conservatives view it as a silver bullet to fix troubled districts.

It's given Hubbard and Cunningham some staunch allies in common. For example, retired businessman Rex Sinquefield has donated tens of thousands of dollars to each of their campaigns.

But it has also rallied their detractors. The teachers' union endorses Hubbard's primary opponent, Rep. Robin Wright Jones, while the Missouri State Teachers Association is backing one of Cunningham's opponents, Gina Loudon. Also, Pro-Vote, a liberal advocacy group, has targeted Hubbard for defeat.

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