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A Carnahan Senate victory seen as answer to some black officials' prayers

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 17, 2009 - Missouri has never elected an African-American to a statewide post.

The Rev. Earl Nance Jr., past president of the St. Louis Clergy Coalition, says it's about time for a change.

And he adds that members of the coalition, a group of largely African-American pastors, brought up the issue this week in a meeting with Secretary of State Robin Carnahan.

The reason that the concern was mentioned to Carnahan, said Nance, is that her bid for the U.S. Senate in 2010 might offer African-Americans the best chance to put a minority in a top state office.

Nance said he and many other coalition members are "on the same page'' with state Sen. Robin Wright-Jones, D-St. Louis, who has the same idea and has organized a series of meetings with black elected officials to discuss the issue.

The first was held Friday afternoon in St. Louis, and was attended by "black elected officials and representatives from black elected leadership organizations from across the state. “The mood was focused and serious,'' Wright-Jones said. "It was clear that we were of one accord and had gathered to perform some critical work on behalf of the statewide African-American community. We have a big job to do and we believe that now is the time."

As Wright-Jones sees it, a victory by Carnahan in 2010 would set the state for Gov. Jay Nixon, a fellow Democrat, to appoint a replacement to complete the remaining two years of Carnahan's term.

Wright-Jones is proposing that African-American officials around the state get behind a potential nominee, and encourage Nixon to name that person to Carnahan's current post, should she move on to the Senate.

In a statement, Wright-Jones sees such a scenario as "a monumental opportunity" to finally get Missouri’s first African-American statewide officeholder.

“We know the struggle, the fight and the pitfalls of maintaining our positions in local, state and national government,” Wright-Jones said. “We are more than ready for a statewide challenge, and we must field a responsive and responsible appointee before this short window of opportunity closes.”

Her first meeting on the topic was slated for Friday afternoon at the Drake Plaza Conference Room in midtown. A second meeting will be held in June, the senator said, and the third meeting will he held in July in Kansas City at the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus Foundation Conference.

It's unclear if Wright-Jones is interested in the secretary of state post herself.

The various names floated around include a number from the St. Louis area, including Kelvin Simmons, former head of the Public Service Commission (and who has turned down earlier appeals to run statewide), and Andria Danine Simckes, a former aide to the late Gov. Mel Carnahan who made an unsuccessful primary bid for state treasurer last year.

Others have mentioned two unsuccessful candidates this year for St. Louis mayor: former state Sen. Maida Coleman and former judge and alderman Irene Smith.

Nance didn't mention any potential candidates. But he said he agreed that a Nixon appointment of an African-American as secretary of state would give that person two years to get Missourians comfortable with a black person in a statewide office.

The last African-American majority party candidate in Missouri in a general election was Alan Wheat, the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate in 1994. Although he was a veteran congressman from suburban Kansas City, Wheat was trounced by Republican John Ashcroft.

During the campaign, some Democratic activists in rural Missouri openly said they would not support an African-American for statewide office.

Since 1994, almost every statewide election has prompted talk -- but general little else -- about a serious statewide bid by an African-American hopeful. Simckes' effort was the first in years.

But Nance is optimistic that 15 years, and Barack Obama's victory as president, might signal a shift of sentiment among Missouri voters when it comes to race. Obama narrowly lost Missouri to Republican John McCain, but Obama did better among Missouri voters than some previous white presidential candidates.

Nance says that the Clergy Coalition has yet to talk to Wright-Jones about her activities, "but we intend to,'' the pastor said. "We fully intend to be in discussions with Sen. Robin Wright-Jones because we're all speaking with one voice on this issue."

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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