In many respects, Missouri’s 14th Senate District is one of the most challenging legislative seats to represent.
With some of the state’s richest and poorest cities, the central and north St. Louis County-based district has been ground zero for high profile education and environmental issues. It also includes Ferguson, which became a national focal point for relations between police and African-Americans.
Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal has represented the 14th District for eight years. But the University City Democrat has reached her term limit, and is running for one last term in the Missouri House. That’s provided an opening for Joe Adams, Sharon Pace and Brian Williams to seek the 14th District post.
The three Democrats possess fairly similar views on expanding health care for the poor, protecting abortion rights and opposing curbs on labor unions. They also want to deliver economic development and work with Republicans on issues of agreement.
But the three are also hoping to continue Chappelle-Nadal’s legacy of standing up and fighting. One lawmaker who decided not to enter this contest said the 14th District needs someone who is willing to fight for them — especially when there’s so much at stake.
“You can’t be asleep at the wheel. And you can’t just be happy to be there,” said state Rep. Clem Smith, D-Velda Village Hills. “You’ve got to be a fighter. And you’ve got to be passionate and for the people.”
Second time’s the charm?
Adams is a former University City mayor who has served two terms in the Missouri House. The former history professor ran for the 14th District seat in 2010, but lost decisively to three other candidates.
This time around, Adams said he has a more efficient and effective campaign apparatus — which allowed him to raise more money than Pace or Williams.
“I believe I’m the hardest working candidate out there,” Adams said. “I’m out there canvassing with my people. They don’t see me just sitting in the office saying ‘go on out there.’ I’m out there with them sweating in the heat. And the hottest day, I’m out there. The rainiest day I’m out there with them.”
Adams said his experience in municipal and state government will give him a better chance to effectively deal with the 14th District’s problems. He also said he will advocate to bring state dollars to local law enforcement agencies, especially because lawmakers are mandating how St. Louis County police departments should operate.
“Health care in my Senate district, but also in the state of Missouri, is atrocious. We’ve got to do something,” Adams said. “We’ve got to figure out a way to reduce crime. Community policing: We’ve got to help people do that. And we’ve got to monitor the police forces in St. Louis County to make sure we’re not abusing their powers.”
Adams believes that he can develop a good working relationship with Gov. Mike Parson, a former state representative and senator. “He is a skilled elected official and politician, however you would want to define it,” he added. “And so, he does know how to work. And I think he knows how to deal with the Democrats and negotiate with them too.”
Like Adams, Pace has a lengthy electoral resume. She spent nearly a decade as an alderwoman in Northwoods. And she served four terms in the Missouri House, representing a slew of municipalities in north St. Louis County.
Pace noted she has professional experience in the health care industry, which she said would make her an effective advocate to deliver coverage to the state’s poor.
“In my opinion, me having that health care background certainly is a plus,” Pace said.
Even though she hasn’t been in office since the beginning of 2017, Pace notes she has still stayed active on boards and committees — which she said showcases how much she cares about the community.
She also pointed out that women are outnumbered in the Missouri Senate. And with Republicans likely to try and restrict abortion rights in the near future, Pace said it’s important to expand female representation in the General Assembly’s upper chamber.
“I think we have a lot issues and a lot of them are addressing women’s issues,” Pace said. “And who better to fight for those issues than a woman?”
Like Adams, Pace is optimistic that she could work with Parson.
“I think just having that open door policy and that ear to listen is a start,” she said. “And I think he’s that particular person that I’ve seen that we can converse. We don’t agree on everything as Democrats either. But we come together on those major issues, of course.”
A new contender enters
Williams, a University City resident, is a longtime congressional staffer for U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay. Unlike Adams or Pace, Williams hasn’t run for office before. But Williams said he has the right type of experience for the Missouri Senate.
“Considering I have a record of working across congressional party lines as a congressional party staffer to get that done, I’m confident I’ll be able to create a conversation around writing legislation pulling funding from the Affordable Care Act in regards to making the state and region better,” Williams said. “I’m confident I’ll be able to create a conversation that’s human, and not polluted by divisiveness of party ideology.”
He also said he understands “how to work within government without making it about personalities.”
“The first thing I did working with the federal government was I went to every federal agency, every state agency in Jefferson City as well as St. Louis County and municipal government. I said ‘hey, what do you guys do?’” Williams said. “If I were to become a dog catcher tomorrow, I would still have relationships within those agencies to be able to serve constituents and to be able to serve in a capacity of helping not-for-profits or local businesses.”
As for working with Republicans, Williams pointed out that he collaborated with GOP Sen. Roy Blunt to help community health centers focus on the opioid crisis and mental health.
“So I’m excited about the possibility of getting things done across party lines, but also to be able to withstand the filibuster and have the energy,” he said.
Carrying the torch
Chappelle-Nadal collaborated with Republicans on big-ticket bills, including education and criminal justice measures. But she also developed a reputation for using the filibuster to slow down bills she didn’t like. For instance: She played a pivotal role in a 37-hour filibuster over a constitutional amendment allowing certain business to refuse service to LGBT individuals.
All three candidates say they want to continue Chappelle-Nadal’s legacy when using the filibuster.
“We’ll be willing to compromise when possible to make bad legislation less bad, if there’s no way of stopping it,” Adams said. “But I’m willing to join in on a filibuster and talk forever.”
Pace noted that she helped defeat that aforementioned constitutional amendment on LGBT rights in a House committee.
“You have to stand up and fight. You have to fight for the people. And that’s why you’re there, to be that voice,” she said.
Williams said he’s already talked to Democratic senators about how to effectively block GOP priorities. “I’m confident that they’ll be excited about me going to Jefferson City to help them fight policies, whether it’s in term of filibuster or just working across party lines just to make the state and region better,” he said.
For her part, Chappelle-Nadal said that she’s not going to disparage Adams or Pace, because “they are our best opportunities to have a successful 14th District.” (Chappelle-Nadal unsuccessfully challenged Clay, Williams' former boss, for Congress in 2016.)
“They both need to have qualified staffers if they win,” she said. “But I’m not going to say one word negative against either one of them.”
The 14th District is heavily Democratic. But the winner of the Aug. 7 primary could face state Rep. Courtney Curtis in November. Curtis, a Ferguson Democrat, is mulling an independent bid for the seat after being blocked from running in the Democratic primary.
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum