State Rep. Keith English, D-Florissant, has left the Missouri Democratic Party and is becoming an independent. He says the decision stemmed from his personal beliefs, which “do not seem welcome among current party leadership."
But some of English’s colleagues say his defection has more to do with comments he made about Michael Brown’s shooting death.
English said in a press release that the Democrats are no longer the party “of Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy.” He says he’s “leaving the party because the party left me.”
“It shouldn’t matter whether I’m conservative or liberal,” English said in his statement. “What is most important is that we raise the level of debate in this country through informed discussions that lead to policies that benefit all Americans.”
English noted in his statement that he supports gun rights and opposes abortion rights. He was the decisive vote in the Republican effort to override Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of tax cut legislation last year – a move that led to his being stripped of his committee assignments.
In a telephone interview, English said losing his committees was the last straw.
“I was not put on committees since I overrode the governor on a tax bill last year. And I was sent up here and re-elected to represent the people of the 68th District,” English said. “And without me being on committees, I can’t do that."
When negotiations with Democratic leaders failed, he said, “I left the Democratic Party so I can be put on committees to represent my district,” he added.
In a statement, House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, D-St. Louis, said that the Democrats' "distrust isn’t the result of Rep. English’s habit of sometimes voting with the other political party.”
“As a caucus, we recognize and respect our differences of opinion and encourage members to vote their consciences and their districts,” Hummel said. “Rather, the distrust (about) English stems from the fact that he hasn’t always been honest about his intentions to side with Republicans on issues of importance to House Democrats.”
House John Diehl, R-Town and Country, had a more sanguine view of English’s departure from the Democratic caucus. In a statement, he called English “a friend and colleague who has proven time and time again that he will put partisan politics aside to vote his conscience and his district.”
“By cutting him out of the process," said Diehl, "his own caucus not only stifled his voice, but all the voices of the families and businesses in his district."
Some of English’s Democratic colleagues said his defection has nothing to do with his voting record.
In a letter to House Minority Caucus Chairwoman Gina Mitten, state Rep. Joshua Peters detailed a recent caucus meeting during which English’s acceptance of a third floor office was a topic of contention. Republicans typically occupy offices on the third floor, and in the past, Democratic lawmakers with them have tended to vote with the GOP on occasion.
Peters wrote that “in responding to one member of our caucus who was questioning his acceptance of the gift of a third floor office ... Rep. English made an unacceptable, insulting and racially charged remark.” Peters asked Mitten to consider censure or expulsion charges against English.
Rep. Brandon Ellington, D-Kansas City, gave more details in a written statement. He said English was already on thin ice after he posted a comment on Facebook suggesting that NAACP members marching to Jefferson City should go to Mexico.
“Some recent statements by Rep. Keith English have been racially charged, including a [Facebook] posting saying Ferguson protesters need to follow a map to Mexico and his comment to the House Democratic Caucus on Monday that Michael Brown ‘should have known not to be in the street,’” Ellington said. “We cannot tolerate actions such as these from any member of the General Assembly."
In a telephone interview, Hummel said, “In essence, he compared himself and his situation to that of Michael Brown.”
English declined to comment on what he said during the Democratic caucus meeting, adding anything that's been reported "was probably taken out of context."
He added that he's “absolutely” running for re-election. Asked if he would run as an independent, he said, “That’s two years away and we’ll see what happens between now and then.”
“That’s the problem with today’s day and age. Party labels,” said English. “Everybody’s labeling people by their voting records. Look at the Democratic caucus and what they’re saying about me – because I’m pro-life and Second Amendment supporter that I’m not a Democrat. They attack me about my voting record when I have the same exact voting record as Reps. Jeff Roorda, Ben Harris, Michael Frame and Linda Black.”
“They pushed us away from the Democratic Party circle here in the Missouri Capitol,” he added, noting that Black recently left the Democratic Party to become a Republican. “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, they left me.”