Out of all the items on the Nov. 6 ballot, Clean Missouri is creating some of the most unusual partners in recent Missouri political history.
Proponents of the measure, on the ballot as Amendment 1, include left-of-center activists who helped write and fund the initiative, as well as some current and former GOP officials. Clean Missouri backers believe that the amendment will make lawmakers more responsive to people instead of special interest groups or lobbyists.
“This is a huge step toward making sure the people we elect in Jeff City really report back to us, the voters,” said St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones. “Because we matter.”
But GOP detractors believe that Clean Missouri isn’t about improving ethics, and instead is about giving Democrats a leg up on the state legislative redistricting process. And despite language aimed at protecting state legislative districts with large populations of racial minorities, some prominent African-American officials are opposing the amendment for fear it will diminish their power.
“They’re trying to take politics out of the redistricting process” said former state Rep. Justin Alferman, a Hermann Republican who worked on state legislative redistricting in the early 2010s. “My argument is it is absolutely impossible to do so, even with their language.”
Much will depend on who gets elected as state auditor, since the amendment gives that officeholder responsibility in gathering candidates to draw House and Senate lines.
- Substantially limit the meals, entertainment and travel that a lobbyist can give a legislator. Lawmakers have tried, without success, to curtail lobbyist freebies — with efforts often running into opposition in the Missouri Senate.
- Place a two-year waiting period on lawmakers and their staff to become lobbyists. Currently, there’s a six-month waiting period — which some contend is insufficient.
- Make some changes to campaign finance law, including lowering campaign-donation limits for House and Senate candidates. Clean Missouri would not require politically active nonprofits to disclose their donors or bar them from donating to ballot initiatives. It also wouldn't stop political action committees from taking in unlimited amounts of money and spending that cash on behalf or against candidates.
- Require emails and other documents from legislators to be open records. For years, House and Senate administrators have contended lawmaker records are not subject to the Sunshine Law because legislators are not considered governmental bodies.
- Substantially alter how state House and Senate districts are drawn.
Backers of the Clean Missouri, including GOP Sen. Rob Schaaf, believe it’s needed to instill a more ethical and competitive atmosphere in the Missouri General Assembly. The St. Joseph Republican said the current environment allows special interests to exercise undue influence.
“The Legislature, most of the time I would say, doesn’t do the wishes of the people,” said Schaaf, R-St. Joseph. “It does the wishes of the big donors. And the whole idea of Clean Missouri is to clean up some of the corruption — and make it so that the legislature’s more responsive to the people.”
Clean Missouri proponents have touted support from Republicans like Schaaf and former U.S. Sen. Jack Danforth. It also has backing from the Missouri Democratic Party, as well as a number of labor unions.
Much of the Clean Missouri’s paid advertisements have focused heavily on the concept of reining in “big money” in Missouri politics. For instance, a television ad that started airing last week had a politician entering a glass booth — only to be consumed by a whirlwind of money.
Former Sen. Jim Lembke acknowledged that lobbyist gifts did have an impact on how he acted as a legislator.
“I thought that I could take the gifts from lobbyists and it wouldn’t affect me,” said Lembke, a Lemay Republican who lost re-election after his Democratic opponent highlighted how he took lobbyist gifts. “But you know, when I really think back on it and look at it, I think that it did afford certain groups and certain lobbyists access to me that other people did not have.”
Both sides of the political aisle believe the most important aspect of Clean Missouri is how it changes state legislative redistricting. Clean Missouri does not affect redistricting of congressional districts, which the General Assembly signs off on after a census is completed.
Currently, either commissions evenly split between Democrats and Republicans or a panel of appellate judges draw state House and Senate lines. Most of the commissions in recent history have deadlocked, prompting seven appellate judges that the Missouri Supreme Court appoints to draw the final lines. After the 2010 census, judges drew the House map and a commission drew the Senate map.
There’s little debate that political parties seek to sway members of the Missouri redistricting commissions. In order to come up with a final map, at least seven members of a commission need to vote for a proposal. Eight of the 10 members of a Senate redistricting commission voted for the final map — including four out of five Democratic members.
It’s unclear how much partisan influence affects how appellate judges draw districts, since they aren’t required to explain their rationale. Former Missouri Supreme Court Judge Michael Wolff said, based on his observation, it didn’t appear that the judges purposely drew maps to help one political party. But he added he doesn’t believe that judges should be involved in the redistricting process.
“The problem that judges have is that they start with a map that exists,” Wolff said. “And you’re tinkering around the edges with a map that already exists, because they don’t really have any tools to use. The parties bring them suggestions about what to do. So they look at it. Most of the people who serve on our appellate courts have not run for the legislature or run for office. So they don’t really have a notion of what that should look like.”
The evenly divided House and Senate commissions would still exist under Clean Missouri. But a demographer would draw the first map. The state auditor would take applications and present at least three nominees to the GOP and Democratic leaders of the Missouri Senate. If those two legislators can’t agree on a demographer, then one will be picked through a lottery.
Once the demographer is chosen, he or she would draw districts under criteria laid out in the amendment. For one thing, districts could not be drawn “with the intent or result of denying or abridging the equal opportunity of racial or language minorities to participate in the political process or diminishing their ability to elect representatives of their choice, whether by themselves or by voting in concert with other persons.”
The demographer would have to create districts aimed at achieving partisan fairness and competitiveness. Clean Missouri campaign manager Sean Soendker Nicholson said there’s also language in Clean Missouri “for the legislative control to be responsive to where voters are at.”
“It makes no sense to have a world where Donald Trump wins Missouri by 20 points and Democrats pick up a seat in the Missouri House. Clearly there was a shift in what the electorate preferred and wanted in 2016. So all of these things have to be taken into consideration and together,” he said.
Nicholson said Clean Missouri is not releasing any examples about what House and Senate maps would look like under the amendment. Part of the job of the demographer would be to come up with a formula for a map, based in part on elections for the U.S. Senate, president and governor. He said it’s impossible to sketch out examples of how districts would look right now, because Missourians still need to vote in those elections in 2018 and 2020.
Clean Missouri proponents have said the goal is to create districts that are more vigorously contested than the current system.
“I don’t think this is a partisan thing,” said state Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis. “I think the fact is it’s not a fair process. And a lot of times, politicians have more interest in preserving their districts being drawn exactly the way it is drawn in their own personal interest — which is not a partisan interest. So that often means that both sides are doing things to benefit themselves.”
Most of the opposition has come from Republicans, who contend that the redistricting portion of the amendment isn’t about promoting fairness — but about increasing Democratic fortunes in the Missouri General Assembly.
State Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, called it “a pretty blatant attempt to destroy and wither the Republican Party in the state of Missouri.”
“There’s other parts of this that are kind of the Trojan horse. The things that Rob Schaaf supports like reforming campaign finance … those are the things that they’re going to get voters to focus on and to say, ‘Oh yeah, we support cleaning up those issues,’” Dogan said. “But then they’re sneaking in this redistricting as almost an afterthought.”
Other Republicans are raising alarm about Clean Missouri’s impact on what districts will look like — including former U.S. Sen. Jim Talent.
Among other things, Talent contends that Clean Missouri will create legislative districts that narrowly snake across a lot of terrain. That’s because most of Missouri’s Democratic population is concentrated in St. Louis and Kansas City — and he said creating more competitive districts would require pairing that territory with GOP-leaning areas that may be far away.
Amendment 1 proponents note that the measure does have requirements for districts to be compact and to keep certain communities together. But Talent said requirements for partisan fairness and competitiveness take precedence over that criteria.
Talent also questioned why the state auditor would play a role in picking the demographer.
“All these progressive groups, let’s be fair here, they pick the one statewide officer that they think is going to be a Democrat after this election — and they say this isn’t about partisanship,” Talent said. “I don’t begrudge anybody who’s frustrated by a situation where they feel the number of legislators of their party doesn’t reflect their real strength. I was exactly there in 1980. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about it.”
Clean Missouri spokesman Benjamin Singer said “the auditor was determined to be the least partisan of the options. Generally, an auditor's success is determined by how fair they are. They are supposed to go after both Democrats and Republicans.”
It’s not just Republicans who are opposing Clean Missouri — but also a number of prominent African-American elected officials and leaders. That includes U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay and state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, two bitter rivals who believe the amendment will reduce the number of African-American lawmakers.
“I will be voting against so-called Clean Missouri,” Clay said. “I think it would disperse African-Americans into numerous districts and dilute their power and strength.”
Chappelle-Nadal said she’s concerned that Clean Missouri would reduce the percentages of African-American majority districts to around 50 percent — a threshold that would make it possible for a white person to win. She pointed out that during the 2011 redistricting process, some Democrats on the commission wanted to add largely white St. Louis County municipalities to her district — which would have made her vulnerable to a white Democratic primary challenger.
“All you have to do is look at the mathematics,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “You’d have to whiten up black districts in order to get the Democratic maps that the Democratic Party wants. And as my colleague Jamilah Nasheed has said time and time again, ‘I’m black before I’m a Democrat.'”
Others, though, question whether that scenario will happen. A number of experts who follow redistricting have contended the language regarding protecting minority participation is strong, including Michael Li of the Brennan Center for Justice.
“At a time when the scope of future federal protections becomes more uncertain, Amendment 1 would make Missouri a national leader in protecting the voting power of communities of color,” Li said. “The proposal is absolutely clear — districts must be drawn to allow minority voters to elect their preferred candidates. And, if their political power is at all diminished, voters of color could bring a challenge. Passing Amendment 1 would be a major voting rights victory.”
The Rev. Starsky Wilson, co-chairman of the Ferguson Commission, said the current setup in the General Assembly isn’t beneficial toward communities of color.
“For me, it’s not as much about whether black Democrats trust white Democrats or whether black Democrats trust white Republicans,” said Wilson. “For me, what it’s really about is whether we can get a governance and a government that is responsive to the needs of people.”
Someone could sue if they felt districts diminished the ability of racial minorities to get elected. But Chappelle-Nadal said she doesn’t trust an increasingly conservative judiciary to rule in favor of African-American political power.
“So I can’t trust somebody’s word when I know that the ultimate decision-maker is going to be the Supreme Court if it’s challenged,” said Chappelle-Nadal, who will be barred from running for the General Assembly after 2020 due to term limits. “Looking at this current Supreme Court that we have, there are no guarantees for African-Americans period. In fact, there are no guarantees for people of color at all.”
With two weeks to election day, Clean Missouri has a cash advantage over an opposition group known as Missourians First. Whether the measure passes may depend on whether proponents can convince Republicans and African-Americans to vote yes.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Rachel Lippmann contributed to this report.
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