State Rep. Clem Smith was willing to step away from Missouri politics after being barred from running again for the House due to term limits.
In one of his final speeches, Smith said he was “going to ride out into the sunset like Shane and get an AARP card so I can get discounts at Best Western or something.” But the four-term state lawmaker from St. Louis County kept getting encouragement to stay involved, which is one of the reasons he ran for and won the vice chairmanship of the Missouri Democratic Party last weekend.
“And I said ‘you know what? Who better than me?’” said Smith, who will leave his House seat in early 2019. “I give a damn and I’m willing to bring people together. I think I’ve been successful in that. And we can work some of these problems out. Level these problems out and turn this ship in the right direction.”
Smith was elected to the No. 2 spot in the Missouri Democratic Party over Darryl Gray, a civil rights activist who is running for St. Louis alderman. Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker was elected chairwoman over two other opponents.
The leadership change comes after U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill lost re-election and Democrats failed to pick up any seats in the Missouri General Assembly. It also happens as the party got swamped in rural parts of the state, including places like northeast and southeast Missouri where Democrats are historically strong.
Amid a debate about whether Missouri Democrats should focus on their base in urban and suburban Missouri or reach out to rural counties, Smith said the party can and must do both.
“When folks start losing, they start cannibalizing each other — blaming each other for stuff. Because that’s just the stress, the tension that comes with not turning things around. And I kind of saw that happening with the Democratic Party,” Smith said. “There’s always that age-old argument of the rural and the urban, and everybody fighting against each other. I think it’s kind of B.S., myself. Because I think if you get folks in a room, you can hammer stuff out. You can look at the numbers and come to some agreement where everybody’s happy.”
Still, Smith believes that Congressmen Lacy Clay and Emanuel Cleaver both “have merit” in criticizing McCaskill for not putting enough emphasis on boosting black voter turnout. For her part, McCaskill pointed to how her vote totals in St. Louis, Kansas City and St. Louis County were up compared to previous elections.
“I saw a lot of signage. I saw some people getting a lot of mailers. I saw a lot of people who had been die hard and still are die hard Democrats and vote consistently not getting mailers,” Smith said. “People, at the end of the day, want to be asked for their vote. And there’s a lot of folks, I know, in my area in St. Louis County who didn’t feel like their vote was really asked for.”
Who are the leaders?
McCaskill’s imminent departure is also prompting questions about the party’s bench for key elections.
Both Clay and Cleaver will be gaining power with the Democratic takeover the U.S. House, yet it’s unclear if they’ll try to exert more influence on the Missouri Democratic Party.
State Auditor Nicole Galloway won a full, four-year term as a statewide officeholder and is seen as possible gubernatorial or U.S. Senate candidate. She said this year, though, that she was running because “I want to be auditor for four years. I do. I want a full term.”
Smith said that Clay, Cleaver and Galloway are going to be part of a “consortium of folks” who take the lead for Missouri Democrats.
“I think it will be some combination of the one statewide officeholder we have and both congresspeople,” Smith said. “And then you start looking in the Senate and the House and members of the legislature standing up, along with people kind of coming out of the community.”
No prominent Democrats have officially announced a run for governor in 2020. In addition to Galloway, potential candidates include former Missouri Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Webber, state Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton, state Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur and Kansas City Mayor Sly James.
Smith, though, emphasized that he won’t be returning to the ballot anytime soon. He said he did “not take this job thinking ‘hey, I can somehow finesse this into another position.’”
“I’ll kind of get in where I fit in,” he said. “And that’s how I’ve done with my political career.”
Missouri Republicans are slated to elect leaders in late January. Missouri Republican Party Chairman Todd Graves announced that he will not be running for another term.
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum