There are probably few legislative races in Missouri with stakes as high as the GOP primary for the 23rd Senatorial District.
The St. Charles County-based district has been vacant since former Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey resigned nearly a year ago. And the race to replace him features three candidates with vastly different philosophies and political experience. It’s one of several competitive state Senate primaries in the St. Louis area, and perhaps the one where the end result could matter quite a bit.
The three-way contest features big money and big issue differences. It’s attracted attention from powerful organized labor officials and some of Missouri’s largest political donors. And the outcome could determine the decades-long battle over “right to work.”
The three GOP contenders are state Rep. Anne Zerr, businessman Bill Eigel and Wentzville municipal judge Michael Carter. While the winner will still need to defeat the winner of a Democratic primary between Richard Orr and Greg Upchurch, the GOP nominee will be heavily favored in November.
Zerr has lived in St. Charles County for more than four decades and has a fairly eclectic professional background. Among other things, she’s worked for a police department, a hospital, a university, an economic development agency and the St. Charles County executive’s office.
“It kind of a dream, a bucket list that someday I would want to serve in the Missouri House of Representatives,” Zerr said. “So when the seat came open when Tom Dempsey came to the Senate, then that’s when I made my decision to run for the seat.”
Shortly after she was elected to the Missouri House in 2008, Zerr was appointed as chairman of the House Tourism Committee. She later took the helm of the House Economic Development Committee, one of the more powerful and influential committees in the General Assembly’s lower chamber.
Besides being the receptacle for major pieces of economic development legislation, the committee also has been examining tax incentives, Zerr said.
“From my perspective, any investment a state makes has to get money back – has to get a positive return,” she said. “So we made sure that those types of things happened.”
New to the game
Eigel is an Air Force veteran and the owner of St. Louis Skylights. He was stationed in Turkmenistan during Operation Enduring Freedom, which gave him with some insight about state politics.
“Since they broke away from the Soviet Union, [the president of Turkmenistan] has used big government policies to destroy his country’s currency, to isolate his country from the rest of the world, and put his population into a degree of poverty that we would never accept here in America,” Eigel said. “It has given me a chance to really appreciate just how good things are in the United States and how lucky we are to live here.”
Eigel said he was not very engaged in politics until two things happened: (1) a spike in his health care premium after the Affordable Care Act went into effect and (2) hearing a GOP state representative on the radio supporting a sales tax hike for transportation projects. He said that made him realize "that not all Republicans are really pulling for the same things, in spite of the fact that all Republicans talk about the same thing.”
"We need tax reform to compete with other states like Texas and Tennessee that have better environments for businesses to grow," Eigel said. "We need a transportation plan that doesn’t put additional burdens on businesses and individuals to move about throughout the state. And we also need ethics reform in order to restore some of the trust people have lost in their elected leaders. So those are all the things that I think Missouri needs in order to move forward."
In addition to winning election as a Wentzville municipal judge, Carter has sought several offices over the last eight years. He was a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor in 2008 – and later ran for the same statewide office four years later as a Republican.
He’s been a longstanding opponent of red light cameras. And he took a big interest in efforts to overhaul how municipal courts functioned, especially after the Ferguson unrest. He said that, as he’s tried to remain active in the public policy arena, he’s noticed some unsettling things.
“There’s this kind of ‘get to the back of the line’ if you’re not one of the campaign donors who gave $25,000 or $100,000,” Carter said. “That’s just a hard environment to make your way through. And I thought it would be nice that instead of campaign welfare where you’ve got these candidates with their hands out all the time having their votes for sale, [I decided] to be a Ross Perot Republican and see if I can fund my way through.”
In the past, Carter has been a prolific user of robocalls to draw attention to his campaigns. This time, he’s promising to run a more conventional campaign –which he says includes mailers, Facebook posts and e-mail appeals.
“This is kind of a 2016 campaign where I’m going to hit them from as much marketing touch point as I can,” he said.
Clash over right to work
The three candidates have substantially different policy stances.
Earlier this year, Zerr voted against a constitutional amendment in committee that would have legally shielded businesses that refuse to participate in same-sex marriages. Carter said he also would have opposed the measure because it interferes with contract law. Eigel said he would have voted in favor of the amendment, widely known as SJR39.
Zerr said she would be amenable to creating optional toll roads for some of Missouri’s major roads, adding “I think we ought to really consider a user fee for those who use the roads. … It make sense; they pay for the roads, but then you run into opposition.” Eigel, who has been critical of Zerr for voting to put the transportation tax on the ballot, said he would favor paring down the amount of roads that MoDOT maintains – and using that savings to improve the state’s major thoroughfares.
But easily the biggest difference between the candidates involves organized labor. Eigel said he would vote for “right to work,” which would bar unions and employers from requiring employees to pay dues or fees.
“I support right to work,” Eigel said. “I think right to work is one of the policies that Missouri needs to have in order to make Missouri the most economically competitive place in these United States. We need right to work, which really is labor freedom. It gives employees the option to maintain their employment without being compelled to join a third party – in this case, a union.”
Zerr has generally opposed “right to work” and other bills that were perceived as hostile to organized labor. When asked if there was any scenario where she would vote for “right to work” in the Senate, she replied: “I don’t think so.”
“There have always been … generations of union members in St. Charles County. We need to respect that,” Zerr said. “It’s kept people able to have a wage where they’re not going to get rich, but they can raise their families. They can have a house. Maybe buy a car or two. Maybe have a little Jon Boat or something like that.”
Carter has a different view on the matter: He doesn’t think that employers should withhold any taxes or fees. He says if employees had to figure out withholdings themselves, they would care a lot more about where the money is going.
These are the stakes
Depending on who becomes governor, right to work could be one of the first controversial issues the Missouri General Assembly deals with in 2017. An Eigel victory could make it easier in the Senate to override a Democratic veto (although it would take a lot of work to get an override attempt through the House).
Those type of stakes probably explain why donors who support right to work, like TAMKO President David Humphreys, have provided big donations to Eigel’s campaign. And many labor unions have donated generously to Zerr.
The race is apparently so important to organized labor, that AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is paying attention to the results. He told St. Louis Public Radio’s Jo Mannies that Zerr’s race is “very, very important.”
“She stood up with us, because she had the tenacity to stand up for working people and do what she felt to be right,” Trumka said. “These big donors that you talk about threatened to take her out of office. And they are trying to punish anybody who dare stand up for working people. … And as a result, we’re paying close attention to that. We’re supporting her. We’re working hard. And we’ll continue to work hard on her behalf until Aug. 2.”