Wes Shoemyer was content to ride off into the political sunset.
The former Democratic state senator lost his re-election bid decisively in 2010. Afterward he told people in Jefferson City that he had a great “consolation prize” – going back to his farm near Monroe County.
But Shoemyer is leaping back into the fray to fight an amendment making it more difficult to regulate agriculture. And he’s taking on familiar adversaries – some the state’s largest agricultural organizations.
“I’m happy as punch on my farm,” Shoemyer said in a telephone interview. “And it took a lot to draw me back out into any fray. But whenever things are so egregious and so wrong and we’ve lost so many voices in rural Missouri on the side of family farm agriculture that you couldn’t even hear a peep about this, someone had to step up.”
Proponents of the amendment see things differently. They say it will safeguard against burdensome agricultural regulations – such as a 2010 ballot initiative to restrict dog breeders. Among its high-profile supporters is the Missouri Farm Bureau.
The bureau's president, Blake Hurst, said agricultural groups are “working to maintain people’s food choices, whether they want to buy local food, organic food, or whether they’re concerned about their budget and want to buy the most reasonably priced food.
“Only the [amendment] will guarantee those choices,” he said.
A handful of words
The General Assembly placed the constitutional amendment – known as the “Right to Farm” or “Keep Missouri Farming” Amendment – on the ballot last year. Voters will decide on it in November.
“The concern basically (is that) animal rights (groups) can come in and do initiative petitions," said Missouri Farmers Care's Dan Kleinsorge.
Kleinsorge was referring to Proposition B, the 2010 ballot initiative to restrict dog breeders. While the initiative narrowly passed, the General Assembly then passed legislation to weaken it. Gov. Jay Nixon signed it into law.
The amendment, Kleinsorge said, “is designed to protect all farmers: whether they’re organic or conventional or small or medium size or whatever the case might be.” He said if a law or ballot initiative was passed threatening an agricultural industry, the amendment could be used in court to strike it down.
Missouri Farmers Care – which encompasses a number of Missouri’s agricultural groups – has hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend in November to help pass the amendment. But Shoemyer’s political action committee – known as Missouri’s Food for America – ensures there will be opposition.
Shoemyer says that the amendment is too vague and could tilt the balance in favor of larger, corporate farms.
“Can you imagine if this type of exemption (existed) for the coal industry or the chemical industry in West Virginia?” Shoemyer asked. “I mean, we don’t know the changes that are coming forth. And that’s what I’m saying. In 25 years, in my lifetime of farming, the changes have been dramatic. And I suspect that they will be even more dramatic in the future.”
No love lost
Supporters of the amendment minced no words after Shoemyer publicly rolled out his PAC. Don Nikodim, chair of Missouri Farmers Care, called Shoemyer “a failed politician” who “should be ashamed of selling out Missouri farmers."
That isn’t too surprising since Shoemyer made plenty of enemies during his years in the legislature. Among other things, he advocated against confined animal feeding operations. He also probably wasn’t Monsanto’s favorite legislator for habitually sponsoring legislation letting farmers keep portions of their seeds.
Both Nikodim and Hurst accused Shoemyer’s PAC of being a front group for the Humane Society of the United States, which largely funded Proposition B.
"Constitutional Amendment 1, the Missouri Farming Rights Amendment, is a commonsense way to protect Missouri family farmers from those who want to destroy our way of life," Nikodim said in his statement. "So, it's no surprise that HSUS, the No. 1 threat to Missouri farmers, would create this Trojan horse in an attempt to deceive voters and stop this essential effort."
Shoemyer is a part of HSUS’ Missouri Agriculture Advisory Council. HSUS Missouri State Director Amanda Good is Missouri’s Food for America's deputy treasurer.
But Shoemyer emphasized he’d be willing to bring in anybody to help him out, adding he’s “worked in the Capitol long enough to know your worst enemy could be your best friend the next year.” He added that he hopes to attract support from consumer groups, labor unions and property rights activists
“If HSUS is on our side, I say ‘at least HSUS ends with a US,’” said Shoemyer, alluding to legislation that lifted a ban on foreign ownership of farmland. “So we’re fighting for Missourians’ rights. This isn’t about Prop B. This isn’t about horses. This is about protecting the people’s rights in an industry that will be ever changing and not losing those rights to address those issues."
HSUS’ potential involvement in the "Right to Farm" fight is something of a double-edged sword. While Proposition B passed overwhelmingly in suburban and urban areas of the state, it failed miserably in rural counties. And opponents often castigated HSUS as an out-of-touch group seeking to impose its will on farmers.
Shoemyer conceded there are "still people who are still very aggravated and very angry who were displaced from raising dogs in this state."
But, he said, the amendment amounts to throwing “baby out with the bathwater.”
“Why in the world would you take people’s rights away to address a whole segment of industry in the state because you lost one election?” Shoemyer said.
Still, it should be noted that statewide ballot initiatives with organized opposition have a much greater chance of failing. And HSUS could bring considerable financial resources to the table – as it did in 2010. That's money that could stir up turnout in St. Louis and Kansas City.
Kleinsorge predicted that his group can win on the “grassroots because we have actual Missourians that support us.”
“You look at the organizations that make up Missouri Farmers Care, they’re basically all farmer-led co-ops or farmer-led associations. We have great networks in rural Missouri to reach people,” he said, adding one goal is convincing people in Kansas City and St. Louis to support the amendment.
“It’s a huge challenge. And we know we’re going to be outspent. And HSUS can dump hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of dollars into this," he added. “But we fought them before and we’re will to fight them again."
Sit down, stand up
Shoemyer’s re-emergence comes as Missouri Democrats are at a low point in northeast Missouri, once one of the party’s strong bases of support.
When Shoemyer lost to Republican Brian Munzlinger in 2010, it foretold a full collapse of Democratic fortunes in that geographic area. It’s possible that northeast Missouri Democrats could be completely shut out in the state House if Republicans take over a seat currently held by term-limited state Rep. Ed Schieffer, R-Troy.
Things aren’t much easier on a state Senate level. Munzlinger’s 18th senatorial district got more Republican after redistricting, especially after GOP-leaning Randolph County was added and Democratic-leaning Monroe County was taken out. And state Rep. Jeanie Riddle, R-Mokane, has a substantial fundraising advantage over Schieffer in the soon-to-be open 10th District.
Shoemyer could run for another term in the state Senate (he lives in the 10th senatorial district). But he emphasized he has no intentions on putting his name on the ballot, adding that he's "perfectly happy working on this initiative to see that 'Right to Farm' fails.”
“It lets me be classic and populist Wes Shoemyer who loves to… just go at it,” he said.
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.