With all the focus on the results of primaries and caucuses lately, it’s easy to forget that it’s the delegates — not the voters — who are directly responsible for nominating a president.
Heck, it wasn’t too long ago that being a delegate was more than just a ceremonial honor — it was an invitation to change the course of history. For instance: Venerable Pike County legend Champ Clark looked like the person to beat going into the 1912 Democratic National Convention, only to have that dastardly Woodrow Wilson swipe it away. If not for delegates, Harry S Truman would have been the second Missourian to be president.
This reporter spent some time last week observing the Democratic and Republican caucuses in the 1st Congressional District, which includes all of St. Louis and part of St. Louis County. It’s fair to say there were different stakes involved at these gatherings, especially if Donald Trump emulates Clark by coming into the convention without a majority of delegates. And if Trump can't get enough support on the first ballot, some GOP delegates from Missouri bound to Trump may help Ted Cruz win the nomination.
In any case, both 1st District gatherings yielded some worthwhile insights. Here are notes from the proceedings:
'The Woman Card'
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is angling to make history this year by becoming the first female presidential nominee for a major political party. So perhaps it wasn’t surprising that last Thursday, more than two dozen women ran for three delegate slots reserved for women. (Democrats select an even amount of men and women as delegates to the national convention.)
Ultimately, two state lawmakers — state Rep. Sharon Pace, D-Northwoods, and Margo McNeil, D-Florissant — and Mattie Moore, a longtime behind the scenes player, were elected. And McNeil said she was “thrilled” for the chance to go to Philadelphia.
“I have been supporting women in elected office my whole life,” McNeil said. “And when we first started, people would say ‘well, they’re not qualified. You need somebody qualified.’ I am so proud to be able to support Hillary Clinton, who is the best qualified candidate in the field entirely. And she happens to be a woman. So that’s exciting.”
No Carrs Go
In a somewhat eerie bit of political symmetry, the man McNeil defeated in her first state House election – former Hazelwood Mayor T.R. Carr — was trying to be a Republican delegate on Saturday. He was on an unsuccessful slate that would have voted for Ted Cruz if Trump didn’t capture enough delegates on the first ballot. (Carr, though, indicated that he would have voted for Trump all the way through.)
Carr has been busy since he lost to McNeil in 2008. The former college professor served on the Ferguson Commission and joined the St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners. It’s worth noting that Carr said in his application to the police board that he was an independent.
Unelecteds can still win
Out of the 10 delegates selected at Thursday’s Democratic caucuses, seven (McNeil, Pace, Moore, Megan Green, John Bowman, Jack Coatar, Antonio French) either hold or have held elected office at some point in time. Three Sanders delegates — Brent Welder, Antony Brescia and Natalie Vowell — have no elective experience.
Vowell, who unsuccessfully ran for a state House seat in 2014, said she was surprised and honored to be chosen.
“I’ve been very behind the scenes through most of the campaign, just getting people like Megan to come out,” said Vowell, referring to Alderman Megan Green. “Trying to force our elected officials to, you know, kind of speak out against the establishment. So I’m really excited about getting a little bit more of that pressure applied at a national level.”
While none of the non-alternate Trump delegates selected on Saturday have held elected office, at least one— Robin Hamlin — has run unsuccessfully several times for Congress.
#Quigleymania runs again
One other elected official who sought to be a Clinton delegate was St. Louis Recorder of Deeds Sharon Quigley Carpenter, who spent several decades as a key behind-the-scenes player in city politics.
“I was an Obama person last time, even though I had a great affection for Hillary,” said Carpenter during a short speech to support her nomination. “I need to see Hillary. We need a woman.”
Carpenter, who has occasionally made headlines recently, did not win a delegate slot. A number of other elected officials — including state Rep. Gina Mitten, D-Richmond Heights, Florissant Councilman Tim Jones, and St. Louis County Councilwoman Hazel Erby — also fell short at winning delegate slots. That may show how fierce the competition was on Thursday.
Right before 1st District Republicans started their caucus in earnest, presiding officer Dan O'Sullivan realized that there wasn't a flag inside the Maplewood-Richmond Heights theater.
So the quick thinking O'Sullivan had a delegate sporting an American flag shirt come to the front of the stage. The crowd then recited the Pledge of Allegiance.
Despite some procedural hiccups, O'Sullivan ran the 1st District caucuses relatively smoothly. His initial ingenuity may have foreshadowed a calm event.
At this point in time, Clinton appears to have the inside track to win the Democratic nomination. But several people elected as Bernie Sanders delegates aren’t giving up hope for the Vermont senator to win the nomination — or influence the Democratic Party platform.
“From what I understand, Bernie is going to be taking it all the way to the convention,” Brent Welder said. “And I think we can make a huge difference: Either getting him elected, because I still think he has a shot or really pushing progressive messages that would really help our country.
“But even if he’s not [the nominee], I think he hasn’t just convinced Hillary Clinton,” Welder said. “I think he’s convinced an entire nation and the world that there is a true political revolution that is happening right before our eyes.”
Green observed that Sanders supporters like herself can help “shape the party platform and make sure we’re really standing our ground for Bernie and making a party platform that reflects his values.”
As easily the most Democratic-leaning congressional district in the state, the 1st Congressional District isn’t exactly friendly terrain for Republicans. The only elected officials I spotted at Saturday’s caucus were Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III and St. Ann Councilwoman Amy Poelker. (Poelker, who was elected as an alternate on a pro-Trump slate, is running against St. Louis County Councilman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, later this year.)
It’s highly unlikely that the GOP nominee will even come close to winning the 1st Congressional District. But Trump backer and newly minted delegate Gary Wiegert said prognosticators shouldn’t discount the billionaire businessman’s appeal among Democrats.
“When I went to the Trump rally, there were a number of people there who were supportive,” Wiegert said. "The guy next to me was a laid off steelworker — traditional Democratic voter. He came over and he’s now a Trump supporter. And I’m hoping this carries forward to all Republicans down the ticket. That they’re coming out not just for Trump — but hopefully they’ll vote for everybody down the ticket.
“And if they want that Trump agenda, I think they should vote senators and state reps and everyone who believes in the same thing as Donald Trump believes in,” he added.
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.