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Montee will focus on a Missouri Democratic message -- and discontent

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 10, 2010 - Outgoing state Auditor Susan Montee and local Democratic activist Rea Kleeman haven't talked lately. But Montee, the new chair of the Missouri Democratic Party, might want to do so if she expects to get any more campaign donations or volunteer help from Kleeman and her allies.

Kleeman, a retired child psychiatrist from Clayton, is traveling the region as the head of a new group called Progressive Democrats of St. Louis. And she's exhorting fellow Democratic activists to withhold their money and their political muscle until Montee, Gov. Jay Nixon or other top Democratic officials meet with them to discuss how best to get the party back on track after its disastrous losses in the Nov. 2 election.

"No talk, no money," Kleeman said in an interview. "Maybe if a lot of us don't contribute, they'll pay attention."

So far, Kleeman -- who donates several thousand dollars every election cycle -- hasn't heard from Nixon or other major Democrats since news broke last weekof her discontent, and of her initial letter to the governor asking for a meeting to talk about the party's political shortcomings. Since then, Kleeman's group has met to discuss what to do next.

In the meantime, Kleeman is pleased that Montee -- who lost her re-election bid for state auditor on Nov. 2 -- has been expressing some of the same concerns.

A 'Self Sustaining' State Party

Montee said in an interview this week that her aim as new state Democratic Party chair is to help build a "self-sustaining party" operation that emphasizes a positive message for all Democratic candidates, up and down the ticket, and doesn't simply become an arm of a top-ticket candidate -- such those running for governor or the U.S. Senate.

"This year was really a breakdown in messaging," Montee said. Among other things, she added, "We didn't talk about what makes state Democrats different from national Democrats or California Democrats."

Left unsaid was the state party's function this year as an extension of Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan's failed campaign for the U.S. Senate. The state Democratic Party's primary missives for months were almost daily attacks against the GOP nominee, now U.S. Sen.-elect Roy Blunt.

The state Democratic Party's regular releases said little about any other candidates, Democratic or Republican. Those largely ignored included Montee, who lost to Republican Tom Schweich, a St. Louis lawyer and former Bush administration official.

The state party's focus on national politics, said Montee, gave voters little sense of what Missouri Democratic candidates as a whole stood for.

"If we had articulated a state message different from the federal message," she said, the result might have boosted the election chances of some down-ballot Democrats -- notably those running for legislative or local offices.

Kleeman agrees with Montee's assessment, although she also acknowledges the Democratic trouble in coming up with pithy slogans similar to those used effectively by Republicans this fall.

"The Republicans have 'no taxes, small government and jobs'," Kleeman said. For the moment, her counter proposal for Democrats is "caring, fair and smart" -- words she acknowledges may be too general for the party or the public to embrace.

Missouri Republican Party executive director Lloyd Smith contends that Montee and state Democratic activists still don't get it.

"The Republican Party's overwhelming success in the election of 2010 showed yet again that Missouri is becoming an increasingly conservative state," Smith said. "But Susan Montee was soundly defeated because she embraced the failed policies of Barack Obama and national Democrats. The fact that the Missouri Democrat Party selected Montee to lead their party proves that they did not learn their lesson from the election. Instead, they remain the out-of-touch party that voters overwhelmingly rejected just one month ago."

Top-down Control

Montee was elected without opposition last weekend to replace outgoing state party chairman Craig Hosmer, a lawyer and former legislator from Springfield, who had been Nixon's choice to be Democratic Party chairman for the past two years.

Hosmer had announced before the party's 68-member state committee met that he wasn't going to seek another term.

Bob Levine, of St. Louis County, who was elected as vice chairman at the same state meeting, said the election of new leaders went smoothly, without acrimony. He and other Democratic activists, including Montee, also played down any talk that the change was a jab at Nixon or a show of muscle by Montee's close friend, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill.

Montee's name was first floated for the top state post right before Thanksgiving, as St. Louis area activists privately began lobbying for a change. In an interview at the time with the Beacon, Nixon had praised Hosmer and indicated he hoped Hosmer would stay in charge.

This week, Nixon touted his support for Montee, saying in a statement,

"I look forward to working with Auditor Montee to elect Democrats. We've been good friends for many, many years. She brings a wealth of experience at an important time.

"Chairman Hosmer has served his two years. It's not an easy job," the governor added. "You get a lot more phone calls than accolades in that particular job. And I'm confident we'll work well together to continue to press forward."

Traditionally, the Missouri Democratic Party's state apparatus has been controlled by the governor or other top-of-the-ticket candidates. That explains why Carnahan called most of the shots for the state party this year -- and why the focus is on Nixon's reaction to what some privately describe as a mutiny within party ranks.

Lesson from 2004

Montee, a lawyer and accountant from St. Joseph, says discontent about the party's top-down arrangement has raged for years. It first bubbled to the surface after the 2004 election, when state Democrats were caught flat-footed after then-Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry and the Democratic National Committee withdrew staff and campaign money just weeks before the election.

Kerry and national Democratic leaders had determined that Missouri was a lost cause in Kerry's quest to unseat then-President George W. Bush. But the decision to send the presidential campaign operation to other states left the Democratic candidate for governor -- Claire McCaskill  -- with virtually no field staff because the cash-strapped state party had relied on Kerry and the DNC as the political engine for the state's entire 2004 Democratic ticket.

The upshot was similar to what happened to state Democrats this year. Kerry was trounced in Missouri, and took many state Democratic candidates down with him.

Still, Montee said the plan for a separate Missouri Democratic Party operation was put on the back burner for 2006 and 2008, "basically because of money."

In line with tradition, McCaskill called the shots for a couple years. Her choice for state chairman, former Gov. Roger Wilson, ran things from mid-2004 until after she won her U.S. Senate bid in 2006.

McCaskill then handed the state party's reins to Nixon, the Democratic candidate for governor in 2008. He put in his choice for party chairman, local lawyer John Temporiti, who largely ran the state operation as an arm of Nixon's campaign. Later, Nixon put in Hosmer.

Montee said it was unfair to expect Nixon or any governor to take on the primary role of running the state party or crafting its overarching political message, when "the governor has his hands full governing."

Meanwhile, McCaskill denies playing any role in Montee's selection as Hosmer's replacement.

"Interestingly enough, the push for Susan Montee was not me and it wasn't Gov. Nixon," McCaskill said in a written account to the Beacon. "It was really some of the grassroots Democrats across the state, the members of the state committee who really felt like Susan was someone who was responsive to them, who came to all their functions, who listened to their frustrations, who realized that the state party is something more than just whether or not a handful of us get elected.

"And I think they were the ones who thought that she would be responsive to some of the grassroots concerns in Missouri as it relates to Democratic policy and our ability to communicate and fight for the things we believe in," McCaskill added.

The senator emphasized, though, that she supports Montee as the new party chief. "This is a smart woman. She's a lawyer, she's a CPA, she has run a small business very successfully, she has managed a payroll. Ultimately this is a decision of those members of the state committee who are elected locally by Democrats and they wanted Susan Montee to be the chairman, and I respect their decision."

Listening to People

Montee said she expects to work well with McCaskill, Nixon and other Democrats as they seek to regroup. She indicated that staff changes may be made, but emphasized that her focus will be on messaging and getting Democrats to show up at the polls. Montee, McCaskill and others have said it was obvious that many Missouri Democrats stayed home Nov. 2.

Igniting party enthusiasm, said Montee, will require an emphasis on general "Democratic ideals," such as the importance of education, civil rights and fairness in public policies like taxation and access to health care.

Regarding health care, for example, Montee said the state party could have helped explain earlier how Missourians would benefit from parts of the new federal health care law.

The party also could have helped differentiate between the state and national roles on health care and other public issues, she said. This fall, she said, it was clear that Missouri voters got confused about differences in the issues facing the state and those confronting the country.

The result was that Democrats up and down the state ticket found themselves on the defensive about national issues many of them had little involvement in, she added.

But Montee also emphasized that the state Democratic committee, and other rank and file activists, will be the real power to directing the party's approach for 2012.

The Democratic message, said Montee, "will come from me but it will not originate initially with me."

That's what activists like Kleeman want to hear.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.