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Democrats battle in key contests for seats in the GOP-controlled Missouri Senate

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 25, 2012 - One behind-the-scenes hope of Missouri Democrats – including Gov. Jay Nixon – is to chip away in November at the state Republican Party’s huge veto-proof edge in the state Senate, where the GOP holds 26 of the 34 seats.

That means Democrats need strong candidates to come out of the August primary.

The  newly redrawn 1st state Senate District in south St. Louis County is high on both parties’ lists; it is among a handful of GOP-held seats statewide that Democrats hope to win and Republicans expect to fight hard to keep.

The district’s new boundaries give it lots more Democratic voters than it had when state Sen. Jim Lembke, R-Lemay, first narrowly won the post in 2008.

“I think it’s a very important race, not just for the local community, but for the St. Louis region and the state,’’ said state Rep. Scott Sifton, D-Affton.

Sifton is among two well-known Democrats competing for the chance to challenge Lembke in the fall. The other is former state Rep. Sue Schoemehl, D-Oakville.

The 1st District is among three hot Democratic battles in the Aug. 7 primary. The others are the 5th District, primarily in St. Louis, and the 13th District in north St. Louis County.

But the 5th and 13th already are held by Democrats and Republican candidates aren't likely to snatch them away, even if different Democrats end up occupying the seats.

That explains the attention on the 1st District.

1st District

Sifton, 38, a lawyer and former member of the Affton School Board, is serving his first term in the Missouri House. Schoemehl, 58, served eight years in the state House before term limits forced her out in 2010.

Sifton and Schoemehl share similar views on encouraging economic development, improving public education and focusing on job creation.  Both say their records show strengths in cooperation and collaboration, while also sticking up for core Democratic values.

Both see their disagreements, largely on social issues, as reflecting their differing views as to who could best challenge Lembke.

The two Democrats’ chief differences involve women’s health. Sifton supports abortion rights, embryonic stem-cell research and access to contraception. Schoemehl, a Catholic, opposes abortion and has been endorsed previously by Missouri Right to Life, the state’s largest anti-abortion group.

Lembke also is an outspoken opponent of abortion and certain types of stem-cell research.  That said, he – like his two Democratic rivals – has been focusing on the economy and state budget for much of his campaign.

Lembke says he's highlighting his effort to curb the state's tax-credit programs, which some in both parties blame for part of the state's fiscal problems.

Sifton has been blanketing the district with campaign mailers that, among other things, promote his refusal to accept gifts or meals from lobbyists. He notes that Lembke -- and to a lesser extent, Schoemehl – have accepted meals or transportation from lobbyists. Lembke and Schoemehl say their votes weren't affected.

Schoemehl is launching most of her campaign literature within the final two weeks before the primary. She faults Sifton for a 2011 vote in favor of a resolution that indirectly jabbed by Boeing by praising a rival strike-fighter aircraft built by Texas-based Lockheed Martin. 

(House leaders have noted that 127 House members voted for the measure, because they were unaware of the inference to Boeing. An apologetic House later overwhelmingly passed a pro-Boeing measure.)

Both Democrats blast Lembke for his legislative activities in recent years, notably his opposition to the state accepting federal money to extend unemployment insurance and his support for changing Missouri’s nonpartisan court plan for selecting judges. Lembke says the current process is not as nonpartisan as advocates contend and has led to too many judges who are, in his opinion, too liberal.

All three agree that the sharpest contrasts on the issues are between Lembke and Sifton.  Schoemehl contends that, as a social conservative, she’s the best Democrat to take on Lembke, because parts of the new 1st District are filled with like-minded social conservatives.

Sifton says his progressive views will energize Democrats, especially women. “We’ve always run a conservative Democrat against Sen. Lembke and it’s never worked,’’ Sifton said. “I don’t think you beat Jim Lembke by sounding like Jim Lembke.”

Lembke, by the way, has far more campaign money in the bank than the two Democrats, combined.

5th District

Major Democratic leaders and groups have split their endorsements between two of their party’s hopefuls vying for the redrawn 5th District, which is largely within the city.

The two are state Reps. Jamilah Nasheed and Jeanette Mott Oxford, both St. Louis Democrats.

Notably, most of the Democratic powerbrokers have abandoned the incumbent, state Sen. Robin Wright-Jones, D-St. Louis, who has seen her re-election bid founder over disclosures of mishandled campaign money and late campaign-finance reports.

Nasheed has the support of several citywide officials, including Mayor Francis Slay, Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce and Collector of Revenue Gregory F.X.Daly. She also has the backing of former Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr.

Oxford has been endorsed by several groups, including the Missouri chapter of the Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region’s political arm, and PROMO, Missouri’s chief advocacy group for gay rights. She also has been endorsed by the Missouri chapter of the National Education Association, the local chapter of the Communication Workers of America and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFCSME).

Both have been endorsed by various city aldermen and ward groups, but Oxford has a sizable edge in the number.

Because they agree on most issues, Oxford and Nasheed primarily have been battling over who would be the most effective in the state Senate.

Nasheed cites her success in expanding the state’s A-plus scholarship program for college students and twice winning state House approval of measures to grant St. Louis local control of its police department. Both times, the bills died in the Senate. Nasheed says that she could break that logjam if she is in the Senate.

Oxford calls herself “principled, persistent and proven.” She points to her  success in winning General Assembly approval of provisions, tacked onto other bills, that expanded anti-lead poisoning efforts and bar insurance companies from denying coverage to adopted children.

Oxford calls for increasing the state's 17-cent-a-pack cigarette tax, now the nation's lowest, to help reduce the state's budget problems.

Both have been beset by some controversy. Critics of Nasheed cite her House vote in 2011 to override Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of the congressional redistricting bill that, in effect, did away with the district of U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis.

Nasheed said she did so to protect U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, but denies that Clay or his allies pressured her to override Nixon. (Clay and Carnahan are now competing for the same congressional seat in the Aug. 7 primary.)

Nasheed adds that her record in working with Republicans can be a plus, especially since Republicans have huge majorities in both chambers. "I have a great relationship with the majority party,'' she said. "To get things done, you have to work across party lines."

Wright-Jones briefly succeeded in getting Nasheed knocked off the ballot earlier this year in a dispute over redistricting since Nasheed did not reside within the new boundaries. The state Supreme Court sided with Nasheed, who maintained that she could run for the 5th District seat since part of her current legislative district is within the 5th.

Wright-Jones has yet to respond to queries from the Beacon.

Oxford, meanwhile, has attracted attention because she received a $5,000 donation from Noranda Aluminum in New Madrid, Mo. A group called Missourians Against Higher Utility Rates, and financed solely by Noranda, also has sent out a mailer in support of Oxford. Noranda is the state’s largest user of electricity and has sought measures to keep down corporate utility rates.

Noranda also has opposed proposals to change Missouri’s law that now bars utilities, including AmerenUE, from charging consumers for projects before they are in operation.

Oxford says she doesn’t know why Noranda or its allied group has donated money to her campaign, but that perhaps it’s because she’s seen as a consumer advocate. Nasheed notes that the group was originally formed in 2009 by former state House Speaker Rod Jetton, who has worked as a consultant on Noranda’s behalf.

Oxford and Nasheed agree on one point: They are focusing on each other in the final weeks of their campaign and ignoring Wright-Jones.

13th District

In the north St. Louis County-based 13th state Senate District, two Democrats are battling to succeed state Sen. Tim Green, D-Spanish Lake.

Former state Rep. Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, and Florissant resident Redditt Hudson are seeking the Democratic nomination in the13th District, which incorporates areas of Florissant, Hazelwood, Jennings, Moline Acres, Bellefontaine Neighbors and Spanish Lake. Green is unable to run for re-election due to term limits.

Since the seat is heavily Democratic, the winner of the primary will be a heavy favorite in November against Republican Jacquelyn Thomas.

Walsh is a member of Asbestos Workers Local #1 who served for eight years in the Missouri House. She’s amassed far more money than Hudson during the last few campaign finance reporting periods, as well as a huge list of endorsements from political figures, township organizations, educational groups and labor organizations.

During her time in the House, Walsh sought to keep open the Bellefontaine Habilitation Center, which houses developmentally disabled residents. She also was a key Democratic supporter of so-far-unsuccessful legislation to pave the way for a second nuclear power plant in Callaway County, which supporters contend would provide thousands of union jobs.

If elected, Walsh said she’ll bring a pragmatic attitude to the politically polarized Senate. “There are reasonable folks from both sides of the aisle,” said Walsh. "I think that we can negotiate and agree to disagree on some areas and compromise because we know nothing gets done unless we compromise.”

Hudson currently serves as a program associate for the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, where he has been active exposing problems in the St. Louis' jail and with wrongful criminal convictions. Hudson formerly was a police officer in St. Louis.

Although he hasn’t run for office before, Hudson has spent time in Jefferson City pursuing the ACLU’s legislative priorities. If elected, Hudson said he would focus on economic development in north St. Louis County and fighting for civil rights and civil liberties. He also plans to seek more funding for early childhood education, which he says can squelch crime and foster economic development.

And although he said he would also be pragmatic, he added he also will fight for his core values.

“Obviously you have to have the ability to work with all kinds of people and work across the aisle when it’s necessary to get things done,” Hudson said. “But with the Democratic Party, one of the things that has troubled me and also prompted me to run is there are times when you have to dig in, when you have to have a spine."

Both candidates share some similar views. Both support increasing the state’s cigarette taxes, now the lowest in the country. Both oppose efforts to implement so-called “right to work” bills, which would bar closed-union shops. Both are opposed to tuition tax credits or school vouchers.

The two differ on abortion. Walsh has voted for restrictions in the past, while Hudson says he is unequivocally in favor of abortion rights.

One subplot of the contest is the fact that a majority of the residents in the 13th District are African-Americans. Hudson, who is black, said he’s “better positioned” to address some of the issues that affect minorities. Walsh is white.

Hudson contended that north St. Louis County’s influential labor community has “dictated the political process” for years. While emphasizing that he's pro-labor, Hudson said he opposes "a relatively small group of people dictating the political process to a majority community unchallenged.”

Walsh noted that her old House district was also a majority-minority district, adding that she pushed for diversity while she was on the board of the  Riverview Fire Protection District,  Said Walsh: "The fact of the matter is, when these folks call me for help, they don’t say ‘Wait a minute, what color are you?’”

“I don’t think the voters look at it as a big deal,” Walsh said. “I just don’t think they do. Or they wouldn’t have kept electing me."

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.