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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

On the trail: Chappelle-Nadal, Nasheed forge unlikely partnership in Missouri Senate

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 25, 2013 - As state Sens. Maria Chappelle-Nadal and Jamilah Nasheed rode together in a police car earlier this month, words were flying -- but not in the way you might expect from the once-feuding politicians.>

Besides gaining an even greater appreciation for the St. Louis’ police force, Nasheed said she and Chappelle-Nadal engaged in banter entertaining enough for television.

“We had a fabulous time together,” Nasheed said in a telephone interview. “It was extremely funny.”

“It could have been a reality show,” added Chappelle-Nadal during a wide-ranging interview in University City. “It was hilarious.”

Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, and Nasheed, D-St. Louis, rode along with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department to observe firsthand how the city’s police fight crime. Chappelle-Nadal has tagged along with police officers lately to get a closer look at how gangs within her district operate.

As the state senator representing part of the city, Nasheed was invited to come along for the ride as a courtesy.

Feuds make a good story for reporters who delve in the rough and tumble of Missouri politics. But Chappelle-Nadal and Nasheed’s rapprochement could be equally compelling, given their recent history. Both lawmakers appear to have reached a surprising understanding.

“We realized that there are only three of us that serve the black community in the Senate,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “We’ve made a commitment not only to support each other in those endeavors dealing with minorities and the poor, but also women.”

“Maria and I haven’t always been on the same page,” Nasheed added. “But I figured that – and I say all the time – is that how do you destroy your enemies? It’s to make them your friend.”

As Nasheed noted, the two haven’t always been at odds. She said she supported Chappelle-Nadal’s earlier political campaigns, while Chappelle-Nadal described Nasheed as an “acquaintance.”

But given the pair’s legislative styles, a collision course seemed inevitable. Chappelle-Nadal’s legislative career often included high-profile confrontations with Republicans on immigration policy and workers’ rights. Nasheed cut a fairly pragmatic path during her tenure in the House, often irritating her Democratic colleagues by forging Republican friendships and alliances.

Things came to a head during a 2011 debate over Nasheed’s legislation to end state control of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. Like many officials from St. Louis, Nasheed contended that such control was a relic of the Civil War era. But Chappelle-Nadal joined other lawmakers in expressing loud skepticism of the move, arguing that it could jeopardize officers’ benefits.

“She cared about an issue one way and I cared about an issue another way,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “The whole issue was not dealt with the way that it should have been. And I just frankly don’t believe that billionaires should have ownership over what legislation passes and doesn’t.”

Chappelle-Nadal was referring to retired financer Rex Sinquefield, who funded an ultimately successful local control ballot initiative. Chappelle-Nadal has been a long-time critic of Sinquefield’s foray in Missouri politics, while Nasheed is one of many politicians from both parties who have accepted his campaign donations.

The local control issue sparked a war of words: Nasheed called Chappelle-Nadal “mentally unstable” after Chappelle-Nadal portrayed African-American politicians as “house slaves” for supporting local control. Chappelle-Nadal responded that Nasheed's comments were "very funny from someone who had been in jail for knifing a woman,” a reference to Nasheed’s past as a troubled youth.

The two even got into a well-publicized altercation at a Lil' Wayne concert, which both lawmakers referred to in a recent debate on gun safety training and education in schools. She told the Riverfront Times in 2011 that she had a standing order “among my staff to call the police or the capitol security if she comes into my office in Jeff City."

So when Nasheed ousted incumbent Sen. Robin Wright-Jones, D-St. Louis, last year, questions lingered about whether Chappelle-Nadal and Nasheed could coexist as colleagues. In perhaps another instance of the “kumbaya” vibe of the Missouri Senate, no such clash occurred as of yet.

So what happened?

Chappelle-Nadal credits Democratic political consultant Pat Jakopchek with bringing her and Nasheed to the same table. That was probably something Jakopcheck had to do since both Nasheed and Chappelle-Nadal are his clients.

Jakopcheck told the Beacon that the two met at the City Diner shortly after the August primary. And after talking out their issues, the healing process began.

“Now we do have rules that are set in the place about how much interaction we have. Because I want to make sure that was in place,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “But overall, we’ve worked well together this session. I frankly see her as a support: a person who can be supportive to me when other Democrats are not.”

Nasheed added that anybody who knows her understands “that I’m not one to just have long, drawn-out enemies.” For instance, Nasheed has been a vocal supporter of St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, even though the two clashed in the past. She’s also endorsed Wright-Jones’ son – Damon Jones – in the race for 6th Ward alderman.

“I’ve never been one to just have enemies for life,” she said. “And I do all I can to try and bridge the gap between the personalities.”

Banded in opposition

Besides a personal accommodation, Chappelle-Nadal and Nasheed have aligned fairly closely on issues.

Nasheed, for instance, stood beside Chappelle-Nadal for moral support at a press conference introducing legislation requiring parents to notify school officials if they own firearms. And the two were the only senators to vote against legislation making major changes to the Second Injury Fund.

“When everybody agrees to something, something’s wrong” said Chappelle-Nadal, who added the bill didn’t go far enough for her liking. “There’s really a fundamental problem. I did my job. I got all the things that I wanted out of the legislation and was quite happy about it.”

And both lawmakers are strongly opposed to legislation in the House to rescind foreclosure mediation ordinances in St. Louis and St. Louis County. Banks are opposed to state and local foreclosure mediation measures, arguing that they amount to a burdensome – and costly – layer of regulation.

Nasheed’s opposition isn’t surprising; she sponsored legislation last year to establish a statewide mediation program. With opposition from Nasheed, Chappelle-Nadal, state Sen. Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, and state Sen. Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis, proponents of the bill won’t have an easy time getting the bill through the Senate.

“I’m not saying that provision we have in St. Louis County is the best or the end of all goals, but it’s just part of the entire process to protect some of these families,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “And don’t forget, people that come from these foreclosed homes have children, which means they go from school district to school district to school district. And that means they’ll never get the educational opportunities that they should be getting.”

“It’s really puzzling for me for a person to even think the thought of wanting to nullify the foreclosure legislation that was pushed in the county,” added Nasheed. “I don’t understand the logic of people. Sometimes people can be just so heartless, and it’s really unfortunate.”

“I’ll tell you this, they’ll have a fight on their hands,” she added.

Jakopcheck added that the cooling of tensions could mean good things for the St. Louis region -- and for Democrats in Missouri trying to stop controversial bills pushed by the Republican majority. 

"I've dealt with both of them. And I think anybody looking at them both recognize that they’re effective legislators," Jakopcheck said. "They do things in their own way. They’re different people. But they have priorities and common interests that overlap. At the end of the day, they both get things done."

"And so, by themselves they’re effective legislators," he added. "But teaming up together on issues they have common interests on … it could become an even more tremendous force. 

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

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