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Hagler, Koster whip up Dems with calls to protect workers, farmers

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 3, 2013 - Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, who is expected to run for governor in 2016, delivered a verbal broadside Saturday night to Republican legislative leaders, as he accused them of being out not only to cripple labor but to destroy the state’s middle class.

“This way of life is going to slip away,” Koster said, as he blasted GOP measures to curb union rights. He painted portraits of workers engaging in physically demanding jobs like setting tile and laying concrete, and who – without union protections -- see their pay cut in half and their benefits such as pensions and health insurance disappear.

“Then the Republicans would say to them, ‘if you can’t save your way to retirement and put your kids through college on $15 an hour, it’s because you’ve made bad choices with your life,” Koster declared.

But it was Jon Hagler, director of the state's Agriculture Department, who brought the Democrat Days crowd to their feet – twice – as he exhorted his party, his state and his country to respect “the working men and women of America who have made it what it is today.”

Hagler recounted Democrats’ success in creating Social Security, Medicare, “the 40-hour work week, two-week vacations,”  student loans, veterans benefits and public schools.

“We can dismantle the building blocks of the middle class brick by brick and right by right, or we can engage in common-sense reform that will preserve these protections for generations to come!” Hagler said in a passionate address delivered so loudly that it could be heard beyond the ballroom.

Hagler, others link democracy to workers' rights

Hagler was the evening’s keynote speaker, following Koster and regional Teamsters president Jim Kabell – all of whom blasted the General Assembly’s recent focus on measures to end payroll deductions of union dues, bar closed-union shops and eliminate the state’s prevailing-wage requirements for public projects.

All of the evening speakers, plus several at the Democrat Days brunch, had asserted that the real aim of Republicans and some big business groups was to reduce wages and benefits for all workers, union or not, thus setting in motion other cuts in benefits for the old, the poor and the sick.

Kabell of the Teamsters said that the proposed bills, if passed, would reduce the average worker’s pay by about $5,500 a year, making it more difficult for families to save for retirement or pay for education.

Such financial losses would “be devastating” beyond workers and their families,’ he said, affecting “the dry cleaners down the street,” local restaurants, car dealers and all others whose businesses rely on the workers’ purchases.

Hagler, in turn, implied -- he never used the word "Republican" -- that some in Washington and Jefferson City had a faulty vision for the country and its workers.

“You might be able to run up large deficits in an effort to choke down valuable services for the young, the old and the infirm, but you can’t build a great nation that way,” Hagler said. “You might be able to gerrymander or buy your way to a political majority, but you can’t build a nation that way.”

The crowd stood up as Hagler went on, “You might be able to deny people of color the right to vote, harass the elderly into not voting, close poll stations early, make long lines so working families can’t vote, but that’s no way to build a democracy!”

He then continued, “You might be able to exploit workers and families from other nations to pick your fruits and vegetable, to landscape your lawns….only to deny them any way to achieve the America dream, but you can’t build a nation that way!

“To build a great nation you have to invest in the men and women who do the work, and my friends, that’s the middle class.”

Rural jokes used to illustrate serious points

Hagler, a devotee of agriculture – he has planted crops in front of his office building – intertwined his passionate rhetoric with several jokes about farming, which whipped up the largely rural crowd.

In his closing, for example, Hagler told of a farmer with a wife and 10 children who went to the county fair. With little money, the family couldn’t afford the carnival rides or the cotton candy. But the farmer was mesmerized when he came across a tent with a 3,000-pound bull inside.

The man at the gate told the farmer that entry would cost 25 cents apiece, which the family couldn’t afford.  Hearing the commotion, the owner of the bull showed up. After seeing the large family, the owner told the ticket-taker to let the farmer and his family all into the tent – free of charge.

Explained the owner to the ticket-taker: “I don’t care if (the farmer) sees the bull. I want the bull to see him.”

As the crowd roared with laughter, Hagler explained his point. “Let the bull see you!” he declared, implying that he was referring to the Democrats’ opponents. “Stand up for the American worker! Stand up for the middle class! Stand up for what built this country...the American farmer and the middle class!”

Afterward, as he was deluged by well-wishers, Hagler said he had no plans to run for office. “I love being director of agriculture,’’ he said.

Several in the audience hoped Hagler might change his mind. Said Democrat Days co-founder George Keller, a retired farmer from Palmyra: “He was out of this world.”

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