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Schmitt declines GOP encouragement to run for county executive, sticking with Missouri Senate

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 23, 2013 - Amid a string of controversies hitting St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley’s administration, area Republicans so far have failed to come up with a well-known candidate to challenge Dooley’s bid for re-election next year.

A number of prominent county Republicans privately say their preferred candidate is state Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale. Several tout Schmitt, elected from a swing district, as possibly able to connect with moderate independent voters -- and perhaps some disenchanted Democrats -- ready for a change from Dooley, a Democrat who is coming up on his 10th anniversary in office.

But Schmitt reaffirmed today that while he’s flattered by the talk, he plans to stay put and complete his second term in the Missouri Senate.

“I have three more years left in the Senate. I think there’s a lot more work to be done,” Schmitt said.

He pointed in particular to his effort to reduce corporate taxes in Missouri. Schmitt was a key Senate backer of the vetoed tax-cut bill, HB253, which died during the General Assembly’s veto session earlier this month.

Schmitt is believed to be considering a possible bid for some statewide office in 2016, although he demurred when asked about the topic, repeating his focus on his current job in the state Senate.

Backed bill nullifying federal gun laws

Which brings us to the veto-session’s “gun vote” in which Schmitt voted with the Republican majority in favor of overriding Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of HB436, the bill dubbed as the “nullification bill” because it sought to bar enforcement in Missouri of all federal gun laws.

The bill died, because two other senators – Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey and Majority Leader Ron Richard – voted against the override, citing problems with some provisions deemed harmful to local law enforcement.

Schmitt’s vote in favor of the override might be seen as helping him if he wants to run statewide in 2016, but hurting him if he were to entertain any notion of running for county executive next year. The vote also may tamp down any local “Draft Schmitt” talk.

St. Louis County generally is seen as a bastion of voters who prefer some gun restrictions. In 1999, it was the county’s huge opposition that killed a statewide ballot measure – known as Proposition B – to allow concealed weapons. The rural parts of the state supported the idea, and rural legislators helped lead a push to get the General Assembly to approve a concealed/carry law in 2003, in effect overriding the statewide vote.

However, some county Republicans believe that the mood of county voters has changed, in the wake of 9/11 and other terrorist-related events, and that more now may support gun rights. If correct, Schmitt's vote might not harm him locally.

Schmitt said he voted in favor of the override because he agreed with the bill’s supporters that there has been federal “overreach” when it comes to efforts to restrict guns. A lawyer, Schmitt also contended that some of the objections appeared to be overblown. Any constitutional issues would have been dealt with in court, he added.

Schmitt said that politics played no role in his decision. “I don’t really look at things like that, I really don’t,” he said.

Tea party activists cool to Schmitt

Despite that vote, Schmitt has come under fire from some conservatives. Commentator/talk show host Dana Loesch posted several tweets right after the gun vote in which she contended that Schmitt was among those to blame for the gun bill’s defeat, alleging that he had made private comments during the GOP Senate’s caucus against the bill.

Such conservative wariness of Schmitt may stem, in part, from his 15th District, which takes in much of St. Louis County’s swing territory in its central and southwest corridor.

In 2008, the district went heavily for now-President Barack Obama, a Democrat, but elected Schmitt by 8 percentage points. In 2012, the district’s boundaries were changed to make it more Republican. Schmitt had no major re-election opponent from either party.

But that may change if he looks for higher office. Former state Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield and a favorite in the tea party crowd, has become an outspoken critic of Schmitt at some GOP events and on the radio.

Cunningham is upset over Schmitt’s role in passage of a bill last session (SB216) – approved by the governor – that allows police and firefighters to be active in political activity when they are not working and not in uniform.

Cunningham was elected this spring to the board governing the Monarch Fire Protection District, despite opposition from the firefighters union. She contends that the bill, and some companion measures, gives too much clout to public-employee unions, who she says have become too politically active.

Schmitt disagreed, and has noted that the bills in question received overwhelming approval by the GOP-controlled state House and Senate.

In any case, Cunningham has said she will continue to take issue with Schmitt’s record and will challenge any characterization of him as a conservative.

As for Schmitt, he reaffirmed once again that his focus for the next three years is on his job in the state Senate.

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