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Missouri Democrats emphasize solidarity with middle class, accuse GOP of promoting 'pretend world'

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, left foreground, and attorney Frankie Freeman, second from right, were featured at the Democrats' Truman Dinner.
Jo Mannies | St. Louis Public Radio

Reflecting party leaders’ desire to change things up, the Missouri Democratic Party chose an unusual venue for Saturday night’s renamed Truman Dinner: the field of Busch Stadium.

The “unusual” extended to the evening’s highlight – a surprise video by Hillary Clinton, displayed on the “jumbo-tron” – and the closing: fireworks.

The evening's apparent aim: To energize the Democratic base and ease any internal tensions.

The offbeat setting seemed to soften the mood as speaker after speaker – including Clinton – focused on the sobering topics of economic and racial inequality, and the Republicans’ huge edge in the Missouri General Assembly.

But Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, who appears to have been keeping a low public profile in recent months, delivered the sharpest attacks of the evening as he accused the state’s Republican leaders of promoting a fantasy world.

A former Republican now running for governor, Koster declared, “I joined the Democratic Party eight years ago because I got fed up living in a 'pretend' world of my former party. A 'pretend' world where every Missourian comes from a storybook family, and where everyone is healthy for their entire lives, and teenagers never have sex.

“And all the problems of education and health care, and race and inequality, just magically disappear….” Koster continued.

His former party should drop the symbol of the elephant, he said, and replace it with an ostrich.

Clinton recalls Ferguson

Clinton, who’s running for president, cited the unrest in Ferguson in her six-minute address. She repeatedly emphasized that she shared with Missouri Democrats a commitment to improve life for average people.

“Missouri has seen more than its fair share of heartbreak over the past year,” Clinton said. “What’s happened is really a terrible reflection of the broader problem in our country, and an urgent reminder that America’s long struggle with racism is far from over.”

Hillary Clinton surprised Missouri Democrats at their Truman Dinner with a six minute address on telecast on the Busch Stadium Jumbotron.
Credit Jo Mannies | St. Louis Public Radio
Surprised attendees hear from Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

After singling out several Missouri officials for praise – including Sen. Claire McCaskill, who had been on the outs with Clinton a few years ago – the former first lady sought to counter GOP assertions that she’ll write off Missouri as a “can’t win’’ state.

Clinton promised that she would campaign in Missouri; she was last in the state in June, when she conducted a fundraiser and participated in a church forum about the racial issues ignited by Ferguson.

Focus on ‘family,’ veterans

Meanwhile, McCaskill sought to smooth over any party rifts, some fueled by the Ferguson unrest.

“We are all family here,’’ she told the crowd of several hundred, spread around the baseball field. “We are bound together, in the notion that we can do something in this country to make it better.”

Attorney General Chris Koster delivered the strongest attack against Republicans at the Truman Dinner, the Democratic Party's largest fundraiser.
Credit Jo Mannies | St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster delivered sharpest attacks of the night against GOP.

The senator took note of the huge Republican majorities in the state House and Senate, but emphasized that Democrats hold six of the eight offices chosen statewide.

The only Republicans are fellow Sen. Roy Blunt – who will be seeking re-election on the 2016 ballot – and Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, who is running for governor.

Said McCaskill to cheers: “I think our ‘family’ has an inferiority complex.”

One prominent Democratic "relative" was notably absent: Gov. Jay Nixon, who was heavily criticized during the Ferguson unrest. Nixon's staff declined to respond to inquiries over the past week about why the governor was skipping his party's biggest annual event. The governor did not attend last year, either.

Frankie Freeman honored

Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, who is challenging Blunt, was among several speakers who emphasized their commitment to working-class Missourians.

Kander also highlighted his past as a military veteran and criticized what he saw as government’s failure to protect and honor those in the military. He promised to work for change: “The soldiers who served after me deserve a better voice.”

Saturday marked the first outing of state Democrats’ newly named “Truman Dinner," which long had the moniker of the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner.

The name was changed a few months ago at the behest of some African-American Democrats who noted that former presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson had been slave owners.

State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, has complained about the old name for years. But Saturday night, she helped lead off the festivities with opening remarks. Nasheed also presented the state party’s lifetime achievement award to Frankie Freeman, a legendary civil rights activist and lawyer.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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