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Ex-US Rep. Gephardt reflects on tumultuous time in American politics

Dick Gephardt in 2013
File photo | Sid Hastings | WUSTL
Former Congressman Richard Gephardt will address the IMPACT Conference Friday at Washington University.

Former U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt has a key message for everyone these days: Politics “is a substitute for violence,” and respect for all is crucial.

That's a preview of what the one-time Democratic political leader will convey during a speech on Friday at Washington University.  The St. Louis native is taking part in the IMPACT Conference, which brings together college activists from around the country.

During a wide-ranging interview Thursday with St. Louis Public Radio, Gephardt reflected on the nature of politics today – especially with President Donald Trump in office.

“Politics often and easily can get up to what I call 'near violence,' which is attacking people’s character, people really getting polarized, and getting really hateful feelings toward people that disagree with them,” Gephardt said. “I’m really a believer that we’ve accomplished democracy in this country, probably first before any other country. We’re the best example of doing it through over 230 years.

“You have to fight for what you believe in, you have to disagree,” he added. “But you’ve got remember that you’ve got to disagree without being disagreeable.”

Before retiring in 2005, Gephardt spent nearly 30 years representing the St. Louis region in Congress. He served as House majority leader when his party was in power, and as House minority leader after Republicans took over the chamber in 2005.  He made two unsuccessful bids for president, in 1988 and 2004.

He's had a busy post-congressional career, with two firms: The Gephardt Group focuses on relations between labor unions and management, and Gephardt Government Affairs is bipartisan lobbying organization.

Gephardt forged close ties with organized labor during his political career. This month, Missouri GOP Gov. Eric Greitens signed legislation that enacted “right to work,” which bars unions and employers from requiring workers to pay dues.

Gephardt said that if unions want to persevere in this tough environment, they have to prove to be indispensable.

“Unions have to offer a value proposition to workers to really continue into the future,” he said. “One of the projects I’ve been working on is trying to help unions offer really high quality health care to their members.”

During his congressional tenure, Gephardt was seen as an expert on health care issues. In fact, his 2004 presidential bid centered on a broad-based coverage proposal similar to the Affordable Care Act, now targeted by Washington Republicans.

While Gephardt spends a lot of his time in California, he does return to St. Louis often – including to do work at the Gephardt Institute at Washington University.

He’s bullish about the future of St. Louis — where he served as an alderman before he got a foothold in national politics. — pointing to how plant sciences researchers have made the city home in recent years.

But Gephardt also said that there needs to be a renewed focus on vocational-level education in high school, which be believes could provide ample opportunities for young St. Louisans.

“When I went to Southwest High School at Kingshighway and Arsenal, down the street we had a high school … that was a technical or vocational high school,” he said. “We had kids there learn how to electricians, plumbers, etc. And I think we’re missing on the boat on that. There’s just not enough available for young people.”

Gephardt also mentinoned a school in Delaware that is providing exposure to schoolchildren about vocational occupations.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Follow Jo on Twitter: @jmannies

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.
Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.