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Democrats debate the fallout of the Stockley protests on next year's elections

State Rep. Bruce Franks answers reporter questions outside City Hall on Sept. 29, 2017.
File photo I Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
State Rep. Bruce Franks answers reporter questions outside City Hall on Sept. 29.

A diverse crowd of Democrats packed a recent party meeting in Richmond Heights to hear from state Rep. Bruce Franks, a St. Louis Democrat who’s become a prominent voice for police accountability amid protests throughout the St. Louis region.

You could hear a pin drop when Franks bluntly asked his audience, “Can somebody tell me how black folks are supposed to vote for Claire McCaskill?”

Amid shocked murmurs, Franks then said that he would support the U.S. senator’s bid for a third term next year.  His point was that she has yet to make her case to African-American voters that she’ll desperately need to win.

Franks added that McCaskill is not the only Democratic candidate who needs to be paying more attention to the protests that erupted throughout the region after a judge’s acquittal in September of white former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley. The officer had been charged with first-degree murder in the shooting of a black suspect in 2011.

“Time’s ticking because we’ve had too many people in these offices for too long that haven’t come back to the community,” Franks said. “And that’s just not Claire. That’s just not Steve Stenger, not just Lacy Clay. It’s a bunch of them.”

McCaskill says she is keenly aware of what’s happening in St. Louis.

“There’s an awful lot of protesters that have legitimate reasons to be upset and protesting. And there’s an awful lot of police officers that want to do the right thing,” she said.

Democrats’ urban/rural pressure

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill speaks with reporters before the start of the presidential debate at Washington University. (Oct. 9, 2016)
Credit File photo I Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill is up for re-election next year. The Democratic senator will need strong turnout from African-Americans to win another term.

Missouri Democrats running for statewide office cannot win without a strong voter turnout in the state’s urban areas. They also need robust support from African-Americans, who can make up about a quarter of the state’s Democratic vote.

McCaskill says she does plan to spend more time in urban areas next year, and that she recognizes the importance of the Democratic base.

Some St. Louis Democrats, like Franks, have been critical that McCaskill’s town hall meetings so far have primarily been in rural Missouri. But McCaskill emphasized that she cannot ignore that part of the state, where the protests are unpopular. She’ll need to get close to 40 percent of the rural vote if she wants to win.

“The people who decide elections in Missouri are the people who are willing to vote for Donald Trump and Jason Kander at the same time,” McCaskill said.

She was referring to the roughly 230,000 Missouri voters who voted for GOP presidential nominee Trump in 2016, but also backed Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Kander. The former secretary of state narrowly lost to Republican incumbent Roy Blunt.

Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed says Missouri Democrats need to unite for a broader cause.

State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, a St. Louis Democrat, said she understands McCaskill’s rural-urban dilemma. Nasheed added she’s heard complaints that McCaskill wasn’t visible enough during the Stockley protests.

But Nasheed warns that Democrats risk putting Republican Josh Hawley in the Senate if they fail to show up in huge numbers at the polls next year. She said many important issues – from health care to taxes – will be riding on McCaskill’s re-election.

“At the end of the day, we must understand that we have to unite behind Claire because we cannot turn back the clock on this state with Hawley,” Nasheed said. “We just can’t do that.”

Stenger also could feel fallout

Democratic St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger has faced some resistance from people within his party — especially African-Americans — ever since he took office. 

A St. Louis Public Radio file photo of St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger.
Credit File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger is also up for re-election next year. Even though the Stockley protests have largely been in the city, they could still impact his ability to win another four years in office.

Stenger, who is white, barely won in 2014 because some African-American officials and voters were angry because he successfully challenged longtime County Executive Charlie Dooley, who is black, in the Democratic primary.

Stenger’s post-primary standing took another hit when a few days after the primary, a Ferguson police officer killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, setting off months of unrest.

While in office, Stenger’s relationships with some black Democratic officials continues to be strained — notably with veteran Councilwoman Hazel Erby, who had backed his GOP rival Rick Stream.

But Stenger said he has been reaching out, in part to show that he is sensitive to the concerns of the county’s large African-American population. He also points to his administration’s latest proposed budget, which sets aside $1 million for police training.

“With respect to my election, I think that we have a real record to stand on with respect to many of the issues that are being raised by individuals involved in the protests,” Stenger said.

As of now, at least one Democrat with significant financial resources, Mark Mantovani, plans to run against Stenger in next year's primary. No Republican challenger has announced yet.

State party acknowledges racial divide

Missouri Democratic Party chairman Stephen Webber is aware of the party tensions ignited by the latest protests. At last weekend’s Truman Dinner, held in downtown St. Louis, Webber praised the protesters and addressed the Democratic Party’s challenge head on: 

Stephen Webber, June 2017
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Webber

“We have a sense of urgency because this region and state and country are grappling with a systemic racial injustice that can no longer be tolerated,” Webber told the crowd.

Franks and state Rep. Clem Smith, a Democrat from Velda Village Hills, have praised Webber’s focus on such issues. “He’s really trying to talk to every group, bring every group together,” said Smith, who’s also secretary for the state Democratic Party.

Democratic state Representative Joe Adams of University City believes the protests could actually help his party.

“I think it will energize people to be involved in politics, to come out and participate and hold their elected officials accountable," said Adams, who's running for the state Senate.

St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, who has been a target of some of the protests, said she welcomes more energy within the Democratic ranks. “Anytime Democrats come out in bigger numbers, it’s good for Democrats,’’ Krewson said.

But the mayor added that it may be too early to gauge the impact of the Stockley protests on the 2018 state or local elections:  “It’s a long way away until next year.”

Follow Jo on Twitter: @jmannies

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