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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

Curtis sues after being blocked from filing for Missouri Senate seat

State Rep. Courtney Curtis, left, and St. Louis County Councilwoman Hazel Erby speak a news conference last year. Curtis is sponsoring "right to work" legislation aimed at construction unions, which he contends haven't done enough to bring minori
File photo | Rebecca Smith | St. Louis Public Radio
State Rep. Courtney Curtis and St. Louis County Councilwoman Hazel Erby speak at a 2014 press conference in Ferguson.

Updated at 1:45 p.m. on Monday with formal filing of lawsuit.

After filing closed on Tuesday, Missouri Democrats were jubilant about attracting scores of candidates to run for House and Senate seats.

But some are fuming over one person who didn’t get a chance to file.

An official with the Missouri Democratic Party confirmed that state Rep. Courtney Curtis was effectively blocked from filing for the 14th Senatorial District. It’s a seat that will have a highly competitive Democratic primary this year since incumbent Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, can’t run again due to term limits.

The reason? Missouri Democratic Party Executive Director Emily Waggoner said the Ferguson Democrat hasn’t paid off his Missouri Ethics Commission fine that was levied last year.

“Representative Curtis was informed that he was welcome to file as a Democrat upon payment of his Missouri Ethics Commission fine,” said Waggoner in an email to St. Louis Public Radio. “He did not pay his outstanding fine before filing closed on March 27. We have reason to believe there may be legal action taken, so we have no further comment at this time.”

Curtis was fined roughly $114,000 last year for violating various campaign-finance laws and improperly using some campaign money for personal expenses. He attributed some of the campaign-finance discrepancies to a stolen debit card and laptop. (He said he's still seeking "legal remedies" to the fine.) 

On Monday, Curtis filed a lawsuit to get into the 14th Senatorial District Democratic primary. If a Cole County judge declines to put him on the ballot, voters in central and north St. Louis County will choose between state Rep. Joe Adams, D-University City, former state Rep. Sharon Pace, D-Northwoods, and congressional aide Brian Williams in August.

(Click here to read the lawsuit.) 

“Simply because this is an injustice and it’s undemocratic to operate in this fashion, people are coming from both sides lending assistance,” Curtis said. “Because it’s not the Democratic way for me to have to deal with this; Democracy, if you truly allow for it to live and breathe, means that either you beat me at the ballot box — or you don’t beat me.”

Asked on Friday if he may try to file as an independent, Curtis replied: “I am suing and fighting to get on the ballot as a Democrat — because that’s what I am. It’s my right to do so.”

“I’m fighting to file as a Democrat. I will exhaust all legal remedies before pursuing any other option,” he said. “I will say that there was the ability to file a Republican, but I did not take that because I am not a Republican; I am a Democrat.”

Sunshine inquiry

One of the reasons the Missouri Democratic Party knew Curtis had outstanding Missouri Ethics Commission fees was because of MDP staffer Elizabeth Zerr’s Sunshine request.

In an email chain that Missouri Ethics Commission Executive Director James Klahr sent to St. Louis Public Radio, Zerr asked for “all names of any Missouri General Assembly members who owe fees or fines to the Missouri Ethics Commission (MEC) and the amount owed to MEC.” She also asked for similar information from countywide and municipal officials:

Part of an email chain that Missouri Ethics Commission Executive Director James Klahr sent to St. Louis Public Radio (Click to enlarge)
Credit James Klahr
Part of an email chain that Missouri Ethics Commission Executive Director James Klahr sent to St. Louis Public Radio (Click to enlarge)

An ethics commission staffer eventually emailed Zerr that Curtis is “a current General Assembly member that assessed a fee that is still due to the Commission.”  

Email from Ethics Commission staffer. (Click to enlarge)
Credit Missouri Ethics Commission
Email from Ethics Commission staffer. (Click to enlarge)

Waggoner said “the Missouri Democratic Party submitted a Sunshine request to ensure that our staff would be able to identify which individuals needed to pay fines in advance of filing.” Klahr said there are “no statutes prohibiting a candidate from filing for office if that candidate has unpaid fees owed to MEC.” (There used to be one, but it was struck down in court back in 2012).

Political ramifications

Curtis rankled some of his Democratic colleagues when he voted in favor of "right to work," which bars employers and unions from requiring workers to pay dues as a condition of employment.

Some of Curtis’ Democratic adversariesalso raised the alarm when he took big contributions in 2016 from TAMKO President David Humphreys, one of the Missouri Republican Party’s most prolific donors. 

St. Louis County Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, wants to raise the county's minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Credit File photo | Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, said she doesn't approve of how Curtis was prevented from running for the 14th Senatorial District seat.

That’s probably why some Democratic activists were buoyantwhen he couldn't file for the 14th Senatorial District seat; but at least one St. Louis County official was disappointed by how this situation unfolded.

“I like everybody running. I like all of the people that are involved,” said St. Louis County Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City. “But we need a variety. We need people who think differently and who are not afraid to stand up. And I certainly think Courtney Curtis was one of those people.”

Erby said Curtis’ outspokenness against labor unions didn’t come out of nowhere. Rather, it stemmed from Erby’s unsuccessful bid to expand minority participation requirements for county contracts back in 2014.

“I don’t agree with how he went ahead with the right to work. And he and I have discussed that,” Erby said. “But it did arise from how things went on the county council. That was one of the reasons why he began his crusade, because he saw what was happening with me trying to get the minority participation passed. I was working with four other Democrats. And they voted against it. They were not in favor of it. And the biggest part of it had to do with labor.”

If Curtis does make it onto this summer’s primary ballot, union members could play a role in whether he wins or loses. That’s because the GOP-controlled legislature could move a referendum on right to work from November to August.

On the Trail weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.