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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.

Clay’s influence in D.C. and Missouri grows with Democratic control of the U.S. House

Democratic U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay talks with supporters Tuesday night at a Pasta House restaurant in University City. Clay easily defeated his 1st District Republican challenger Robert Vroman.
File photo I David Kovaluk I St. Louis Public Radio
Democratic U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay talks with supporters on Nov. 6, 2018, at the Pasta House restaurant in University City. Clay easily defeated his 1st District Republican challenger Robert Vroman.

It’s fair to say this past election cycle was bad for Missouri Democrats.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill lost re-election. Democrats made no gains in either the Missouri House or Senate. And the party’s dismal showing in rural Missouri doesn’t bode well for future contests.

Election night felt different, though, for Congressman Lacy Clay. Not only was the St. Louis Democrat celebrating another term in the U.S. House, but his party is poised to take control of Congress’ lower chamber — giving the veteran University City Democrat more power and responsibility.

“This is great news for me,” Clay said on Election Day. “We have been in the wilderness since 2010.”

Clay and Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, D-Kansas City, are arguably the most powerful Democrats in Missouri. Clay, in particular, saw some of his allies win state legislative seats, giving him a chance to exert more influence on state policy making and politics.

Whether Clay decides to cast a longer shadow on the state level isn’t certain, as observers believe he’s been more interested in advancing in Congress than being the “boss of bosses.” Even with his political fortunes rising this year, Clay still has his critics — and is part of a Missouri Democratic Party struggling over how to appeal to an increasingly Republican state.

“I think when you look at the power structure, they’re definitely the top dogs in the state,” said Rasheen Aldridge, the Democratic committeeman for St. Louis’ 5th Ward. “They’ve also earned it throughout their years in the community and in leadership.”

Five decades of dominance

U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, left, talks with his father, former U.S. Rep. Bill Clay at the ceremony naming the Poplar Street Bridge for the senior Clay.
Credit File photo I Bill Greenblatt | UPI
U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, left, talks with his father, former U.S. Rep. Bill Clay at the ceremony naming the Poplar Street Bridge for the senior Clay in 2013.

There was another reason Clay was feeling exuberant on election night. As he spoke with attendees of state Sen.-elect Brian Williams’ victory party at the Pasta House in University City, Clay noted his latest re-election win occurred 50 years after his father, Bill Clay, won his first race for Congress.

“I remember it vividly from 1968,” Clay said. “He had a headquarters on Union in north St. Louis. And I was 12 years old. It was an amazing journey that we’ve been through. We are so appreciative of this community that has trusted a Clay to represent them in Congress for now 50 years. And I just want to say thank you to the voters in this district.”

Despite some fierce challenges over the years, both Bill and Lacy Clay remain undefeated in their political endeavors.

Since the 1980s, Lacy Clay has consistently won elections to the Missouri House, Missouri Senate and the U.S. House. When Democrats return to power, he could chair a subcommittee in the powerful House Financial Services Committee. And he’ll also likely retain a seat on the House Oversight Committee. That will give Clay much greater latitude to affect policy than when Democrats were in the minority.

“And I’m looking forward to us going back in the majority and the issues that I will be working on will be good-paying jobs in this community — as well as around the nation,” Clay said. “Criminal justice reform. Voting rights. As well as giving Americans greater access to health care. And those are the issues that I will be covering through my committee assignments, as well as through legislation.”

The Democratic takeover of Congress is only one part of Clay’s success. As he defeated Democrat challenger Cori Bush by nearly 20 percentage points, some of his allies, including Williams and state Rep. Karla May, captured Senate seats. Others won or defended state House seats.

Clay said these results are about more than just feathering his own political nest.

“The lesson that I learned is you cannot force other elected officials to work with you. But you can offer them the opportunity to,” he said. “And that’s what the people like Karla May, Brian Williams, these young state reps, have all decided it’s bigger than the individual. This is about the people that entrusted us to be their voice in Jefferson City, Washington or City Hall.”

“Bill Clay 2.0?”

With McCaskill departing and with state Auditor Nicole Galloway relatively new on the statewide scene, Missouri Democrats are at a bit of a crossroads. Because Clay and Cleaver are the most senior officials in a legislative chamber controlled by Democrats, they could conceivably play a larger role in the state party.

Whether that will actually happen, though, is unclear — at least to Mike Jones. A former St. Louis alderman and a longtime observer of St. Louis politics, Jones believes that Bill Clay and Lacy Clay have had different focuses during their political tenures. 

Mike Jones
Credit File photo I Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Mike Jones believes that it's unfair to expect Lacy Clay will be just like his father.

“I think there’s a false expectation on a lot of people’s part that Lacy is supposed to be Bill Clay 2.0. You wouldn’t get a Bill Clay today in this political environment. He is a product of a surging civil rights era and an expansion of black political power,” Jones said. “And the focus of politics was this larger, social equity movement — and black elected officials saw themselves more as political leaders than governmental officials.

“You jump 30 years later, and Lacy is a product of a more established black Democratic political environment — and more much from a status quo that, at the time, was acceptable to the black community.”

And while Lacy Clay possesses an unquestioned ability to win elections, it hasn’t come without detractors.

His critics have disagreed with him on his support of Paul McKee’s Northside project. In the Democratic primary, many of those Clay foes supported Cori Bush, a Democrat who believed she was a better vehicle to achieve left-of-center policy change. Bush had the backing of Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat who has sought to push her party to the left.

And even though the St. Louis Americanendorsed his re-election bid over Bush, the paper noted he’s been criticized “as a largely absentee congressman who is strong on official letters and fearless, biting quotes, but weak on personal presence in his district when needed.”

Asked about that editorial earlier this year, Clay called such a criticism a “false narrative.”

“Being a member of Congress is a full-time job. If you look at my travel records, I have traveled round trip from St. Louis to Washington, since January, 31 times,” Clay said. “That’s on average once a week. You have to be in the nation’s capital in order to adequately represent this district.”

Clay added he doesn’t pay much attention to people who believe the Clay political muscle has atrophied.

“And so I’ve learned over the years to not be distracted by these haters, because that will take me away from my mission of standing up for an entire community north of Delmar Boulevard,” he added.

Ignoring the base?

Sen. Claire McCaskill speaks to reporters at Lona's Lil Eats in St. Louis on Aug. 30, 2018.
Credit File photo I Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Clay was critical of U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill's campaign for not doing enough to excite black voters. McCaskill has pointed to how turnout in St. Louis and Kansas City was up over previous midterm elections.

Both Clay and Cleaver made headlines last month when they called out McCaskill’s effortat wooing black voters. That's part of a broader discussion in the party about whether Democrats should try to focus attention on rural areas or urban parts of the state.

Clay was quoted in the Kansas City Star saying that he was saddened McCaskill “failed to produce any real enthusiasm or engagement with urban voters.” He also said that both he and Cleaver were rebuffed when they sought to help out on a ground game strategy, which McCaskill’s campaign disputed.

Based off an analysis of McCaskill’s 2018 and 2006 results, the Democratic senator increased her margin of victory in St. Louis and Kansas City by 41,000 votes. She also got more votes this election than in 2006 in predominantly African-American St. Louis County townships, such as Normandy, Ferguson and University.

But Sen.-elect Josh Hawley’s margins in rural counties swamped McCaskill. Even if she would have gotten 100,000 more votes in St. Louis and Kansas City, McCaskill still would have lost by nearly 50,000 votes because she lost rural Missouri by more than 300,000 votes.

Aldridge, the 5th Ward committeeman, believes that Missouri Democrats will continue to have internal debates about their identity — especially over whether there should be more focus on the Democratic base or trying to take back rural territory.

“I think it brings great opportunity to move us forward to work together,” Aldridge said. “And it’s going to bring a lot of clashes, but that comes with finding the holes in the boat of trying to, sometimes fight each other. But I’m hopeful in the next two years we’ll be a lot stronger party than we are now.”

In  Jones’ view, whether Clay takes on a greater leadership role in the Missouri Democratic Party is not terribly important — as he believes “the juice ain’t worth the squeeze.”

“The real question becomes, and the black community is really struggling with, a political identity.” Jones said. “How do you integrate governmental policy leadership with the kind of political leadership that an underserved community needs to advocate and advance its interests that is hard to get done inside a government without a counterbalancing, outside political force that drives it?”

On the Trail, an occasional column, 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.