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Republican Stronghold Of Phelps County Is Showing Signs Of Progressive Life

A June Black Lives Matter march through downtown Rolla was a sign of possible growing progressive sentiments in the traditionally conservative town.
Jonathan Ahl
St. Louis Public Radio
A Black Lives Matter march through downtown Rolla in June was a sign of possible growing progressive sentiments in the historically conservative town.

ROLLA — In 2016, 68% of voters in Phelps County voted for Donald Trump, and no Republican on the ballot received less than 59% of the vote.

But since then, some elections, public rallies and social media have suggested a progressive push in the county of 45,000 in the Ozarks, 100 miles southwest of St. Louis.

In June, hundreds of people took to the streets of downtown Rolla, the county’s largest city, in a Black Lives Matter protest march.

In September, Cori Bush, a progressive Democrat who upset longtime St. Louis Congressman Lacy Clay in the August primary, came to Rolla for a rally supporting causes that included universal health care and racial justice.

And there’s now a liberal wing of the Rolla City Council that has fought for decriminalizing marijuana and more accountability for police officers by way of body cams.

“I do think Rolla is getting more progressive,” said Deanne Lyons, a Rolla City Council member elected in June and an organizer of liberal causes and rallies. They said the movement is gaining momentum because the area’s more liberal residents feel seen, heard and respected.

“Those are people who are now showing up to city council meetings, who are watching online, who are showing up to community events, who are starting community events,” Lyons said.

But despite the rallies and strong social media presence by groups like Rolla for Progress and the Rolla Cannabis Action Network trying to push the area to the left, not everyone thinks political change is at hand.

“I think there is a liberal element within Rolla that is small but very vocal. I don’t think it’s any more or less,” said Rolla Mayor Lou Magdits. “I don’t think Rolla has changed that much.”

Magdits said Phelps County, and Rolla, are politically unique. The rural region’s conservatism is strong, but he says cultural diversity created by Missouri University of Science and Technology helps residents be open to new ideas.

But Magdits said radical thoughts, on either side of the political spectrum, are not the norm.

“I would say Rolla is moderate to slightly right, but not a very pronounced position either way,” Magdits said. “And I don’t see that changing.”

There is a long electoral history backing up that point of view. In the past 50 years, Phelps County has voted for a Democratic presidential candidate only twice: Bill Clinton in 1992 and Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Nearly all county officials, state representatives and members of Congress have been Republican.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story, said Larry Gragg, a history professor at Missouri S&T and author of the book “Forged in Gold — Missouri S&T’s First 150 Years.” Gragg said that since 2016, there have been four amendments and propositions on the ballot in Missouri that could be considered liberal positions.

“If Phelps Countians and Rolla residents were truly conservative, they would have voted all those down,” Gragg said. “They voted for three of those.”

Local voters' support for medical marijuana, a higher minimum wage and the Clean Missouri amendment in 2018 show some strong progressive thought, Gragg said, even when those same voters overwhelmingly elected Republican representatives who opposed those same proposals.

Gragg said there has always been a mixed ideology among area residents and the students at S&T.

“We have surveyed incoming freshmen for years, and they consistently, for decades, identified themselves as conservative, suggesting a center-right student body,” Gragg said. “But on individual issues it’s always been a mix of conservative and progressive majorities over the years.”

Gragg said it’s unlikely that Phelps County will vote for Democrats Joe Biden and Nicole Galloway, but the margin of Republican victory might be a lot less than usual.

“Even when they lose, that still reflects an impetus for progressive issues. And those who advocate those issues need to build on that,” Gragg said.

And that’s exactly the plan for Rolla’s progressives. Lyons said getting more liberal candidates to run this year and seeing good-size crowds at rallies has already been a victory.

“If the margin of victory is smaller, that’s totally a win,” they said. “That means people have changed over time. And that means those conversations have happened. The difficult conversations that have to continue, no matter who wins or loses in November.”

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

Jonathan is the Rolla correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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