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New Missouri Democratic Party Leaders See Building Local Support As Key Priority

Michael Butler makes his remarks after taking the oath of office for Recorder of Deeds for the City of St. Louis in the rotunda of the St. Louis City Hall in St. Louis on January 2, 2018. Butler is the first African American to hold the office.
File photo | Bill Greenblatt | UPI
St. Louis Recorder of Deeds Michael Butler, shown last year, recently was elected chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party.

Newly elected Missouri Democratic Party Chairman Michael Butler and Vice Chairwoman Genevieve Williams were both tapped for leadership positions to lead their struggling party into the 2022 election cycle.

But Butler and Williams say their goals are broader than just getting high-level Democratic candidates across the finish line. They want to build up the party’s local presence throughout the state so Missouri Democrats can regain their footing after yet another dismal election cycle.

“Donald Trump won our state with 57% of the vote. And he won the state of Mississippi with 59 percent of the vote,” Butler said. “What that tells me is we may be 2 points away from being Mississippi. And I don’t think we’re Mississippi. And I also feel that we as Democrats can get on the right track.

State Democratic committeepeople elected Butler, a former state lawmaker who now serves as St. Louis’ recorder of deeds, over Williams in the race for chairperson earlier this month. Williams ended up being elected vice chairwoman, a position she held from 2016 to 2018.

They’ll lead a party that has not had a successful election cycle since 2012. This year, Missouri Democrats were trounced in every statewide contest — including a race for governor that elicited huge amounts of money from national groups. Republicans also prevailed in closely watched races for the 2nd Congressional District and a pair of expensive state Senate seats in Mid-Missouri and St. Louis County.

Democrats also continued their slide in rural and exurban Missouri. Candidates lost in places like Jefferson and Buchanan counties by wide margins. And previously Democratic rural areas in southeast, central and northeast Missouri went for Trump and Parson by enormous margins.

“I absolutely think it’s important that we elect leadership that comes from around the state,” said Williams, a Neosho resident who has been a state committeewoman for seven years. “That’s usually something that we look for when we’re having our leadership elections. That’s something that’s weighed on the minds of the 68 committee members.”

Butler said a key priority for him is to “build infrastructure around the state and to engage local communities across the state.”

“Our goal is to engage voters directly,” Butler said. “There are over 1 million Democrats across our state. And we want to make sure we’re engaging with them consistently and constantly on policy issues, as well as on Election Day.”

While it may take a number of election cycles for Democrats to gain significant ground in rural Missouri, getting better margins in 2022 could be critical if the party wants to compete in the U.S. Senate contest and reelect state Auditor Nicole Galloway.

Williams said there’s recent evidence of better performance in rural areas making a tangible difference. Even though a bid to expand Medicaid didn’t pass in a slew of rural counties, she pointed out that the margins were high enough to ensure that measure passed statewide — following through on a policy priority that Missouri Democrats have pushed for more than a decade.

“We are really united as a party trying to organize and do a lot of field work,” Williams said. “Obviously, the pandemic is a difficult time to do field operations.”

Nicole Galloway gives a gubernatorial concession speech late Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020 in the Tiger Hotel in Columbia.
File phot | David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
Nicole Galloway gives a gubernatorial concession speech late Tuesday in the Tiger Hotel in Columbia. One of the big priorities for Missouri Democrats in 2022 will be making sure Galloway wins another term.

Breaking ground

Butler served as a state representative for a St. Louis district from 2013 to 2019. He was elected recorder of deeds in 2018 and also was the chairman of the St. Louis Democratic Central Committee.

His election as Missouri Democratic Party chairman marks the first time a Black person has been elected to the post. In recent years, Black elected officials have sought to take a greater leadership role in the party’s direction.

Butler noted that the party’s leadership is diverse. He said being the first Black chairman means a lot, adding, “African Americans have delivered votes all across the country for a win for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.”

“Respecting those votes and respecting the base of the party is something that African American communities have desired for a long time coming,” Butler said. “And I reflect that the party respects that.”

Not everyone has been happy with some of the actions of the party since new leaders were elected. Some local Democratic officials sharply criticized a decision to let a number of staffers go earlier in December.

Missouri Democratic Party spokesman Andrew Storey said it's normal for there to be staff turnover after new officers are elected. He added that the party's collective bargaining agreement with the union that represents the staffers allows for employees to be let go after the election of a new chair.

"We've posted a description for a new executive director, so the staffing situation will be more clear after a new executive director is hired and what staffing needs they'll need to be successful," Storey said.

This is the second straight time Missouri Democrats have chosen a current elected official to be chairman. Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker won the position after the 2018 election cycle but had to give many of her responsibilities to former state Rep. Clem Smith once her office duties took precedence.

Asked if there would be any issues serving both as St. Louis recorder of deeds and Missouri Democratic Party chairman, Butler replied: “I absolutely can accomplish the job.”

In for the long haul

From an electoral perspective, the main goals of Butler and Williams in 2022 will be running a competitive candidate for the U.S. Senate and fending off a GOP challenge to Galloway. They’ll also have to try to gain ground in the Missouri General Assembly, which will be reshaped after 2021 through redistricting.

One potential impediment could be beyond the control of Williams and Butler: With Joe Biden in the White House, Democrats across the country may be at a disadvantage in 2022, since the president’s party typically doesn’t do well in midterm elections.

“We’re confident that what happens in Missouri is more important to folks,” Butler said. “We’re going to be successful based on what folks in Missouri need. And that’s Missouri Democrats are able to provide solutions to the problems of everyday Missourians.”

Williams said a lot of the work that the party plans to do in the next couple of years isn’t just meant to win elections in 2022, but to set Missouri Democrats up better into the future.

“Of course the point of all of this is to have electoral gains. In order to lead Missouri, we have to have elected positions to do that,” she said. “We’re really committed to doing long-term work.”

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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