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Missouri Democrats re-elect party chair following online feud over leadership

Shirley Mata, left, speaks with MIchael Butler after they were elected Saturday to lead the Missouri Democratic Party. Butler will be party chairman for another two years and Mata will be vice-chair. (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent)
Rudi Keller
Missouri Independent
Shirley Mata, left, speaks with MIchael Butler after they were elected Saturday to lead the Missouri Democratic Party. Butler will be party chairman for another two years and Mata will be vice-chair.

Missouri Democrats re-elected a party chairman for the first time in almost a decade Saturday after a nasty fight over the role the state party should play in promoting the election of Democratic candidates.

Michael Butler, St. Louis Recorder of Deeds, defeated two challengers to retain the post he first won after the 2020 election. Shirley Mata of Clay County, an officer of UAW Local 249 and one of the two who sought to replace Butler, was selected as vice-chair.

Jewel Kelly, a Jefferson County business owner, was also a candidate for chairman. Butler was elected on the first ballot but the tally was not released by the party.

The Democratic State Committee met in Columbia on Saturday for its biennial reorganization meeting.

For several days, accusations flew on Twitter and other platforms that Butler was disrespectful to rural leaders, that he played favorites in primaries and didn’t do enough to help individual candidates get elected.

The vice-chair before Saturday, Genevieve Willams of Newton County, tweeted on Thursdaythat she would not support Butler because “the toxicity, inaction and ineptitude must be called out.”

That brought a rebuke from Butler, who tweeted that he had “traveled to a countless amount of counties and events to support Democrats in rural Missouri” as well as raised and given money without help from Williams.

On Saturday, after the election, Butler apologized to the committee “for any offense or any embarrassment for any comments I made on social media,” later adding “ I should be above reproach.”

Speaking to The Independent after the meeting, Butler said he still had work to do to restore Democrats’ confidence in his leadership.

“Sometimes what you do and say isn’t just coming from you,” Butler said. “It reflects back on the organization, and I was reminded of that during this time.”

Members of the party executive committee said privately that Butler made a full airing of the issues in the closed meeting that preceded the full state committee.

Mata said the party comes out of the meeting united.

“We’re a team and we are going to be even stronger, all pushing in the same direction,” Mata said.

Democrats are at one of their lowest points in state history in terms of overall clout in state politics.

Twenty years ago, the party held five of six statewide offices, four of nine congressional districts and 45% of the seats in the General Assembly. The party will start 2023 with no statewide officeholders, two of eight congressional slots and 31% of legislative seats – 10 state senators and 52 representatives.

The party did increase its legislative numbers in the 2022 election. In the past decade, there have been as few as eight Democratic senators and 45 House members.

In his speech asking for votes, Kelly urged Democrats to recruit in every district and warned the party will not succeed statewide until it is working for votes in every county.

After his defeat, Kelly said his challenge to Butler was not based on personalities.

“It was nothing personal at all,” Kelly said. “We have to all be one team and learn how to work together.”

In his speech, Butler said winning more power in the state is a step-by-step process. Continuity will help, he said. The last time a Democratic State Committee chairman was re-elected was 2015, when Roy Temple was selected for a second term.

“You have to break the state down in chunks in order to get anything done,” Butler said. “My focus is to double-down on raising money to give to you.”

While Republicans jockey for position in advance of the 2024 contests that will elect a governor, four other statewide officeholders and a U.S. senator, Democrats have yet to identify any potential candidates ready to match GOP resources.

Butler said he is optimistic about getting Democrats ready for those elections.

“We are going to win,” Butler said. “We are going to do well, because we have got a full room of people who want to work together.”

This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent, part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence.

Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy and state legislature as the Deputy Editor at The Missouri Independent.