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Missouri Democrats claim GOP out to gut the middle class

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 6, 2011 - U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill and Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, who are both seeking re-election in 2012, on Saturday helped launch what may be the state Democrats' new campaign theme.

Both were among a parade of Democrats at this weekend's Democrat Days in Hannibal who accused Republicans controlling the state Capitol and the U.S. House of engaging in a war against the middle class.

"They are taking a two-by-four to the working families in this country,'' said McCaskill at Saturday night's banquet.

The reason, she added, had been made clear by a number of congressional votes in recent months: "They want to make sure rich folks in this country don't pay a dime more in taxes."

McCaskill and U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, both accused Republicans in Washington of also protecting oil companies and other well-heeled corporate interests.

In a speech that drew repeated applause, McCaskill observed that her question to the GOP was obvious: "Since when do you have the nerve to go to the mat for multi-millionaires and then go after working people's pensions?"

She said the budget cuts proposed by the Republican-controlled U.S. House fall solely on the backs of the middle-class and the poor, which McCaskill warned would also cost jobs and weaken the U.S. economy.

Earlier, at brunch, Robin Carnahan offered similar attacks against the GOP.

"They're telling us that the problems of our economy are caused by the middle class," Carnahan declared. "They're caused because teachers, firefighters, bus drivers and police officers are paid too much. That their pensions are too big. That they have health care."

She continued, "It's like an episode of the Twilight Zone. It's like (Republicans) completely forgot what actually got our economy into this mess: the greed-driven, reckless speculation and bailouts that cost us billions."

Democrats Defend State Minimum Wage

McCaskill, Robin Carnahan and Gov. Jay Nixon -- who also spoke at the banquet -- all zeroed in on the effort by Republicans in control of the Missouri General Assembly to curb the state minimum wage law approved by 76 percent of Missouri voters in 2006.

McCaskill called that move, among others, "a breath-taking assault on working people of this state."

"We've got some folks who are writing big checks to the campaigns who want this law changed," she added. "They want to make sure that waitresses in this state that their minimum wage goes down from $3.60 an hour to $2.13 an hour..."

Nixon declined to say afterwards if he will veto the bill changing the minimum wage, if it lands on his desk. But the governor emphasized that he had supported the measure when it was on the ballot.

Carnahan and McCaskill also pointed to the effort of some legislators to refuse federal unemployment benefits for about 13,000 Missourians who otherwise will be cut off. The $190 million will simply go to unemployed in other states, the Democrats said.

But Carnahan ignited the brunch crowd the most when she blasted the Republican-controlled Legislature for considering changes in the state's anti-discrimination laws. They seek "to gut the laws that prohibit employment descrimination,'' she said. "Really? Do they really think that what's going to grow our economy and help us compete better with China is to stop protecting our workers?"

Carnahan's appearance at Democrat Days marked her first major speech since her loss last fall in the race against Republican Roy Blunt for the U.S. Senate. Carnahan recently announced her plans to seek a third term as Missouri secretary of state, as several Republicans consider challenges.

One of them -- state Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville -- contended at the GOP's statewide Lincoln Days festivities last weekend that Carnahan had been too hard on businesses in her role overseeing various corporate activities, such as the sale of securities sold in the state.

In an interview early Saturday, Carnahan said she was proud of her record, and cited her success in collecting millions of dollars from "scam artists'' out to bilk the public. "If anybody thinks I'm being hard on them, I'm just doing my job," Carnahan said.

Nixon Avoids Aiming Directly at Gop

Nixon and state Treasurer Clint Zweifel, who spoke earlier at the brunch, both also declared their support for the middle-class -- but in less fiery tones.

Nixon opted not to use the word "Republican'' as he blasted unspecified foes who are "demonizing those who work."

He noted that he has balanced state budgets without engaging in "ideological attacks against working Americans" as some fellow governors have done. Although Nixon didn't cite any other states or governors by name, aides said the governor was referring to Wisconsin and other Midwestern states -- notably Indiana and Ohio -- where Republican governors are enmeshed in disputes with public-employee unions.

Nixon also warned the banquet crowd that "if you elect the wrong people, you get the wrong results." But he didn't specify who those "wrong people'' were.

Afterward, the governor didn't contest the characterization that he is trying to get his political and policy points across without pointing fingers at Republicans controlling the Missouri Legislature. "This is not an abstract job. It's a practical job," Nixon said.

Zweifel took a similar tack at the brunch. Although he focused largely on various financial programs he has initiated or overhauled, Zweifel said that the key role -- and current challenges -- of the middle-class can't be ignored.

Zweifel recounted his own middle-class background, saying that his father's manufacturing job paved the way for the family to own their own home in Florissant and send him to college.

"We've got to remember that the middle class is essential for economic growth," Zweifel said, adding that the nation's future depends on "that connection between jobs, a strong middle class, economic opportunity and a strong education."

Zweifel lamented that last year's GOP wave knocked off many Democratic legislative candidates for whom he said he'd been proud to campaign. The key to turning things around in 2012, he said, is to promote the Democratic vision. "We're right on the issues,'' he said.

Rural Democrats Blast Sinquefield

That view was echoed by the few remaining Democratic state legislators from northeast Missouri, who -- while glum over their party's losses -- contended that the Republicans controlling the state Capitol cared only about corporations and rich people.

The handful of remaining rural Democrats, who dubbed themselves "the survivors," reflected on their predicament during Saturday morning's news conference.

State Rep. Ed Schieffer, D-Troy, asserted that wealthy financier Rex Sinquefield -- the state's largest individual donor to campaigns -- is "the most dangerous man in politics today" because Sinquefield is influencing legislators to press ahead with his call for ending the state's income tax and replacing it with a higher sales tax.

A group backed by Sinquefield has submitted nine different initiative petitions -- all certified by Carnahan -- to make the tax switch, if the Legislature fails to act. Sinquefield said the tax shift, called the "fair tax," would spur economic growth. Critics disagree, saying it will further drain government coffers and simply reduce taxes on the wealthy.

Schieffer and state Rep. Paul Quinn, D-Monroe City, said that the lack of limits on campaign donations since 2007 has allowed wealthy donors to control too much of the actions in the state Capitol. Quinn said that many of his GOP colleagues appeared to be "bought and sold."

The victims, contended the Democrats, are the elderly, middle-class and low-income Missourians who rely on public services that are being cut in Jefferson City to give money back to corporations in the form of tax cuts.

For example, asked Schieffer, "Where are we getting the money to pay for the OATS bus?" OATS, short for the Older Adults Transportation Service, is used by more than 30,000 elderly Missourians. Schieffer said he's had to tell local operators that no additional money is available.

Most of the (state) programs being cut are the social programs,'' he continued. "If the corporations and those with big incomes'' are not paying the taxes to cover the costs, "it falls on the middle class."

Carnahan told the brunch crowd that the issue was fairness and "shared sacrifice." Her objection, she continued, was that too much was being "dumped on one segment of society."

McCaskill brought Saturday night's crowd to its feet as she exhorted fellow Democrats to continue pressing their defense of working Americans. "We are going to fight for the middle-class from now until our breath is no longer in our bodies."

Republicans, she added, are going to accuse Democrats of "waging class warfare. They always say that when we fight back."

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.