COLUMBIA — The clutter in Karen Baxter’s house is a testament to the myriad projects competing for her time. Dozens of random items — including an Elmo lunchbox, spatulas and a wrought-iron basket — cover the kitchen table. Newspaper clippings about taxes and other city government issues are spread out on a footstool. Her grandchildren’s huge play dome — constructed entirely of recycled newspaper — dominates the room.
Baxter is hurrying to establish some order in the house before a visitor arrives. But she’d be quick to drop the effort if anyone called needing her help.
“I’m torn between housework, what I should do and people,” Baxter said. “Usually people win out.”
Looking around, it appeared people had won out again on this recent Monday when a reporter dropped by to discuss Baxter’s bid for the First Ward seat on the Columbia City Council. It was a half-hour into the interview before Baxter abandoned her hand-held Swiffer cleaner because it was obstructing her hand gestures as she explained one of her favorite hobbies — free garage sales.
“I buy things on sale and give them away at garage sales,” Baxter said, picking up a “Buns of Steel” videotape and three spatulas from the table. “Everyone in my family thought at one point that they would have buns of steel, then abandoned the plan.”
Once the weather improves, Baxter plans to have another garage giveaway. All the stuff — the lunchbox, a nail polish gift set and tons of toys — must go, she said. Next to the table, a flier she uses to advertise the giveaways says she’s blessed with more than enough and is willing to give things to anyone who needs them. As neighbors attest, she’s even willing to look for certain items if they’re not already in her collection.
“If someone didn’t find something they needed,” said Baxter’s oldest daughter, Mindy Duncan, “she would get your contact information and try to find the item for you.”
Baxter, who works as a licensed practical nurse at a retirement home, said she is running for the First Ward seat to give residents a candidate who, starting on day one, will have her ears tuned in to residents’ needs.
“They think no one’s listening, so what’s the point?” Baxter said. “The point is someone is listening.”
Baxter certainly seems in touch. Not many people have a large color-coded map of the First Ward, like the ones used by police, decorating their kitchen walls. But maybe they would if they had the same sort of passion for the First Ward that Baxter demonstrates.
“Those are visual expressions of things I value,” Baxter said of the ward map and a nearby picture of her Scottish family name on a plaque.
Her friend and campaign “sounding board,” Maria Cole, who lives down the street from Baxter, said Baxter’s open mind and affinity for research make her stand out among her three opponents for a three-year term on the council.
“Instead of having to jump into things, she will take the time to understand things before she makes a decision,” Cole said. “She’s also caring and loving; that doesn’t get counted as much as it ought to. It should. We’re talking about people’s lives and how we get to live well together.”
After Baxter moved to her home on Fourth Avenue, she attended the first meeting of the Ridgeway Neighborhood Association and took an on-and-off role as the group’s vice president.
The neighborhood group actually met in Baxter’s living room for about a year, said Pat Kelley, a member of the association. Although Kelley supports John Clark for the First Ward seat, she’s also a fan of neighborhood involvement, so she’s happy to have someone like Baxter running for City Council.
“She’s really been steadfast with staying in the neighborhood and paying attention to what’s going on in her block,” Kelley said.
Before moving to Ridgeway, Baxter served food to homeless people every Friday at the Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen, which is run by the Catholic Workers Community. But it left her less than satisfied. She could help people and offer support, but her home on Clinkscales was too far if she wanted to invite anyone over for a free meal.
The solution: Baxter picked up her things and moved to the people who needed her.
“She wanted to make a difference there,” said Dorcas Nichols, another of Baxter’s daughters. “It’s different to say, ‘I want to make a difference, but I’m going to live in a comfortable house in my safe neighborhood.’ Her goal was to interact with people there and be really a part of that community.”
That involvement captured the attention of Mayor Darwin Hindman when he was searching for someone to serve on a committee to look into a nuisance party and property ordinance. He asked Baxter to represent the First Ward on the eight-member panel.
“She’s smart and an original thinker,” Hindman said. “She seemed like she would be an independent, good and productive member.”
Hindman praised Baxter for her work on the nuisance ordinance and said she is quite capable of dealing with the many issues that come before City Council.
For someone who says the only title she needs is “Grandma Karen,” Baxter shouldn’t be taken lightly. From her door she’s seen police raid her neighbor’s house, and she once yelled at a young drug dealer doing business in her front yard. Duncan said her mother’s lifestyle hasn’t always been this way.
“My mom was housewifey; she never would have done any of this,” said Duncan. “I guess when she got divorced, the way she looked at life and her options changed. She used to be an Avon lady; she would decorate the house. Now she’s getting over 50, and she can be more eccentric and less bound by convention.”
It was a drive down West Broadway that served as the catalyst for Baxter’s conversion into a neighborhood force.
“I saw an elderly woman standing in the lane of traffic, and I knew immediately because of my background in nursing that she was a confused person,” Baxter said. “I thought, ‘What should I do?’ There I was, there she was, and I could drive on by or stop.”
She chose to stop and help the woman get home. From that point on, her willingness to take a risk for her neighbors skyrocketed.
“Everything I did in my life was for myself,” Baxter said of her life before she moved. “But there’s more to life than just living for yourself.”
Nichols said her mother might be most capable of representing a ward as diverse as the First Ward.
“In First Ward there are some ‘have’ people and a lot of ‘have nots,’” Nichols said. “She doesn’t have a ‘business headstrong’ background, but she’s just a regular person with a regular job. She’s a working part of the community. She doesn’t have a lot of money, and she deals with a lot of struggles that people have in the First Ward: home repairs, taxes, utility bills. But she’s also for business.”
Baxter said most of the problems in the First Ward, such as crime and poverty, can be solved by the people who live there and by encouraging new businesses.
“I believe we have the potential to solve our own problems,” Baxter said. “We just have to change the way we think.”
Baxter draws inspiration from family and friends. Her words echo a type of idealism and motivation illustrated by the countless quotes she tapes to the inside of her front door. Her favorite, which is at eye level as one exits the house, is by John Wesley.
“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”
Baxter rattles this quote off with one breath, straight from her heart, both in private and at candidate forums. As the former vice president for the Ridgeway association and a volunteer at the soup kitchen, she’s found many ways to do good in her neighborhood.
Her job experience is as eclectic as her volunteer service. She’s a nurse now, but she’s also been a police dispatcher, a secretary, a custodian at Bass Pro Shops and even a dogcatcher.
The last item on her resume demonstrates her willingness to fill any need she sees. When a large dog chased Baxter’s daughter down the street while they were living in Centralia, Baxter asked authorities what they were doing about loose animals. Not much, they said, because no one was willing to take the job. Naturally, Baxter became the town’s dogcatcher.
“She got a lot of flak for that,” Duncan said. “People would get pretty angry when you took their dogs.”
Years later, Baxter wants to take her activism to a new level. That’s why she’s running for City Council.
“It gives you a better platform,” Baxter said. “If I’m just Karen Baxter sitting here on Fourth Avenue with these ideas, who will listen to me?”
Her No. 1 priority is listening to First Ward residents. Although she has said she’s pro-business, she wants to let the community set the agenda.
“I want to find out what is of concern to the neighborhood,” Baxter said.
Duncan said her mother would bring an understanding of the people who live in First Ward to the council.
“Not just the poor people, because First Ward has not only poor people in it, there are a lot of very wealthy people who live on the fringes. Her niche is being able to interact with a variety of people,” Duncan said. “Even our family is diverse.”
Baxter’s family is biracial. Her son-in-law is a contractor. Her daughter goes to night school and works. Baxter herself has lived with insurance and without. All that, she said, has shaped her opinions and given her a wide range of perspectives.
In a ward where residents stand up at candidate forums to say they are being ignored and then are shushed because they run over their time limits, Baxter said she will listen to people and even knock on their doors to get their opinions.
People in her neighborhood are used to seeing Baxter at their door.
“Even before she put her name on the side of her car, people around here knew who she was,” Cole said.
If Baxter is recognizable around her block, however, she might still be unfamiliar to the larger First Ward.
Linda Rootes, president of the North-Central Columbia Neighborhood Association, worked on a task force a couple of years ago with Baxter. She said Baxter worked well on the task force but hasn’t become involved in North-Central issues.
“What I know of her has not inspired me to vote for her,” Rootes said. “There’s kind of a void there. She hasn’t reached out to our neighborhood association.”
Baxter’s starting mission months ago was to change that by becoming more visible. The most extreme tactic was to transform her yellow Suzuki station wagon into a mobile ad. “Elect Karen Baxter, First Ward City Council” was permanently painted on the side.
Baxter said that nothing will change on April 8. Whether she’s elected or not, she’ll remain committed to solving the problems of the First Ward.
“People ask me what I’m going to do with my car if I don’t win,” Baxter said. “I tell them I’m not going to do anything. I’ll keep ‘Karen Baxter, First Ward’ on there.”