COLUMBIA — The most interesting and most confusing of the local contests this electoral season is the tussle between incumbent Sen. Kurt Schaefer, a Republican, and his challenger, Rep. Mary Still, a Democrat.
I went to the debate Tuesday evening sponsored by MU political science students in hopes of gaining some clarity. I emerged no less interested or confused but with one thought that resembles an insight:
Rep. Still is running against the wrong Republican.
Here’s what I mean.
Rep. Still makes a strong argument against the reactionary ways of the tea party conservatives who make up most of the Republican majority in our legislature. She criticizes their persistent failure to fund adequately the university, which she accurately describes as the state’s “economic engine.” She attacks their cozy relationship with the payday loan industry and their refusal to raise even the nation’s lowest cigarette tax. She is an eloquent advocate of women’s rights. All that and more she said persuasively Tuesday night. Her problem is that most of her critique doesn’t apply to Sen. Schaefer.
You’ll recall that earlier this year, in his central role as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Schaefer took on both Gov. Nixon and the Republican leadership to restore $106 million to the university budget that the governor had proposed to cut. He also joins forces with Rep. Still’s Democratic colleague, Rep. Chris Kelly, to support a massive bond issue that would pay for capital improvements at the university and elsewhere. Gov. Nixon has been cool to that idea, and the Republican leadership hostile.
Both candidates support the cigarette tax increase placed on the ballot by public petition. Both oppose Senate Bill 389, which limits the UM Board of Curators’ ability to raise university tuition. Sen. Schaefer even has introduced a bill to create a voting student curator position, which Rep. Still has long favored. Neither likes term limits. Both favor rebuilding Interstate 70, though neither knows how to finance the job.
When Todd Akin made his infamous comments on rape, Sen. Schaefer was among the first to urge him to quit the U.S. Senate race. He said he found those comments “barbaric and sickening.”
In a Democratic-leaning district, Rep. Still’s strongest argument probably is that re-electing Sen. Schaefer would help perpetuate the Republican majority that successfully stifles any progressive governance. She made that argument only by implication Tuesday.
The Missourian report in Wednesday’s paper quoted her theme statement: “I will be there to represent you, the values we share and to fight for working families.”
Now, she added, “The deck in Jefferson City is stacked against working people and stacked against students.” She didn’t say, of course, that our conservative Democratic governor is complicit in that deck-stacking. She used to work for Gov. Nixon and still advises him.
Sen. Schaefer’s strongest argument is the one he made repeatedly and the Missourian quoted: “I would work with Republicans, Democrats, anyone who has an idea and wants to work to make this a better state.”
He pointed out that in his first 4-year term he has passed more than 50 bills, while in her two 2-year terms she has passed none, “not even an amendment.”
Her defense, which I found credible, was that as a member of the minority, she has been locked out. She recalled the one hearing she received for her bill to limit payday loans. The presiding committee chair was a former loan company owner. Her grin resembled the grimace of remembered pain.
I’ve known Mary Still since she was a journalism student and a promising reporter. Later, when she ran the university’s News Bureau, she was a staunch guardian of institutional secrets. In politics, as an aide and in elected office, she has been a fighter for worthy causes, often on the losing side.
Sen. Schaefer, a partner in a big Kansas City-based law firm and former general counsel of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, is used to winning. He was, I thought, more than a little dismissive of his opponent Tuesday.
“Mary, if you’re going to be an outlier, be an outlier,” he said. “You can’t just lob bombs.”
Actually, you can, and you may not be able to do much else, if the other side is deeply entrenched and immovable.
Despite the demographics of the district, I suspect Sen. Schaefer is the low-odds favorite in this race. I’m not usually a betting man, but I would make a small wager that Rep. Still wishes she were running against the Republican Senate instead of this Republican senator.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.