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Ideological scales: A look at Columbia's political landscape

Columbia has a long-held liberal reputation, but which way does the city really lean?
Thursday, November 8, 2007 | 10:57 a.m. CST; updated 12:11 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

At the intersection of Providence and Broadway, Claire Garden holds a sign above her head that says: “This Time Don’t Buy the Lies.” It’s less than 50 degrees outside, and the wind is chilling. But she and a dozen other Columbia residents are out soliciting honks for peace.

“The honks have increased as the unpopularity of (the Iraq War) has risen,” Garden says, flashing a peace sign at a passing car that honks emphatically. Mid-Missouri Peaceworks organizes the weekly demonstrations, which have become an institution in Columbia during the past six years.

Talking Columbia

April Karlovit

Resident since ’69 Youth Outreach Bookmobile driver “Let me throw some words out: open, expressive, confrontational, growing, diverse, separated … Columbia has a lot of the ‘old guard,’ a provincial sense of community. They want to grow, but they’re not ready for it. “Everyone sees Columbia as an aberration in the state. People take risks and make it better, but it’s still gentrified. Things are edgier here than other parts of the state.” Creedon Miller Resident since ’85 Columbia Public Works employee (Water and Sewage) “In my opinion, Columbia is more liberal than Ames, even more than Iowa City. You have so many influences here: KOPN, the Peace Nook, the Quaker Church. The community has a lot of voices. “The way society brands us, I guess I’m liberal. Terms like that, well, there are forces that cause things. The universities are a force for liberalism and knowledge you might say.” Mandy Hagedorn Resident since ’04 Photography and design senior at Columbia College “I think the schools have a lot to do with (Columbia’s liberal reputation). They bring in different voices and ideas you won’t find in small towns. When I think of liberal, I think of liberals here. Being in Missouri, you wouldn’t think that’d be the case. “As far as rural Missouri goes, we’re awfully liberal. I like the arts and the ideas that come with it, though.” Dave Sherburne Resident since ’02 TV ad representative for ABC 17 “As far as the state goes, Columbia isn’t that liberal. Compared to St. Louis and Kansas City, it’s pretty even-minded. There are more left-leaning right-wingers here. It is the heart of America. I am a conservative; I was in the military, but I vote on issues that would make me a liberal in the little towns through the Ozarks.”


“You could say this is the liberal city of Missouri,” she says. “But it’s really just nicely geared for organization and activism.”

College towns such as Columbia are generally seen as liberal hotbeds by surrounding areas. Grass-roots organizations such as Peaceworks are staples of the College Town ethos and are symptomatic of communities perceived as liberal. From Sedalia to Christian County, when Missourians think of Columbia, the word liberal often comes to mind.

As longtime Columbia resident and MU Professor Emeritus of Journalism John Merrill puts it: “Columbia is seen by many as liberal. They see it as an oasis in a conservative desert.”

He credits this characterization to Columbia’s three colleges and a medical system that draws in a diverse range of lifestyles.

“It’s mainly a liberal city with conservative enclaves,” Merrill says with a smile. “But Missouri has more conservative enclaves than Massachusetts.”

The term liberal has been thrown around a lot during the past 400 years. Throughout the course of history, liberal, like conservative, Democrat, Republican and Progressive, has taken on many different meanings. In the past two decades, the term liberal has come under much scrutiny and, in some circles, revilement. Conservative Republican figures such as Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich adopted the word as an insult in the early ’90s, and the stigma stuck. Democrats seeking the White House in 2008, such as Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, are shying away from the same term once used to describe President Kennedy.

Liberal has come to be almost a dirty word,” says Anand B. Commissiong, visiting assistant professor of political science at MU. “Although technically speaking, insofar as you believe in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, you are liberal.”

The weight of the word

Soren Kierkegaard wrote: “Once you label me you negate me.” Talking about regions, states or even single communities in blanket terms such as liberal or conservative is sure to ruffle some feathers. Yet painting with such a broad brush has become a common trend among politicians, news media and individuals wanting to talk politics.

These dualistic distinctions are common because they give meaning by virtue of contrast. New York City is liberal; Omaha, Neb., is not. George Clooney is liberal; John Wayne was not. Global warming and gay rights are liberal issues, but the war on terror and gun ownership rights are not.

So is Columbia liberal? That depends on whom you ask.

Garden, of the Wednesday peace demonstration, thinks it’s self-evidently liberal and points to a well-educated community for her reasoning.

“Higher education gives to more critical thinking,” she says. “People are more willing to look beyond what the demagogues are saying to see what’s really going on.”

Mark Haim, Peaceworks director and KOPN radio show host, recognizes a loud voice for certain liberal reforms, but he prefers to call the city progressive, at least by mid-Missouri standards.

“(Liberalism) is a matter of terminology,” Haim says. “It’s far more complex than left versus right.”

Brian Johnson, registered lobbyist and former president of the MU Republicans, offers a more direct response.

“Does Columbia live up to its liberal reputation? Yes,” Johnson says. “It’s left of center, comparable to a lot of East Coast cities.”

Toni Messina, the public communications director for the city, doesn’t agree with the notion that the city is liberal, but like many, she doesn’t agree with the term itself.

Liberal? That’s a pretty subjective term,” she says. “People live very intensely in this community. That may be the hallmark of a liberal city.”

Like most abstractions, liberalism is a value judgment. In a country where liberal more often than not means Democrat, and conservative is code for Republican, a look into voting patterns might reveal more to this liberal branding than any amount of introspection.

Counting the votes

Missouri is revered by politicians and political analysts for its prophetic abilities. Voters in the state have successfully predicted the president in 25 of the 26 elections since 1900 (the exception was Adlai Stevenson’s 1956 campaign against Eisenhower).

Following the 2004 presidential election, the Chicago Tribune called Missouri “a bellwether state that almost exactly mirrors the demographic, economic and political makeup of the nation.”

The state’s balanced electorate is apparent in the local elections. Of the eight governors in the past 30 years, Missouri has elected four Republicans and four Democrats.

Missouri’s representation in the Senate is balanced with Republican Kit Bond and Democrat Claire McCaskill, and the congressional delegation consists of five Republicans and four Democrats.

Situated in the heart of the state, Boone County represents a diverse mix of the state’s political allegiances. The county has voted for a Democrat in the past four gubernatorial elections, and it also supports Democrats in county government positions such as prosecuting attorney, county auditor, county clerk and presiding commissioner.

But for congressional positions, the county has supported Republicans Kit Bond and Kenny Hulshof, both of whom receive enormous support from county voters.

Inside Boone County, two-thirds of the population lives in Columbia. The city has historically voted Democratic, alluding to political leanings more liberal than those of the rest of Missouri.

Terry Spickert, chairman of the Boone County Republican Central Committee, calls Columbia “The Kingdom of Boone,” a term popular in Jefferson City for the sway that Democrats in Columbia have over more conservative voters in the rest of the county.

Rick Hardy, congressional candidate and former MU political science professor of 30 years, agrees that Columbia’s liberal leanings are evident in its voting history.

“When I came to Columbia, you could pretty well put all of your Republicans in a phone booth,” he says. “Really, ever since the Civil War, Boone County had been pretty much Democratic.”

Of those citizens whose political beliefs are so entrenched that they vote strictly by party titles, Columbia has a higher percentage of straight-ticket Democrats and a smaller percentage of straight-ticket Republicans than does the county.

The past three presidential elections, however, have shown the Republican vote to be making moderate gains.

Columbia overwhelmingly supported Ronald Reagan’s re-election bid in 1984 by nearly 12 percentage points. The only other candidate to garner such a margin of victory in Columbia was Bill Clinton in 1992. But unlike the 1984 election, the 1992 campaign offered voters the appealing, nontraditional third-party candidate Ross Perot.

“There was a transition in Missouri where the conservative Democrats did not want to vote for Clinton because of his gun and abortion positions, but they weren’t ready to be Republicans,” Hardy says. “Ross Perot offered these moderates the chance to vote their belief.”

Hardy thinks Perot’s ability to take nearly one-fifth of Columbia’s vote is indicative of a long-running movement within Columbia politics. “There are two wings of the Democratic party,” he says. “A conservative wing of the party on the outskirts of town (they’re pro-life, pro-gun), and then the very liberal Democrats associated with the university and the downtown.”

As Columbia grows and new industries and families come into the city for reasons other than the university, Hardy predicts more success for moderate and conservative political candidates.

“You’re seeing a new influx of people,” he says. “The old (liberal/Democrat) guard, the old culture doesn’t mean that much to them. In the long run this will be a strong two-party system. It won’t be a one-party lock anymore.”

The centering effect of more conservative and moderate voters comes across in Columbia’s votes for the Senate and Congress. In the 2006 elections, the nation gave power to Democrats in both Congress and the Senate.

Columbia’s contribution was to side with Democrat Claire McCaskill over Republican Jim Talent by 6,000 votes, yet Republican incumbent Kenny Hulshof still carried Columbia by more than 2,000 votes. Hulshof received a 63.2 conservative rating from the National Review, meaning his voting records were more conservative than 63.2 percent of Congress.

“Hulshof’s views are not centrist; they’re quite to the right,” says Jeff Chinn, volunteer for the Boone County Democrats. “Columbia’s (Congressman) has voted along with the Bush agenda, and that’s certainly not liberal.”

Senator Kit Bond’s success in Columbia also confounds the idea of a liberal community. Columbia voters support this senator whom the National Review gave a conservative ranking of 78.5, making him the 19th most conservative senator in the country. In 2004, Bond defeated Democrat Nancy Farmer by 7 percentage points in Columbia, and in 1998 he beat Democrat Jay Nixon by 12 percentage points. Results like this point to a Columbia electorate that’s anything but homogenous.

The liberal initiatives

On Aug. 3, 2004, the state of Missouri passed a ban on same-sex marriage by 71 percent. Amendment 2 and other measures like it across the country were touted by conservative leaders but failed to garner support from Columbia. City law currently protects gays from harassment or discrimination, but only a narrow majority (52.6 percent) voted against the statewide amendment. Joshua Barton, president of the Triangle Coalition, credits the university as a successful launching pad for gay rights, but he believes the city isn’t unified behind such causes.

“It’s not uncommon to encounter conservative, racist or even homophobic mentalities here,” he says of his personal experiences. “It’s a special environment in Columbia. We have all of these centers of learning, yet we’re still stuck in mid-Missouri.”

Later in 2004, two city ballot initiatives passed with huge support, allowing for medicinal marijuana use (69.4 percent) and less-severe prosecution for possession of small amounts of marijuana (60.8 percent). With propositions 1 and 2, Columbia joined the ranks of cities such as Boulder, Colo., and Ann Arbor, Mich., for its liberal drug-law reforms. This earned MU the branding of the third-largest counter-cultural campus in the country by marijuana aficionado magazine High Times.

In 2006, Columbia voted in support of expanding stem cell research within the state. Amendment 2 passed with 64.4 percent of Columbia votes but only narrowly passed statewide.

Columbia’s predominant medical and academic communities certainly voiced their favor for the issue, which is often viewed as part of a liberal agenda. Vicki Hobbs, volunteer for the Boone County Democrats, credits education for the amendment’s success in Columbia.

“The average education of this county is high compared to other places,” she says. “More educated people are more likely to be in favor of stem cell research.”

The heart of Missouri

Certainly reasons exist for those outside Columbia to view the city as liberal, but the actual results are not so conclusive. Centers of higher learning have the ability to bring in diverse ideologies and identities and to let them compete in the marketplace of ideas, and this contributes to a somewhat divided electorate.

Barbara Hoppe, councilwoman for Columbia’s Sixth Ward, sees the interaction between the city and the academic community as a strength of Columbia.

“We have a lot more diversity than other communities because of the colleges,” she says. “Diverse people with diverse backgrounds come into contact.”

Echoing the sentiments of others, Hoppe says the practice of thinking critically leads to Columbia’s perceived liberal qualities.

The presence of three colleges does attract young, progressive ideas. The city is diverse, and its voting habits reflect the community’s complex conscience. Columbia votes more Democratic than the surrounding cities, and anchored in the center of a notoriously middle-road state, it begins to appear even more liberal than its voting record reflects.

It is an eclectic mix of big-city ideas and small-town values. It has head shops and bars as well as churches. Book stores as well as hunting shops. Columbia is liberal or conservative, depending on what you like. It is what you make it.


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