Editor’s note: This story was a collaboration between The Missouri Independent and Missouri School of Journalism reporters Jonathan Jain, MJ Montgomery, Lianna Johnson and Jackson Valenti.
The 40 people chosen to draw new legislative districts for Missouri include political consultants, former candidates and political party officers.
There are lawyers and union members, grassroots activists and academics. And they have until late January to design 163 Missouri House and 34 state Senate districts that would be used for the first time next year.
The commissions are billed as independent, and members are prohibited from running for a legislative seat for four years. Many commissioners, however, have close ties to the state legislators whose districts they will be redrawing.
Some commission members are employees, attorneys or staffers of senators or other politicians. Others were notable political donors in 2020 and before. All the commissioners were nominated by the Democratic or Republican parties. Each congressional district party committee sends two nominations for each commission to the governor and each state committee sends four. The governor makes the final selections.
On the House commission, two well-connected Republican members are James Thomas III and Pat Thomas, who are not related.
James Thomas III is a lawyer based out of Kansas City who serves as treasurer for more than 30 political action committees registered with the Missouri Ethics Commission.
In 2017, he was embroiled in a scandal involving a federal PAC that resulted in a $350,000 fine by the Federal Elections Commission.
Pat Thomas is the treasurer of the Missouri Republican State Committee and chief of staff for Sen. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield.
There are other members of the commissions with significant political activity.
Jonathan Ratliff is a partner in a Republican political consulting firm used by several legislators.
Jason Ludwig, a Democrat and lawyer from the 4th Congressional District, which includes Columbia, donated $5,000 to two Democratic candidates for state Senate in 2020.
Curtis Jared, a Republican who runs a commercial real estate firm in Springfield donated $5,100 to various candidates in 2020, including $2,600 to Gov. Mike Parson.
Vicki Riley, a Republican from Independence, has run unsuccessfully several times for the Missouri House, most recently in 2020.
On the Senate commission, the Republican chairman and Democratic vice-chairwoman have extensive political experience.
Chairman Marc Ellinger is a Jefferson City-based attorney nominated to the commission by the Republican state committee. A former Cole County presiding commissioner, Ellinger’s clients regularly include Republican and conservative groups. He currently represents Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft in a lawsuit over ballot language.
Ellinger is serving for the second time on a redistricting commission.
Vice-chairwoman Susan Montee, a Democrat from St. Joseph, was state auditor from 2007 to 2011. She was elected chairwoman of the Missouri Democratic State Committee in 2011 and was the party’s nominee for lieutenant governor in 2012.
Bipartisan doesn’t mean an absence of partisanship, cautioned Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Missouri. Instead, he said, it means that there is an equal number of Republicans and Democrats so that “their individual partisan impulses should cancel each other.”
“They still can, however, work to protect or promote the political interests of their friends or colleagues,” Squire said.
Republicans currently hold about 70% of legislative seats in the state. With state legislators deciding major policy that governs the state, Squire encouraged Missourians to care about the redistricting process.
“It is important for all Missourians to remember that most of the government policies that impact their daily lives are made in Jefferson City by the state legislature,” he said, “and not in Washington, D.C. by Congress.”