Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»«MDBO»COL145.PRB - Missouri's I70 Democrats«MDNM»
Several years ago, I coined the phrase "I70 Democrats" to describe the fate voters had handed Democrats in Missouri's Senate.
Most of the districts they represented on each side of the I70 corridor between St. Louis and Kansas City.
The Senate's out-going Democratic leader, Maida Coleman, laughed when I came up with the I70 Democrats phrase in our conversation.
But we both knew it was an exaggeration. Democrats still had a couple of rural farmers in the Senate.
Today, just six years later, the I70 label is not an exaggeration -- in either the Missouri House or Senate.
Of the 54 Democrats who will serve in the General Assembly that convenes in January, there will be just one Democrat who could be described as coming from a rural district.
In the Senate, all nine Democrats come from the metropolitan areas of St. Louis and Kansas City.
On election night, Democrats lost the only Senate seat that could be classified as rural, if only partially -- Jefferson County's seat that once had been held by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon.
In the House, only two rural Democrats won House seats. But the next day, one of those two -- Rep. Linda Black, R-Desloge -- announced she had switched to the Republican Party arguing her old party had become too liberal.
That leaves Ben Harris from Hillsboro as the legislature's only rural Democrat as well as, if I'm not mistaken, the only farmer among Democratic lawmakers.
Harris is one of only four Democratic legislators who come from outside the St. Louis or Kansas City metro areas. Besides Harris, two of the others are from Columbia and one is from Springfield.
The incoming Republican House Speaker credited the shift to Democratic positions on gun rights, abortion and gay marriage.
"Frankly, outstate Missouri has just moved away from the Democratic Party -- a lot of it based upon what I call kind of value, social and moral issues," said John Diehl, R-St. Louis County.
How very different from just a few decades ago when conservative, rural Democrats were a dominating force in Missouri's General Assembly.
West-central Missouri Democrat Harold Caskey was the Senate sponsor of the state's concealed weapons law. Hannibal's Democratic House Judiciary Chair Harold Volkmer became a leader for gun-rights in the U.S. Congress as well as a board member of the National Rifle Association.
Democrats, both rural and urban, were among some of the legislature's strongest opponents of abortion rights.
A majority of the legislature's Democrats voted for the gay-marriage ban in 2004 -- including more than 20 rural Democrats.
Years earlier, rural western Missouri was represented in the Senate by Ike Skelton who went on to become a leader in Congress for expanded military spending.
The fiscal hawk chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Mike Lybyer, was a cattle rancher.
These rural Missourians might not have been a majority of the Democratic caucus, but their presence provided a balance in perspective for their party.
Years ago, I used to teach my journalism students covering the statehouse that geography was more important than party label in understanding the voting patterns of lawmakers.
I no longer stress that lesson. Party has become the dominating factor in determining votes -- on both sides.
That ideological conformity has political disadvantages, as Democrats learned election night.
The Senate's new Democratic leader -- Sen. Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis -- acknowledged his party needed more rural folks for his party to regain its strength.
Even one Republican leader privately bemoaned the lack of ideological diversity among Democrats that makes bi-partisan collaboration more difficult.
To be fair, Republicans have become just as ideologically rigid as Democrats on some issues, thanks to outside interest funding that punishes Republicans who wander off the pro-business reservation.
But at least Republicans enjoy a geographic diversity that, I think, has helped them become Missouri's majority party.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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