Starting Line focuses on Iowa politics, and I’ll be reporting from the Statehouse later today, but I’ve had a nagging desire to write about the recent deplorable situation of Missouri politics, the state I was born and raised in. Several weeks ago the leading Republican candidate for Governor, State Auditor Tom Schweich, committed suicide following an alleged anti-Semetic whisper campaign against him (Schweich was Christian, but had some Jewish ancestry). One of the main suspected culprits is John Hancock, a former GOP consultant and new chair of the Missouri Republican Party.
I grew up in Jefferson City, Missouri, and while I’ve made Iowa my home for nearly 13 years, the Show Me State still holds a place in my political heart. Mel Carnahan was the first elected leader to inspire me to get involved in politics and public service, as I admired his devotion to public education. I can still vividly recall every sad detail of his funeral procession, standing along High Street as a 15-year-old, watching his flag-draped coffin being led by horses in a full military honors display. As I type this I sit underneath a Thomas Hart Benton print I hung in my home office to remind me of the the artist’s beautiful murals in the Missouri State Capitol, which I once gave tours on while an intern there.
I’ve followed Missouri’s descent into such nastiness with dismay for years, but some of the recent news rang particularly true with my short experience in Missouri politics. Paul DeGregorio, a long-time Missouri Republican insider, wrote a letter criticizing Missouri political consultants’ win-at-all-costs strategy, which he felt helped cause Tom Schweich’s suicide. It reminded me of my week at Missouri Boys State in 2002 while in high school. Two Missouri Republican consultants taught our “executive” leadership class about how to make negative ads. One suggestion was to run a list of the number of times your opponent has missed a vote, and then to lie by adding in 3 or 4 extra times. That way, if they call you out on it, you still keep the negative story about them in the press longer. They also showed “funny” ads they made for fundraisers that depicted Democratic leaders like Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt as animals having sex with each other.
I didn’t know how to process that at the time, but now as veteran of many Iowa campaigns, I can’t believe anyone would teach young leaders such atrocious tactics. I wonder how many fellow young and impressionable attendees took those lessons to heart. I also wonder how many millions of dollars those consultants have made since.
I doubt I will ever return to politics in my home state, even though it played a major role in my interest in the field. Every disgusting story of Missouri’s love for the politics of personal destruction provides that much clearer contrast with Iowa’s basic decency in its political dealings. The people here are well-informed, moderate in temperament while passionate in advocacy, and aren’t as easily swayed by negative attacks. Our two states may share a border, but our levels of political discourse are worlds apart. I only hope some level of sanity returns to the Show Me State, so that other young people don’t leave it with such a distaste in their mouth as I have.
by Pat Rynard