In Rwanda and Serbia, ethnic cleansing required guns and rivers of blood. In Missouri, all it required was a few strokes of a computer mouse and, poof, thousands of black people disappeared. Which is why most people reading this will probably end up voting for U.S. Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay for Congress.
When the 2010 Census results came in, the Missouri Legislature had to re-draw the state’s congressional district boundaries. When they re-drew the lines in these parts, they made sure of two things. One, the City of St. Louis would have only one congressman, and two, every black person possible would be shoehorned into the new 1st Congressional District represented by Clay. That’s why the border between Clay’s district, and GOP U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner’s 2nd Congressional District looks like it was drawn by someone who had a sudden spasm when the computer cursor moved over a black neighborhood.
The border moves smoothly south along Hanley Road, where it suddenly makes a sharp turn west along Manchester Road, then goes south along Berry Road, then zig-zags back east, taking all the black neighborhoods of Rock Hill and north Webster Groves and jamming them into Clay’s district. The GOP state lawmakers who drew it wanted to make sure every black, reliably Democratic neighborhood possible was removed from Republican Wagner’s district and placed into Democrat Clay’s area.
It worked. Clay’s 1st Congressional District is 50 percent African-American. Wagner’s 2nd District is 89 percent white. And what, in 21st Century America, is 89 percent white besides a Trump rally, Wyoming, and the line for Toby Keith tickets? This gerrymandering guarantees that Clay will be re-elected in the general election, and that if Jesus Christ ran as a Democrat, he couldn’t win in the 2nd District.
But then again, maybe not. Wagner, the former chair of the Missouri GOP and former U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg (more on that later), has won re-election three times by margins of 64 percent, 82 percent, and 59 percent. She’s voted with Trump 96 percent of the time and has mobilized her white-flight constituents with her hardline conservative, anti-abortion agenda. Her opponent, Democrat Cort VanOstran, is a 29-year-old lawyer who was raised by a single mother in Joplin, got a scholarship to Harvard University and is still paying off his student loans.
In any other year, VanOstran would probably be road kill. But his campaign has raised almost $500,000. He has held town hall meetings across Wagner’s district, pointing out that Wagner has refused to hold any constituent town halls for six years. He has hammered her on shouting “Freedom!” for the TV cameras after voting to repeal Obamacare and potentially taking health coverage away from people with pre-existing conditions. VanOstran’s volunteers have been trudging through neighborhoods and knocking on doors from Clayton to Eureka. And he even managed to run a TV ad.
So why should he stand a chance in a district whiter than a St. Louis police union group photo in a blizzard? Because Wagner has voted with Trump an astonishing 96 percent of the time. Because she has voted against health care, for tax cuts that mostly benefit the rich, and is part of the “Nothing to see here, so move along” GOP brigade in Congress that has aided and abetted Trump’s unfitness, collusion, obstruction of justice, racism, and praise of Vladimir Putin.
In other words, it’s Trump, and as much as everyone tries to localize elections like these, everyone knows it. Wagner campaign handouts claims, “We’ve brought America Peace and Prosperity.” Aside from the absurdity of crediting Trump because he inherited Obama’s improving economy and associating the word “peace” with a guy who is just one Twitter tantrum away from launching a nuclear strike against North Korea, Iran, or Canada, the most striking thing about her statement is the word “we.” She means, of course, herself and Trump.
Wagner briefly separated herself from Trump in early 2016, issuing a carefully parsed but bloodless condemnation of his virulent sexism. But that evaporated once he got the nomination, and she since has been gleefully supporting both his agenda and his persona in White House photo ops.
There’s no real surprise there, since Wagner has always been one of the establishment Republicans who gladly winked and nodded at the party’s far-right wing. Take 2010, at the height of the anti-Obama Tea Party frenzy, when Wagner returned home from being U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg and said she hoped “socialism hasn’t followed me home across the pond.”
The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, a splinter of a European country with a population of 600,000, requires citizens to have health insurance, provides world-class health care either free or inexpensively, has a maximum tax rate of 42 percent (as opposed to 35 percent here), and provides generous retirement, maternity, and unemployment benefits. If that’s socialism, most Americans might say, “Sign me up.”
Politically, it’s a tiny step from calling sensible social policy “socialism” to enthusiastically supporting America’s Mussolini. And Wagner took that step easily, voting to gut Obamacare, cut taxes for the rich, make it easy for companies to dodge compensation claims, loosen regulations on the banks that caused the ’08 crash, and proposing that workers get paid family leave only if they agree to cut their future Social Security benefits. All that, plus supporting Right-to-Work, rejected by 70 percent of Missouri voters in August.
But this year, voting for extremist policies proposed by a Republican president isn’t the usual no-brainer in the 2nd Congressional District, mainly because this president is the unfit, racist, and (probably) treasonous Donald Trump. Democrat Cort VanOstran, by running against Wagner, is running against Trump.
The choice for the (mostly) white, (nominally) Republican 2nd District is clear – re-elect a Trump sock puppet or go with the new kid on the block. This is more than a political choice. It’s a basic, moral test, one that Wagner has repeatedly failed.
Charles Jaco is a journalist, author, and activist. Follow him on Twitter at @charlesjaco1.