The Missouri Democratic Party has seen better days. In fact, the Republican Party hasn’t been as dominant as it is now in the state Legislature and statewide offices since … 1870. We hold no illusions about the difficulty of Democrats getting out of this ditch. It took three decades for Democrats to go from super-majority to super-minority status in the Legislature, and they won’t reverse that in one or two election cycles. But the first step in getting out of a hole is to stop digging. And one way the state Democratic Party can do that is to invigorate the party with new, young, diverse urban leadership. J.P. Johnson, the young, black St. Louis politico who is running to be the next party chair, would embody that strategy.
Johnson, who is just 30, has been involved in city politics for much of his 20s. He served in the final two years of the Slay administration, when the racially divisive administration showed a few flickers of progressive action. The city passed a minimum wage increase (later overturned by the Legislature, and then restored in a different form by voters statewide earlier this month), as well as marriage equality and pro-immigration measures. Johnson is a student of politics with a shrewd understanding of the way power works and the way to cultivate people who have some of it. His time working in the corridors of power, and his education at SLUH and SLU, have helped him become a gifted personal communicator comfortable with a diverse range of people. These characteristics should come in handy in this race, where there are just 68 voters – all state party committeepeople, all insiders.
Ultimately, the main duties of a state party chair are to articulate a vision and message, and then cultivate people with power and wealth to provide support so that Democrats can build a sustainable party infrastructure. In his unsuccessful state legislative race this year and in fundraising for the party during the general election, Johnson raised six figures, a rarity among city primary candidates.
Johnson is running against a cast of mostly inauspicious characters. One relatively accomplished opponent is Jackson County (Kansas City) prosecutor and former state legislator Jean Peters Baker. Peters Baker will enjoy the bulk of establishment support. However, if her tone-deaf announcement of her candidacy – when she told the primary audience of state party committeepeople who have been knocking doors and making calls for years that it's "time to get off the sidelines” – is any indication, she is not the savviest politico or best messenger for the job.
Another impediment to her candidacy is time. She already has a full-time job as prosecutor and will certainly have a tough time balancing that with the duties of the party chairmanship, which should be a full-time job. Conversely, Johnson would devote every minute to the position and bring his youthful vitality to the mission.
Granted, in an age when candidates for high office have their own affiliated PACs through which they raise big money, the state party chairmanship is not the most important position. And no, Johnson is not the most experienced candidate for the job. But the party must start somewhere if it ever wants to win again.
It’s time to abandon the failed strategy of chasing rural and exurban white voters trying to enlist their support of centrist and center-right candidates with a last-minute alarm sounded in the cities about how scary and racist Republicans are. With rural Missouri effectively lost to Democrats, statewide Democrats will require massive turnout from an energized urban base to win. And the only way to generate that will be via meaningful inclusion of African Americans and progressives throughout the entire campaign cycle at the strategic, policy, and management levels. A young, shrewd, energetic African-American party chair would help make that a reality.
Electing Johnson also would send a broader message to the Missouri Democratic Party that statewide candidates need a better urban strategy than coming to black churches and spreading crumbs of street money in the final month of their campaigns. Instead, the party should empower the rising group of young, urban progressives – and electing J.P. Johnson as party chair would be a good first move in climbing out of the hole Missouri Democrats have helped dig for themselves.