In a long conversation about Missouri’s 1st Congressional District and Russ Carnahan’s decision to run against the incumbent, U.S. Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay, the first African American to serve in the Congress from Missouri – Clay’s father, the legendary retired Congressman Bill Clay – laughed twice.
The first laugh came when Clay was asked if he had any advice for Missouri Democratic Party leaders, such as Gov. Jay Nixon and U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, regarding Carnahan’s challenge to the incumbent in Missouri’s only majority black congressional district.
After he had finished laughing – and it was bitter laughter – Clay said, “I really do think what Russ is doing could have an effect on the governor and Claire. It could have a chilling effect on black people’s belief in the viability of their vote.”
Clay said he was shocked to see Russ Carnahan challenge his son, given the role Clay Sr. and other black leaders had in the electoral success of Carnahan’s father, Mel Carnahan, in his primary campaign for U.S. Senate against Vince Schoemehl. But black Democrats fighting white Democrats over electoral turf is nothing new.
“There were a number of us – Franklin Paine, Leroy Tyus, James “Pal” Troupe and myself – who united the black vote to be able to get a black congressional district,” Clay said.
“The 1st Congressional District was the result of a coalition of Republicans and black Democrats. The Democratic Party opposed us. It took the Republicans in the state House and Senate and about nine white Democrats from southeast Missouri to override the majority Democrat leadership and establish the 1st Congressional District.”
His son, the current Congressman for the 1st Congressional District, saw this as a young man just entering his teens.
“My son saw it all, even as a very young individual,” Clay said. “He’d be at the dinner table as we discussed politics. He’d be there in the house when politicians came over to speak with me. He’d go out with me hanging signs.”
Clay’s battle to preserve some concentrated electoral power for the black community continued as his son grew into a man and entered politics himself.
“This is typical of Democrats down through history,” Clay said, with every U.S. Census occasioning another battle with white Democrats to preserve the 1st Congressional District.
“I had to go to federal court in 1971 and again in 1981 when Democrats in Airport Township wanted to divide the black population into three congressional districts without any being majority-black. Democrats always want to use blacks as the base of their districts but never want to champion or be the ones who initiated the kinds of legislation that is in the best and permanent interest of blacks.”
Clay speaks in the common sense of practical politics understood from a minority perspective. You need power to wield power, and you can’t expect someone – even someone from within your own party – to share power if you don’t have any leverage. That to him is what is at stake in Carnahan’s challenge to this majority-minority district.
“It’s the entire significance of black involvement in the political system,” Clay said about the black incumbent holding the seat.
“Without control of a congressional district, you have no political power. Power emanates politically from a congressional district. We were able to use that power and influence. We had to crack all kinds of denials of our being elected to various positions. We were able to win Comptroller, the mayorship City of St Louis, the first citywide County offices such as Treasurer and License Collector; we elected two state senators.”
With the congressional district held by Clay Jr., African Americans control two of the three most important citywide offices, Comptroller and President of the Board of Aldermen, but have lost one state Senate seat in the city and could lose the other Senate seat in the contested August 7 primary. One of the citywide County seats held by an African American, Treasurer, also is at stake, as two blacks and two whites have filed for the open seat vacated by Larry Williams.
Bill Clay sees holding the 1st Congressional District as imperative to maintaining any degree of influence.
“If you don’t have that base, what do you take to the table to negotiate with if you don’t have any power? That’s precisely what this fight is about,” Clay said.
“If the black community loses its power and influence, we become beggars in the system. You have to go with hat in hand, pleading for them to give you something. When you have power, you sit and negotiate and form a coalition, and if a coalition is impossible to form, with power you take what you need and what is necessary.”
Any challenge by a white Democrat would raise these issues, but Clay is embarrassed and appalled that the challenge came from Mel Carnahan’s son.
“The Clays were such big supporters of his father,” Clay said. “We probably were the determinate element in his father’s successful campaign for U.S. Senate. It was the effective campaign machinery we had developed in the 1st Congressional District that got him elected.”
That machinery still exists to a large extent, and now Clay’s son is using it against Mel Carnahan’s son.
“Lacy just has to keep on campaigning like always, like he’s accustomed and always done, and keep it on a positive level,” Clay said. “We don’t intend to resort to untruths and don’t intend to hit below the belt. Lacy can run on his record because his record is excellent.”
Clay pointed to the National Journal ranking of members of Congress by liberal voting record that found Wm. Lacy Clay tied for the single most liberal vote in the House, with Russ Carnahan coming in at 139.
“That says Lacy is representing the interests of consumers, the indigent, people seeking equality, people seeking justice,” Clay said.
“It also says he is one of the leaders in terms of pursuing the goals of the average person. He doesn’t just vote. Someone has to take those issues and carry them to the rest of the Congress, and he is one of those to do that.”
Clay said his son’s solid record explains why Carnahan’s campaign went negative so early, attacking Lacy for missing a vote to attend his daughter’s graduation and accusing him of colluding with Republicans in the Legislature to support a redistricting map that eliminated the 3rd District that Carnahan knew.
“Russ is going negative, probably, because he has nothing else to go on,” Clay said. “He only can do exactly what Mitt Romney is doing. He can’t point to anything he’s done successfully or to forward-looking policy statements. He’s basing his whole campaign on the false claim that Lacy didn’t help him to get his district created the way he wanted it.”
If nothing else is clear, it is clear that Lacy Clay is the incumbent in the 1st Congressional District. This inspired Bill Clay’s second belly laugh of the interview – when he was informed that Carnahan had challenged the description of Lacy Clay as the “incumbent.”
“Russ thinks he’s the incumbent? – that is comical,” Bill Clay said, after collecting himself. “He is running in the 1st Congressional District, where Lacy has been the incumbent for 12 years now, and he challenges that Lacy is the incumbent? Oh, that is comical.”