U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) reached out to black constituents in the St. Louis area over the weekend with a town hall event at Harris-Stowe State University on January 27 and an appearance at a St. Louis Metropolitan Clergy Coalition event on January 28.
McCaskill spent her town hall event at Harris-Stowe, her 51st in a year, taking questions from the audience on a variety of topics. One of the first randomly chosen questions came from state Rep. Michael Butler (D-St. Louis), Democratic caucus chairman, who asked how much of the money pouring into her 2018 reelection race will go towards engaging the black community.
McCaskill said her campaign plans to spend “millions and millions” courting black voters and building on grassroots organizing. But she also spoke out against the “dark money” that will likely make up a large proportion of the dollars spent in the race. Political action committees, she said, will spend substantially both in favor of her and her potential Republican opponents, who include state Attorney General Josh Hawley and U.S. Representative Ann Wagner.
“If you see an ad that you can’t figure out who paid for it, don’t pay any attention to it,” McCaskill said.
Other topics included McCaskill’s opposition to Missouri Governor Eric Greitens’ proposed cuts to higher education, preserving Medicaid (she vowed not to support any cuts), and single-payer health care (which she dismissed as impractical).
McCaskill also spoke to several concerns about criminal justice reform and racism in Missouri. One audience member asked about the problem of mass incarceration on low-level drug charges. McCaskill said she would support legalizing medical and possibly recreational marijuana, but also pointed to an approach she used as a prosecutor in Kansas City – special “drug courts” that help non-violent drug offenders get their lives back on track instead of punishing them.
“It’s an accomplishment I’m probably as proud of as anything in public life,” McCaskill said. “By the way, I got a lot of pushback. The police officers that did drug crimes, they said, ‘Claire, let me get this straight. We’re gonna go in a drug house and bust these guys, and then you’re gonna give them a bus pass and job training?’ I said, ‘That’s exactly right.’”
McCaskill said the program was successful, and the drug unit of the police department was eventually persuaded and even began attending drug court graduations.
According to a 10-year study by the National Institute of Justice, drug courts are more successful than conventional sentencing at keeping people off drugs, and also have lower costs.
On the broader topic of criminal justice reform and fighting police bias, McCaskill said she frequently rereads the Ferguson Commission report, a study of policies that could combat racism and improve conditions for black Missourians, to find proposals she could help implement.
“In terms of police bias and our police department, I think the most important ingredient is trust, and a lot of that has to do with community policing,” McCaskill said. “Once there’s an officer that’s assigned to a neighborhood, you begin to build trust. Then you have more witnesses come forward. Then you have more people understanding that there are a lot of great police officers that want to do the right thing. And once you rebuild that trust, then the bad apples have a way of getting squeezed out of the system.”
McCaskill said she can help in that effort by bringing more federal funds to Missouri for community policing efforts. She also said she was encouraged by the appointments of new St. Louis Police Chief John Hayden and Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards, whom she called “terrific choices.”
‘Back to the middle’
McCaskill also offered a strong argument for the bipartisan engagement she has become nationally known for. She was one of a group of senators from both parties who recently helped broker an agreement to end the federal government shutdown as the argument between Democrats and Republicans about immigration policy continues.
“For somebody like me, who likes to get things done, that means I’ve got to figure out ways to find Republicans that I can agree with on some of the values that we all share, and that is a challenge, obviously,” McCaskill said.
“When I first came to the Senate, there were a lot of senators of both parties who were willing to kind of hang out in the middle and find that compromise, so we could actually accomplish things. Now, those things were never perfect. They were never all left or all right in terms of an ideology. But they were actually getting things done.”
McCaskill said the climate in the Senate has changed as Republicans have become increasingly worried about pleasing the base of their party, but that despite that, she has been able to find colleagues who are willing to work together.
She cited examples of legislation that has been able to transcend the partisan divide, such as a bipartisan bill passed in August 2017 to make hearing aids available for lower prices over the counter.
“If we’re not fighting, it doesn’t get much coverage,” McCaskill said. “If it isn’t something nutty going on, it doesn’t get much coverage.”
The negotiation between parties that McCaskill has championed has led to criticism from all sides of the political spectrum, with no clear solution in sight. The Donald Trump White House has released a proposal offering a path to citizenship for the group known as “Dreamers,” young undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children and have met stringent requirements, in exchange for more funding for immigration enforcement and restrictions on legal immigration.
Widespread displeasure with that deal among Democrats and some right-wing Republicans has led to uncertainty about what a deal might look like, or whether one is likely to come soon at all.
McCaskill, however, was optimistic, saying she was encouraged by Trump’s offer to consider citizenship for Dreamers.
“The notion that we could get citizenship for them with the support of the president is terrific,” McCaskill said.
McCaskill said she does not believe the hardline conservative policies being pushed forward by Missouri Republicans are reflective of what citizens of the state really want.
“I don’t think Missourians are for what they’ve done in terms of cutting medical benefits, I don’t think Missourians are for what they’ve done in terms of cutting higher education,” McCaskill said.
“When you look at Republican policies, it hurts, frankly, the rural areas, the base of their support, more than it does the urban areas. There really is a moment, I think, where people need to wake up and realize that who we elect to the state legislature matters in their lives. And I’m hoping this year might be a turning point where we begin going back to the middle in Jefferson City, so that we’re not careening down a path where we’re focusing on who goes to what bathroom more than whether our kids can get a college education.”
‘Awesome power of God’
On January 28, McCaskill also spoke at the St. Louis Metropolitan Clergy Coalition’s installation of officers event, offering a more religious message for the audience at the Church of God in Christ’s Life Center.
“There is some awesome power of God in this room tonight,” McCaskill said.
McCaskill told the assembled congregants that while her job is to attempt to speak for vulnerable people in the political realm, the coalition’s religious leaders work to improve their lives on a day-to-day basis.
“The people in this room, especially the leaders who are surrounding me today, are really the people that do the heavy lifting in this community in so many ways,” McCaskill said.
“All of them come into their churches on Sunday and visit the house of worship, but when they leave their church on Sunday, they get busy. They get busy ministering to not only their church, but to the community at large, to the pain and suffering and the anxiety and angst, and they do all that through the word of the Lord Jesus Christ.”