The August 4 primary election for Missouri secretary of state won’t be very eventful, with only one candidate each filing in the Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Green and Constitution parties. The Republican candidate is the incumbent, John R. (Jay) Ashcroft. Running as a first-time candidate (albeit with heady name recognition via his namesake father), he beat Democratic nominee Robin Smith by more than a half-million votes (58 to 38 percent) in 2016.
Ashcroft’s Democratic opponent in the November 3 general election will be Yinka Faleti. Faleti is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, a U.S. Army veteran, a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis School of Law, and a former state prosecutor and nonprofit executive. He lives in St. Louis with his wife, Ronke Faleti, and their four children.
As of their most recent campaign filings, Faleti had about $70,000 cash on hand while Ashcroft had about $293,000.
The St. Louis American interviewed Faleti about his candidacy.
The St. Louis American: Missouri has never elected a black person to statewide office. Why can you in this position now when no one else could win in any position ever before?
Yinka Faleti: Since statehood in 1821, no person of color has been elected to a statewide office in Missouri. This election for this office is different. The threat to the black vote in Missouri is an existential one. The Missouri NAACP under Nimrod Chapel Jr.’s leadership has been sounding the alarm. And Wisconsin was a warning. Milwaukee is 40% black, and we witnessed the Republican Party there move to deliberately craft conditions calibrated to suppress the vote as much as possible in that city. Don't think for a moment that Jay Ashcroft and the Republicans are not now contriving how to do the same in the St. Louis region, in the Kansas City region and across this state.
All throughout Missouri, people who love democracy and recognize this threat and the opportunity for change and leadership by our campaign are ready to elect the first African American to statewide office. We see and feel that readiness and energy in our interactions with voters every day.
The St. Louis American: John Ashcroft is a big name in Missouri. Yinka Faleti, not so much. How do you make up what must be a double-digit deficit in name ID?
Yinka Faleti: We continue to work hard and meet voters where they are. When we launched this campaign in October, we made plans to connect with voters in every corner of Missouri. And we’d been doing that prior to the coronavirus. However, we’ve had to adapt our strategy because of the pandemic. We’ve shifted our campaign to heavy on digital, phone and all platforms virtual. On March 30, we hosted a virtual town hall on Facebook that reached thousands of voters from around the state. Now, our mantra is if they have internet or a phone, we can connect with them.
However, we also believe Ashcroft’s name may be an albatross for his campaign. It’s no secret that he and Kris Kobach are running neck and neck as to who’s a bigger voter suppressor. Jay Ashcroft’s name is synonymous with “undemocratic.” We believe Missourians of all political persuasions believe in American democracy and understand that voting is the critical cornerstone of our democracy.
The St. Louis American: Let me play devil’s advocate on the democracy bromides. Trump’s base support scarcely wavered despite credible evidence he collided with a hostile foreign power to win the election. The Republican Party arguably is choosing the suppression of minority enfranchisement and, with it, democracy over losing white power in a majority-minority democracy. What makes you so sure a majority of Missourians wouldn’t take that deal right along with Ashcroft, Kobach and Trump?
Yinka Faleti: That’s why we have elections. We can’t guarantee the outcome. The coronavirus pandemic has revealed so much about our society. Among what’s been revealed is that Missourians are looking for good, competent leaders of character in their elected state government officials. Many Missourians have been unhappy with the response of the secretary of state and governor to this pandemic. The people of Missouri are ready for change and competent leadership. We can provide that change and leadership they’re looking for.
The St. Louis American: The pandemic is the 300-pound elephant (or donkey) in the room. Win or lose, you make history by campaigning under these bizarre conditions. They have to benefit the incumbent in a down-ballot race. How do you make the socially distant campaign work for you?
Yinka Faleti: My wife, Ronke, and I continue to pray daily for all Missourians, our country and for people around the globe. This pandemic has affected the lives of so many across our state in so many ways.
I’m not sure this pandemic benefits the incumbent, particularly given his lack of leadership in the midst of this crisis.
We’ve embraced the new campaign environment. We leverage digital platforms and all things virtual to reach voters in every corner of the state. Being able to reach voters by social media, email or phone actually gives us a greater opportunity to connect with a voter who may not have been available to attend an in-person event, but can tune in to our campaign from the comfort of their living room. We don’t know how long this pandemic will require distancing, so we continue to develop new virtual ways to reach voters daily.
The St. Louis American:Our editorial board shares your low opinion of the incumbent as an election official. Other than coming from the party that is not actively repressing the vote in Missouri and all over the country, why would you be better? What do you know about running a statewide election authority?
Yinka Faleti: Missouri needs leadership in the Secretary of State's Office. Instead of adapting to the pandemic and taking measures necessary to ensure Missourians can vote safely and securely this summer and fall, Ashcroft is burying his head in the sand.
As a West Point graduate and combat arms Army officer, our country tasked me with executing difficult missions under austere conditions with competence and character. I was entrusted with the most precious resource this nation has to offer – her sons and daughters. My job was to execute a mission anywhere on this planet, fight to win our nation’s wars and bring everyone in my charge back home safely. I did that as a leader of soldiers in the Army both here and in the deserts of Kuwait – both before and in response to September 11.
And I’ve continued to lead with competence and character since my time in the Army, serving as a state prosecutor and a leader at United Way and Forward Through Ferguson.
What I know about serving as secretary of state are things that can’t be taught: honor, integrity and courage to lead in crisis. Taking on this role has unique significance to me. I earned my United States citizenship and right to vote as a youth. I didn’t have it automatically. So, I hold that right very dear.
I lived my early years in a country, Nigeria, where that right isn’t realized by all – as is, unfortunately, the case in so many countries around the world. I fought as a member of our military to ensure every American can enjoy that right – no matter their political persuasion. When you’ve fought for something, it tends to mean a lot more to you. The right to the safe, secure and accessible vote in Missouri is something I would protect zealously. That’s something our current secretary fails to understand is part of his job description.
The St. Louis American:Ashcroft is calling some of his staff back to the office, though the governor just issued a (belated and weak) statewide Stay at Home order. Is this wise management of admittedly essential workers, or would you proceed differently if in his position?
Yinka Faleti: Ashcroft’s call seems to contradict the Stay at Home order and seems out of step with decisions of other statewide elected officials who have, by and large, facilitated their employees working remotely.
During a pandemic, it is wise to rely on guidance of trusted scientists and healthcare professionals at the CDC and with the state. As secretary of state, I would proceed in accordance with guidance from those entities.