State Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal is serving her last term in the Missouri Senate, which does not expire until 2018. But she is running against incumbent U.S. Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay in 2016, she said, because she thinks voters want change now.
“St. Louis is experiencing several challenges, and it’s obvious that we need a different direction,” she told The American in a phone interview on October 25.
Voting a man named Clay out of office in Missouri’s 1st Congressional District certainly would signal a “different direction.” The district has been represented by a Clay since before Chappelle-Nadal was born. The incumbent has held the office since 2001, and he succeeded his father, former Congressman Bill Clay, who first took office to represent the district in 1969.
The “challenges” faced by the St. Louis region, which Chappelle-Nadal thinks will give voters an appetite for change, are now well known, though at the moment her campaign is focusing on three: failing school districts, Ferguson unrest and the radioactive West Lake Landfill.
Normandy public schools – now the state’s only unaccredited school district, though it showed improvement in the last year – falls within Chappelle-Nadal’s 14th Senatorial District. In recent years she has teamed with Republicans in the Legislature to pass educational reform bills that Gov. Jay Nixon – the senator’s frequent nemesis – keeps vetoing, standing with the teachers’ unions that opposed them.
“It would be nice to have leadership in education at the federal level,” she said.
Asked what leadership at the federal level she would show in education that surpasses Clay’s efforts, she sounded like she had not yet polished that part of the stump speech. Rather than outlining federal legislation she would pass, she said, “We should have more resources from the federal government for tutoring for students who receive free and reduced lunch” and that “we should have a plan in place to deal with students who are grades behind.”
As for Ferguson, Chappelle-Nadal contrasted her front-line support for protestors – in the earliest days of the protest, she spoke of the youth in the streets as her own “children” – with Clay’s detachment on the safety of the East Coast.
Clay – rightly – takes some credit for the Department of Justice opening a civil rights investigation into Ferguson, because he wrote Attorney General Eric Holder a letter asking him to do exactly that, and Holder did it. The resulting report led to the firing or resignation of the Ferguson city manager, police chief, municipal judge, and a cop and city clerk caught sending racist emails. Ferguson is still negotiating a resolution with the DoJ.
Chappelle-Nadal dismissed Clay’s successful advocacy with Holder as “paper-pushing.”
“Paper-pushing was sufficient some time ago, but now we need more than just letters,” she said. “We need voices for people who have suffered so long,” at which point she returned to the “new direction” theme.
It remains to be seen how much voters will respond to her Ferguson narrative – by August 2016, when the Democratic primary will be held, voters may thirst for a “new direction” other than hearing about the tear gassing of August 2014. But the front-line Ferguson experience remains fresh for the senator, and many others who experienced it, and central to a sort of conversion narrative for her.
“The frustration, the sorrow, the despair,” she said. “People felt like not one person was listening to offer them credibility or love. When I was tear gassed nearly four days in a row, a lot of elected people were absent. On the first day of tear gassing, I was gassed for three and a half hours on a one-way street.”
For the record, Lacy Clay was tear gassed zero hours on any kind of street in Ferguson.
Other than show up on the protest front lines when it was hot – as U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings did when Baltimore erupted in April – what would she have done differently than Clay in Ferguson?
She said that under the state of emergency, “certain federal assets” were available to local governments that Clay did not access. She said she would have done more to see that local police departments got reimbursed for their service at Ferguson protests faster than they did. And she “would have demanded from the governor that we have social workers. People were hurting.”
She did not specify any legislation she would push to address the criminal justice issues raised by Ferguson.
As for West Lake Landfill – the issue now getting her attention; she resigned from the University City school board, she said, to focus on it – she was clear what she would do that Clay has not done.
“A congressional hearing on the EPA should have happened a long time ago,” she said.
The Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for the landfill, where radioactive waste was illegally dumped, as a Superfund site.
“The EPA has been inconsistent with its reporting,” she said. “I would hold them accountable for what they allowed to happen long-term. They’re not always forthcoming. They don’t find answers. We need a whole new EPA.”
The senator might dismiss this, too, as “paper pushing,” but Clay has an extensive correspondence with the EPA concerning the landfill. On August 2, 2013, for example, he wrote a forceful letter and attached 25 pages of documents that hit all the points made by concerned residents today, asking then what they are still asking for now: that the Corps of Engineers take over remediation of the site and remove the radioactive waste before an underground high-temperature chemical reaction comes into contact with it. The voices speaking at public forums today and finally beginning to be heard – Dawn Chapman, Ed Smith – were speaking to the EPA via Clay in August 2013. (They wrote their own letters, too.)
There are at least two ways to look at that. Either Clay and activists were ahead of the curve and the wider community is just now starting to catch on – or “paper-pushing” wasn’t enough and what is needed now is a new kind of hands-on, on-the-scene congressperson.
“You can have a representative who is silent but absent, or one who is involved at every single turn, especially when there’s a crisis,” she said. “If people want a representative who is quiet but polite and doesn’t show up when there’s a catastrophe, that’s their decision. I think it’s time people need a voice – a loud one!”
The reference to volume was a joke on herself. She does get loud, and how loud she gets does get talked about. She also has crossed a threshold of decorum that she is certain to hear about on the campaign trail. This is the sitting state senator who publicly dropped an F-bomb on a sitting governor.
She said she is prepared to stare down that skeleton.
“I love to answer that one,” she said. Back to the tear gas on the one-way street: “What other senator was tear gassed for three and a half hours on a one-way street while the governor was at a state fair country music concert?”
What about the voters, maybe some older voters likely to vote in a primary, who say they understand about the tear gas – but we just can’t have a congressman using that sort of language in public?
“With the characters in Congress now and what they do,” Chappelle-Nadal said, “that language would not prohibit a legislator from getting things done.”
6 of 7 confirmed to COB
Six of the nominees to the Civilian Oversight Board for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department were confirmed by the Board of Aldermen on Friday, October 23.
Ciera Simril (District One, or Wards 2, 3, 21, 27), Jane Abbott-Morris (District Two, or Wards 5, 6, 18, 19), Lawrence Johnson (District Four, or Wards 7, 8, 9, 17), Bradley Arteaga (District Five, or Wards 11, 12, 13, 16), Heather Highland (District Six, or Wards 14, 15, 20, 25), and Stephen Rovak (District Seven, or Wards 10, 23, 24, 28) were confirmed.
DeBorah Ahmed, appointed by Mayor Francis Slay (with aldermanic and public input) to represent District Three (Wards 1, 4, 22, 26), withdrew her name after she was accused of having a conflict of interest. She and her husband Malik Ahmed founded and run Better Family Life, Inc., which has received thousands of dollars in city money. Slay now needs to name a new nominee for the district.
COB members need to complete the Citizen's Academy class offered by the police department before hearing their first case. They also have six months to complete training that includes instruction on police procedure, investigative techniques and constitutional rights.