Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt should be well known to readers of The St. Louis American for his persistent – and, to date, failed – attempts to undermine the authority of St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner, the first Black person elected to that office. He is less well known for joining a law suit filed by other state attorneys general that would undo the Affordable Care Act, AKA Obamacare. Schmitt’s attempt to gut health care protections has been the prime target of the campaign run by his Democratic opponent, Rich Finneran, a former federal prosecutor and partner at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner who also teaches at the Washington University School of Law. The St. Louis American talked to Finneran about his campaign.
The St. Louis American: The St. Louis American endorsed you in the primary, though there was another strong candidate, Elad Gross, who did well and has many supporters, particularly in St. Louis, whom you will need to vote for you in the general election. What have you done to reach those Democrats, and what evidence do you have that they will be with you on November 3?
Rich Finneran: Elad and I have been friends for many years. We both pledged to each other before we became competitors that we would work together to build the energy of the party during our primary and beyond, and that is exactly what we have done. Elad has wholeheartedly endorsed our campaign and even hosted me on his podcast, the EladPod, to spread the word to his followers. We both feel we have successfully brought our party together and will continue to work together to defeat Eric Schmitt and restore integrity to the Attorney General’s Office this November.
The St. Louis American: How do you assess the energy of the party in Missouri? It seems difficult to assess under pandemic conditions. What indications do you see that people will come out on November 3 and vote Democrat lower on the ticket than the top?
Rich Finneran: Campaigning during a global pandemic has certainly been a challenge, but it has also provided us as Democrats with new opportunities to reach out to people all across the state. I recently co-hosted a virtual town hall with our nominee for Lt. Governor Alissia Canady, and we had more than 1,000 viewers for the event. Even in normal times, it would have been far more costly and challenging to host a town hall with even a tenth of the attendance. In the dozens of virtual events that we have conducted over the course of the campaign, we have seen a truly inspiring groundswell of enthusiasm that we believe will propel us to victory in November.
The St. Louis American: I was looking at the primary numbers. Schmitt got more than 100,000 more votes than Elad and you combined, and the two of you had a competition to drive up the turnout. Where do you get more than 100,000 votes from Democrats who didn’t vote in the primary – when you also had Medicaid expansion driving the vote for Democrats in the primary?
Rich Finneran: We won’t win this election with Democrats alone. For us to win in Missouri, we have to unite voters across the state who are fed up with the failures of our leadership and who want to see integrity restored to their government. We expect a historically high turnout in November, and I am convinced that we have the right message to appeal to voters across the political spectrum. That is how we win this election.
The St. Louis American: One issue where you might be able to pick off some Republican voters – as hard as that is to believe in this polarized environment – is Schmitt joining the lawsuit to undo health coverage protections for people with preexisting conditions. Did you ever get him to walk that back? Do you have any evidence Schmitt lost voters over it?
Rich Finneran: Despite our calling him out on this issue for the past 10 months, Eric Schmitt has persisted in his efforts to overturn Obamacare in the Supreme Court. If he succeeds, it would not only mean the end to guaranteed coverage for pre-existing conditions, but it would also mean rolling back the expansion of Medicaid that we just approved in the August election. In the thousands of conversations I’ve had with voters over the past year, there is no issue that weighs more on voters’ minds than this issue. If we can make sure voters know that their taxpayer dollars are being used to put their healthcare at risk, I know they will reject Eric Schmitt’s partisan politics and vote for us instead.
The St. Louis American: We know Schmitt is doing many things the attorney general of Missouri should not be doing – undoing Obamacare, suing China, trying to undermine the City of St. Louis’ elected prosecutor to prosecute cases in a jurisdiction where he does not live or vote and was not elected. What should the attorney general of Missouri be doing with the powers of that office?
Rich Finneran: The attorney general’s job is to enforce the law, not to play politics with the power of his office. Plain and simple. Once I am elected, I will end Eric Schmitt’s partisan lawsuits and focus the office’s attention where it belongs: protecting the people of Missouri and enforcing fairness, equality, and justice under the law.
The St. Louis American: What are some specific mandates and responsibilities of the office Schmitt has been neglecting for his political show that you would work on, and how would that benefit the state and its citizens?
Rich Finneran: One of the principal areas that Eric Schmitt has neglected is civil rights enforcement. Each year, the attorney general is required by law to release a report detailing racial bias in policing. Each year, the report shows that Black Missourians are more likely to be pulled over and less likely to be in possession of contraband. And each year, Eric Schmitt has failed to take any concrete steps to address this example of systemic inequality. As attorney general, I will dedicate resources within the office to enforcing our civil rights law, to ensure that all Missourians are treated equally.
The St. Louis American: Okay, say you're elected attorney general. Now it's your move what to do with all of that vehicle stops data other than just collect it. What do you do?
Rich Finneran: We need to begin putting that data to good use. When we see a problem, we should take concrete steps to fix it. That means identifying particular policies and practices that result in racially disproportionate enforcement and dismantling the systems that produce such unfair outcomes. As attorney general, I will enforce our civil rights laws to ensure that law enforcement resources are not being applied in a racially discriminatory manner. And where local prosecutors identify practices that are resulting in unequal treatment, I will partner with them to enforce the principle of equal protection guaranteed by our Constitution.
The St. Louis American: Most regular readers of The American who vote are likely to support you as an alternative to Schmitt because of his attempts to undermine Obamacare and Kimberly Gardner. But given the accessibility of digital and social media, people who are not Black and not a true-blue Democrat will read this. Without running off your base, what can you tell these non-Democrats you are wooing about your experience or platform that might win them over?
Rich Finneran: I am not running only to be an attorney general for Democrats; I am running to be an attorney general for all Missourians. I believe that our attorney general’s duty and obligation is serve the people, not a political party. As a former federal prosecutor, I dedicated my life to promoting fairness, justice, and the rule of law, and that is exactly how I intend to conduct myself as attorney general. Once I am elected, the readers of your paper and the people of this state should have confidence that they will once again have an attorney general who will put people ahead of politics.
The St. Louis American: The U.S. Department of Justice today has identified three jurisdictions as anarchic havens that have permitted violence and destruction of property to persist and have refused to undertake reasonable measures to counteract criminal activities: New York City; Portland, Oregon; and Seattle, Washington. What do you think of that?
Rich Finneran: The federal government should be working with local law enforcement, not against it. Local authorities are the ones best positioned to decide how to address unrest and violence in their communities. Much like our current attorney general’s efforts to usurp the authority of elected prosecutors like St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner, this sort of attack on local control only serves to make political headlines, not improve public safety. We have to work together to solve our problems, not fight among ourselves.