Turning up the heat on Missouri politicians: Sean Soendker Nicholson

Sean Soendker Nicholson has run the widely read Fired Up! Missouri blog since March 2009. With a national following in the thousands, Fired Up! Missouri is an authoritative, progressive forum for all things political around the state. In late January 2011, Fired Up Missouri was named Best Political Blog by the Riverfront Times.  In a recent interview with Occasional Planet [OP], Nicholson [SN] shared a bit of his own genesis as an activist, and his views on the state of politics and progressive activism in Missouri and the country at-large.

OP: How did you become the editor of Fired Up Missouri?

SN: After college [University of Missouri, 2002], I went to Georgetown University in Washington DC for a master’s degree, and after that, I was looking for work. I heard that Fired Up! Missouri, which was owned by former Senator Jean Carnahan and Roy Temple, was looking for someone to do research and writing, help develop the site, and do the day-to-day managing. I was already a reader of the blog and an infrequent contributor. It was a good fit.

OP: What’s the focus of Fired Up Missouri?

SN: If it pertains to Missouri politics or activists, it’s fair game. Missouri’s Congressional delegation and the happenings in Jeff City are at the top of the list, but we also offer coverage of the rest of the state.

OP: How have the issues you cover changed since Fired Up Missouri started in 2005?

SN: Our focus has changed because there’s a different person in the Missouri Governor’s mansion. It’s such a huge difference now that Matt Blunt is out and Jay Nixon is in. The tenor and character of how the two conduct business is quite different.

OP: Does that mean that everything is better in Jefferson City now?

SN: No. There are still plenty of things to be mad about. It’s really frustrating to see how things operate in the State Capitol. It makes me mad to see the behavior of people who make decisions that affect people’s lives.

OP: How did you get started as a progressive activist?

SN: Before I went to college, I thought I wanted to be an architect. But then I took Intro to Sociology. I realized that I was less interested in building things and more interested in helping people. At that point, I didn’t have the language to know what to call myself. I think I had the core values of equality and justice and of wanting to be sure that people don’t get taken advantage of by government or corporations. I think those values were already there, and gradually, I saw that these were things I could work on full-time.

OP: How conservative is Missouri?

SN: Maybe not as conservative as some might think. The positions individual people hold on specific issues don’t really line up with those stated in party platforms. If you ask people about particular issues, the needle moves more to the left. The ideas people have are generally more progressive than those touted by conservative politicians. I think that people are more accepting of others who are different than them than the party lines would suggest.

One good example is LGBT issues and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The only place DADT is controversial is in Washington DC. The rest of the country has moved on and sees that we have other things to deal with. It’s the same for healthcare. Even though a lot of people call healthcare reform “the end of civilization” and a “takeover by the government,” if you ask them about individual provisions of the law, they support them.

OP: What are the big political issues facing Missouri in 2011?

SN: The state budget debate will drive everything else. It’s hard to overstate how bad the budget situation is, and we’re running out of fraud, waste and mismanagement to cut as a way of balancing the budget.

There’s a lot of work for progressives to tackle: We need to support good things, like laws against predatory lending, and beat back bad things, like the so-called “Fair Tax” ballot initiative backed by Rex Sinquefield.  One issue that could bring people together across party lines is Safe Schools legislation against bullying.

We’ll have to watch the legislature in Jefferson City carefully. This year, we have a lot of first-time legislators. The budget is very complicated, and most of those decisions will be made by the leadership. So, some new legislators are going to be bored and will go looking for something to get behind.

OP: How would you rate President Obama’s performance so far?

SN: I’m a big fan, honestly. He was dealt a pretty raw hand, and the economy has dominated everything. I agree with some people who say he could have moved more quickly on some things. The temptation is to get so frustrated with the pace of policy change that we forget how bad things were before. I saw an interview with W recently, and I said to myself, “Oh my god, this guy was in charge of things? Wait, he was in charge of everything?” Just having adults in charge with the Obama administration is such a positive change.

OP: President Obama has taken a lot of criticism from the Left. How do you feel about that?

SN: My frustration comes when people confuse what they think should happen with what is possible politically. I know, of course, that the repeal of DADT wouldn’t have happened without the relentless effort of the left.  But to call President Obama “a stooge of Wall Street” is to ignore how hard Wall Street has fought against financial regulation. I’m saying that there’s a real world that you have to deal with, and that the optics and the politics can be very different from the actual policy.

OP: What frustrates you most about Missouri conservatives?

SN: I think you have to make a distinction between conservative activists who sincerely think that their policy ideas are good for the state and conservative political leaders who just want to capitalize on the energy on the right. What’s so frustrating is the constant stream of misinformation. That drives me nuts. I would welcome a real conversation on the merits of various proposals and on the mechanisms of how to pay for them. I’m far more troubled by the BS than by the differences in philosophies.

OP: What’s your advice to young people who have progressive ideas in a conservative state?

SN: I sympathize with people who are closet liberals. It can be tough, for example, at family events. I would urge everyone to ask people to explain what they mean when they spout right-wing ideas, and to ask people, “How does that jibe with these facts?” And I would remind you that there are, in fact, other liberals out there. Even in a red state, it’s a 45-55 split, at most.

OP: So, you’re an optimist?

SN: Yes. I have to be to survive. To keep going, you have to be. I look around and see that good things are, in fact, happening and have happened before. So I know that there can be good things in the future, too. We just have to keep trying and moving forward.

[Photo credit: Riverfront Times]