Joan Bray: Still progressive after all these years in Missouri

Joan Bray, of University City, was a Missouri House representative from 1993-2002, and a State Senator from 2003-2010, earning a reputation as one of the most progressive Democrats in Jefferson City. In an interview with Occasional Planet [OP], she reflected on her years in the legislature and shared her candid view of Missouri’s current political landscape.

OP: What sparked your interest in running for political office?

JB: I never intended to run for office, but in 1992, as I was leaving my job as district director for [then-Congresswoman] Joan Kelly Horn, I got a call from a political insider who basically said, “You HAVE TO run in the 84th district.” I was pretty stupid, frankly. I didn’t know party politics. I filed to run against another Democrat—he was anti-choice and not popular with a lot of Democrats in his newly redistricted district—and that meant there had to be a primary. You’re not supposed to do that. When I won, a lot of people were pissed off.”

OP: How long after you got to Jefferson City did you lose your political innocence?

JB: My innocence was pretty hard core. It took me a while to catch on. Right after I arrived for my first night in Jeff City, a veteran politician greeted me and several other freshman women legislators, saying, “We sure are happy to have you girls!” That’s when I started to realize that Jefferson City was a very different environment than the one I came from.

OP: What was the political landscape in the State Legislature when you started in 1993?

JB: It was a very rural, old-boys’ atmosphere. The Democrats had been in charge for a long time: We had about 100 Democratic legislators, about 55 of whom were progressives. Back then, [former-Governor] Mel Carnahan proposed money for family planning for the very first time in Missouri history, and we got it passed.

OP: How has the atmosphere changed in Jefferson City?

JB: When I started, you could count the goofball Republicans on one hand. Most of the Republicans were rational, real Republicans—limited government, fiscal conservatives. By the time I left, there wasn’t even a handful of reasonable Republicans. Over the years, the reasonable Republicans have been co-opted into voting stupid. During the last two decades, Missouri has become so much more backward. Our legislature has lost sight of what’s good for Missourians and has fallen prey to a lot of conservative hocus pocus. Today, I see some perfectly reasonable people who consider themselves Republicans, and I ask myself, “Do they even know what today’s Republican Party is? They accuse Democrats of “tax-and-spend” policies, at the same time that they’re promoting “borrow-and-spend” policies. It’s just hard to believe.

OP: What’s your definition of a “progressive legislator?”

JB: In Missouri, you don’t have to be very progressive to be called progressive. But, for me, a progressive legislator is someone who comes at issues and how they impact people from a humanistic point of view. It’s a focus on individuals and the impact actions and laws have on their lives. It’s a system of values focused on caring about people’s lives. No one asks to be born. We’re all products of circumstances we don’t control. We need to have empathy for people who didn’t get great parents and great life situations. I am mystified by so-called religious conservatives’ ability to ignore the humane teaching of their religion and come down against people. Don’t these people have mothers?

OP: What accomplishments are you most proud of during your time as a state legislator?

JB: I didn’t let go of my values. I showed up, and I spoke up. I didn’t shirk from speaking up for what I thought were important policies for the people of Missouri. There’s a weird idea out there that, because my politics were different, I was abhorred by colleagues and got nothing done. That’s just not true.

OP: What were your greatest disappointments as a legislator?

JB: Just recently, I looked at the last three years of my own bill filings, and it’s pretty disappointing. I was persistent, but a lot of great ideas got nowhere. In a lot of places, those ideas would be seen as reasonable. For example, a couple of months ago, I attended a meeting in Texas on environmental issues. It turns out that the university we were at was totally on wind power. I’m thinking, “This is Texas! It’s backward in so many ways, and yet I can’t imagine sitting at a meeting in Missouri with so much accord on progressive environmentalism.”

OP: What effects have term limits had on the way the Missouri legislature works?

JB: The first general election under term limits came in 1994. That’s when the Gingrich revolution came into play, and that’s when we started seeing people elected who had that Gingrich arrogance and belligerence. The big term-limits turnover came in 2002. During my years in the House, a lot of people had been in office for 8 to 10 years, and that’s the last time there was some level of decorum and civility. Under term limits, the most experience anyone in a position of leadership can have is six years. So there’s less understanding of the rules, and, as a result, there’s much less decorum.

OP: What’s your view of the progressive movement in Missouri?

JB: There are still some true progressives in the Missouri legislature, but they have a tough time in the partisan atmosphere and a tough time with a conservative Democratic governor. And yet, they still go to Jefferson City every week and say what needs to be said, against some overwhelming odds. Unfortunately, their impact has been diminished, because there’s so little respect for progressive values in Missouri. And, you know, that befuddles me. When national polls show that 72 percent of voters believe that taxes should be raised on the rich, is Missouri an island on that subject? Our legislature and governor tend to operate on the idea that taxes are a forbidden topic.

OP: Is there a disconnect between political posturing and what people really want in their personal lives?

JB: Yes. The bombardment of sound bites has made it hard for people to do any critical thinking. Add to that 140-character messaging and our 30-second attention span, and people just repeat what they’ve heard. I think that, if you can pin people down and talk to them about what really matters—if people stop and think, and translate policies into their lives and their families’ lives, they are not mean and selfish. At the gut level, people actually favor progressive stuff.

OP: What advice would you give someone contemplating running for a Missouri legislative office?

JB: Go in with your eyes wide open. Talk to lots of people. I wouldn’t want anyone to go into this all dewy-eyed. Get your feet wet by serving on a school board, or as a citizen activist lobbying in Jefferson City. You need to know what you’re getting into, because it’s not for everyone.