It’s political canvassing time in Missouri’s 83rd State Representative District, and I’m out on the not-very-mean streets of an affluent, inner-ring suburb in St. Louis, ringing doorbells and trying to get people to care about a special election on November 8. I’m volunteering for Tracy McCreery, a Democrat, who has all the right experience and progressive values to make her a very effective state lawmaker who will hit the ground running when elected.
Under normal circumstances, Tracy should be an easy sell. She’s worked as district aide to one of Missouri’s staunchest progressive state legislators [Missouri readers will recognize her name: Joan Bray.] As a result, Tracy knows her way around the state capitol and its arcane rules. She’s earned street cred in her district as an engaged and visible community volunteer and leader. And she’s got endorsements from respected progressive groups, like NARAL, PROMO and Missouri Women’s Political Caucus. It also helps that the district she’s running in almost always elects a Democrat to the State Legislature.
I’m totally comfortable talking her up to voters, not just because of her official credentials, but also because I’ve worked alongside her, observed her competence and intelligence, and experienced the positive vibe and high energy level that she exudes.
Unfortunately, I’m not canvassing for Tracy under normal circumstances. It’s complicated. Tracy is running in a special election for a seat vacated when her predecessor moved into a newly created elected position. Missouri’s governor—a Democrat—took his sweet time calling for a special election, so there was a lot of suspense, much wasted time, and zero public awareness of what was going on. The special election will be on November 8—but there’s nothing else on the ballot in the 83rd district, so it’s going to be mighty hard to get folks out to vote.
But compared to the next thing I’m going to tell you, those unusual circumstances are mere annoyances. Here’s the biggie: Under Missouri statutes, in a special election like this one, the local township political committee determines who the candidate will be. Tracy thought she had a pretty solid chance of being picked. But, no: When it was time for the committee to vote, Tracy got caught in an internecine, micro-geo-political rivalry between committee members from the municipalities in the 83rd district. Tracy lives in one of them, but committee members from another wanted a native son—even though Tracy clearly had better credentials, more experience and a strong base. So, using a back-room system of weighted voting that I can’t explain because it makes no sense to me, the committee anointed someone other than Tracy. Did I mention that the eventual candidate had a heavily weighted vote and got to cast it for his own nomination?
So, you might ask, how is it that, having not been selected as the candidate by her Democratic committee, Tracy’s got me out here with a clipboard and campaign literature this afternoon?
Tracy is running as an independent.
And that’s even more complicated. Just to get on the ballot, she had to gather signatures totaling 2% of the votes cast in the 83rd District for the Democratic candidate for governor in the 2008 election. [Try figuring that out without a calculator.] Okay, it’s not a huge number, but it’s a hurdle many states—and let’s be honest: political parties—put in the way of upstarts who want to run outside of our jealously guarded, roped-off, two-party system.
Tracy got the signatures, no problem. But now, as volunteers like me talk to voters, we have to explain that, while Tracy has strong democratic values, she’s going to appear on the ballot as an independent. And as anyone who has canvassed knows, you often get less than a minute to make your case. So, let’s see, I’ve got about 60 seconds to say that I’m volunteering for Tracy McCreery, there’s a special election they’ve never heard of in six weeks, she’s running for state rep in their district [and sometimes you have to explain what that is, and why it’s important], she’s got great qualifications, AND, when you vote for her, you need to vote for the candidate, not the party. And I have to do all of that while also trying to get the campaign flyer into the person’s hand before they shut the door on me and go back to watching the football game.
Don’t get me wrong: It can be done, I’m going to do my best to do it, and Tracy can win, despite the unreasonable obstacles that unreasonable people and circumstances have plopped in her path. She’s an articulate, smart, rational candidate who exemplifies the kind of person that people on the left—and not just here in Missouri—should be actively backing, rather than wasting energy bashing right-wing extremists. We certainly shouldn’t have to settle for less qualified candidates when there are people like Tracy who are willing to do the hard work of getting elected and governing. So, it makes me crazy when I see how petty politics and insider power struggles get in the way of the much bigger, much more important goal that we all should share: getting real progressives like Tracy McCreery elected, up and down the line, all across the country.