The professor shakes our hands and starts right off with his policy ideas. He admits that small talk and working a room are not his forte, but the passion in his eyes for his reform ideas shines bright. John Messmer, a candidate for Missouri’s Second Congressional District, is a different kind of politician. His campaign is heavily focused on reform, and not just for the soundbite, either. With extensive background in political science, Messmer believes that his ideas, with the help of supporters and legislation, can make American democracy more fair.
Messmer, the son of immigrants who were union workers, studied political science and received his doctorate from the University of Missouri. Eventually, he moved back to his home in Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District, where he has lived for most of his life,and has pursued a career as a political science professor at STL Community College at Meramec.
After years of teaching, Messmer says, “I started listening to my students. And there’s a disconnect. There’s a gap between what we need in a democracy and what the reality is among a lot of particularly young people. But I don’t think it’s just unique to young people.”.
Messmer thinks that this disconnect is dangerous, and that corruption has caused feelings of apathy and helplessness. This realization is what made Messmer decide that it was time for change, and so he announced his bid for Congress, saying, “That’s my first and foremost responsibility, to listen to my constituents, be their voice, and show that they do have a connection when it comes to having to navigate through the federal bureaucracy.”
Messmer wants to fix the disconnect, and he has the perfect role model to do just that. Citing the Bernie Sanders movement, Messmer explains, “Young people…think that American democracy is relatively fair. Yeah, there’s some injustices, but for the most part, it’s a pretty well-functioning machine…. You get into your teenage years, and then you get into high school and someone sticks a clipboard in your face… says, ‘You’ve gotta register to vote.’ You’re going to that responsibility seriously. Which means you’re going to start paying attention. When you start paying attention, you’re going to realize the system is not what the little cartoons in the little civics classes in fourth or fifth grade told you about. There’s a lot of injustice. A huge part of this system is rigged. Every other sentence out of Bernie Sanders’ mouth was about that.”
What Messmer realized (as many of us do when we come into our own in the political world) is that, “The status quo in our federal government, especially in Congress, is like a redwood in our backyard. Deep roots. One person isn’t going to do it. Two people aren’t going to do it. You’re going to need an army of people, just as Bernie Sanders talks about. An army of reformers that get in there. That is how ingrained the corruption and our status quo is.”
Yet, while identifying as a Democratic Socialist like Sanders, he clarifies, “I’m not a communist. I like money….Money should be allowed to buy a lot of things. But I’d be damned if money should buy better representation, and that’s what you’re getting.”
Messmer has surely learned this lesson, too. When asked about what his biggest lesson learned so far from the race, he states, “It is more obsessed with money than I dreamed… it’s not so much the importance of money, but…the importance of money for getting your message out, as much as the importance of money for when it comes to being treated seriously.”
Messmer does not have any endorsements. “I think they… don’t want to endorse someone who they think doesn’t have a chance. And unfortunately, we have become drunk on this mindset that when in doubt, go with the horse that has raised the most money.“
It is easy to see how frustrating this situation can be, because money should not buy better representation or buy a seat in the US House of Representatives.
So, how will Messmer combat this money obsession in politics? He has a simple answer: “I love coffee-maker coffee. I’m going to have a coffee maker in my office, and that’s the only coffee I’ll need. Not a cup of coffee accepted from a lobbyist.”
This policy will be true for himself and his whole staff. He wants to publish his appointments with people, maintain transparency, and be as true to his beliefs as possible. When we asked Messmer if he would take thousands of dollars from Edward Jones, He replied, “No. No. Now, if individuals that just happened to work for Edward Jones were giving it to me, that might be a different story. I’d have to question, why are they giving it to me as individuals? If it’s coming from the Edward Jones Political Action Committee, forget it. Save your money.”
At the interview, our mentor Arthur Lieber mentioned, “I think what John said about endorsements and contributions is really distinctly different from others….and in my mind, John explains it in a way that makes a lot of sense and maintains integrity.”
Clearly, Messmer isn’t standing for any of the old money-focused politics. He wants to change the system, make it fair, and make government a place free of corruption and that is truly by and for the people. To him, “[Fighting] injustice is the guiding star of what it means to be a progressive. That was true 130 years ago, and it’s true today.”
You’re talking about an injustice that comes about because the powers that be abuse that power. Monopolize that power. [We] re not upholding the virtue of, in essence, as corny as it may sound, what our Constitution and our Bill of Rights are all about.”
It is only constitutional to protect our rights and protect ourselves from injustice. Messmer believes he is going to do just that, saying, “I don’t care if, again, if you’re liberal, conservative, or libertarian, if you’re urban, suburban or rural, you don’t want to be taken advantage of.”
With his heavy focus on reform, though, Messmer lost some footing with his social issues. During our interview, we talked briefly about how he planned to keep representing minority groups in his constituency. He said, “ I don’t think it’s outrageous to suggest that at job of least three of my staff members job would be to reach out to minorities in the district, whether or not they’re economic minorities, or racial minorities, or in the case of the LGBTQ community, marginalized communities.”
Yet, when asked about why he didn’t have any sections about people of color on his website, he promptly apologized and let us know that he would look into it. He did clarify his views, saying, “The racial injustice by our government, that’s systemic racism, that’s institutional racism. That’s racism by not just the government, our government. None of us should tolerate that. To answer your question is I don’t have it on there, I probably should”. He followed up with, “I will fight this to the death, that we need groups like Black Lives Matter”.
Clearly, he supports thee issues, and less than a week later, I received an email from him saying he had updated his website with the issues we discussed in the interview. To me, this shows Messmer’s commitment to listen to his constituents and do his best to represent everyone. Plus, if you haven’t checked out his website, you definitely should. It took the Civitas interns several hours to comb through the extensive platform issues and 15-point plan outlined for Messmer’s first 100 days in Congress.
In the middle of our interview, Messmer asked, “So, have we ever had truly fair elections? No, I suppose it’s like an ideal. Right? That you can only approach and never actually attain. And I think that’s unfortunately, not to become too philosophical here, but I think that’s just sort of part and parcel of being human. We can just try to approach true justice, we can approach pure perfection, but we’ll never get there.”
While things may never be perfect, perhaps we can have some faith that the American ideal is there. Fairness may never happen, but it is a horizon we must be ever-approaching, with people like Messmer at the front of that march.