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Missouri GOP And Black Democrats Formed The 1st District As A Compromise. Will It Survive 2022?

Cori Bush, the Democratic nominee for Missouri's 1st District, stands near the Gateway Arch on Wednesday, August 5, 2020. Bush won a landmark victory Tuesday against Congressman Lacy Clay.
Jason Rosenbaum
St. Louis Public Radio
Cori Bush, the Democratic nominee for Missouri's 1st District, stands near the Gateway Arch on Wednesday, August 5, 2020. Bush won a landmark victory Tuesday against Congressman Lacy Clay.

The 1st Congressional District was created with the help of Black Democrats and Republicans. But not everyone finds that arrangement to be beneficial to Black Missourians.

Compared to her bruising primary against Lacy Clay, Cori Bush’s November election to Congress was a breeze — especially since the St. Louis- and St. Louis County-based 1st District is the most Democratic in the state.

It also has the highest concentration of Black voters in Missouri, something that came into place due to an unusual alliance in the 1960s between African American Democrats and Republicans. Now, the latest census numbers could test that alliance.

The relationship between the two may seem odd, considering the vast ideological differences. But this alliance led to the creation of a congressional district that consistently elected Black lawmakers — and, eventually, surrounding districts that lean Republican.

Since the 1st District is the only one in Missouri protected by the Voting Rights Act, critics of this arrangement couldn’t substantially reduce the district’s Black population even if they had the power to do so. But given the 1st District’s population loss according to the census, the district will have to expand into largely white suburbs.

Despite the historical symbiosis between Republicans and Black Democrats, Bush says she’s remaining vigilant about the once-a-decade process.

“They have to feel that representation, because they’re seeing it change their lives,” Bush said.

A coalition to 'protect its self-interests'

The modern-day 1st District can trace its origins to the 1960s.

As former Congressman Bill Clay explained in his book, 13 Black legislators, 57 Republicans and nine white Democrats from rural areas voted to establish a St. Louis-based district that would be highly possible for an African American to win. In the book, "Bill Clay: A Political Voice at the Grassroots," he said the unusual coalition held strong “to protect its self-interests.”

“The newly drawn congressional districts provided representation in the cotton-driven, agricultural economy of ‘the Bootheel’ section of the southeastern part of the state, maintained a substantial number of Republican voters in the suburban area of St. Louis County, and created a Black-majority district located mostly in the city of St. Louis,” Clay wrote. “Democrats … and Governor [Warren Hearnes], a Democrat, opposed the redistricting proposal. They filed a lawsuit supporting a plan to place the Black population in three separate districts. However, the U.S. Supreme Court thwarted the will of the Democrats and ruled that the district drawn by legislators was legal.”

Bill Clay was elected to the 1st Congressional District in 1968. No white candidate has even come close to prevailing in that district since that election. And because of the Voting Rights Act, lawmakers cannot draw the 1st District in a way that diminishes “the ability of a racial or language minority to elect its candidates of choice.”

Many Black political leaders in St. Louis say it’s necessary to have a congressional district with either a majority or plurality of African Americans because white Democrats in the region have often been hostile to their agenda or political aspirations.

As Mike Jones, a former St. Louis alderman and an observer of regional politics, explained: “If you’re Black in America doing politics, Republicans have a tendency to be existential enemies. And white Democrats are totally unreliable.

“Usually, that’s always been the coalition during redistricting,” Jones said. “Because white Democrats would like to spread out Black voters because they’re reliable Democrats. Which means, it makes districts that Republicans have to run in more competitive.”

In the most recent congressional redistricting, four Black Democrats in the House (including two from St. Louis) ended up overriding then-Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of a congressional map that preserved the 1st District as a minority plurality district. But it also placed Bill Clay’s son Lacy Clay and U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan in the same district. Even though the 1st District became whiter after redistricting, Clay easily defeated Carnahan in the 2012 Democratic primary — showcasing the difficulty for a white candidate to prevail in a one-on-one matchup.

Former GOP state Sen. Scott Rupp, who was in charge of a Senate committee handling the 2011 congressional redistricting process, said there wasn’t much suspense about making the 1st District plurality African American. But he added that even if it wasn’t required, there were clear benefits for Republicans to forge agreement with Black Democrats.

“The typical alignment of groups and typical political alliances, it all gets thrown out the window,” Rupp said. “And it all comes down to each individual member of Congress’ self-preservation.”

Added former GOP Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder: “It was in the interest of Republicans very simply to pack as many Democrats into a district as possible.”

A bad bargain?

As Bill Clay mentioned, primarily white Democrats in St. Louis have been hostile to the idea of a majority or plurality Black 1st District for decades.

In their view, packing lots of Black voters into one district makes it much harder to win in surrounding districts that largely consist of white suburbs — such as the 2nd Congressional District that U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, represents. They’ve also argued that creating a map that primarily elects Republicans ultimately hurts the interests of Black people, because the GOP agenda is opposite of theirs.

State Rep. Donna Baringer, D-St. Louis, who is on the House redistricting committee, also said the practice of "packing," a term used to describe putting as many Democrats or Republicans into one district to make surrounding districts safer, is a bad deal for voters.

“So when voters say to me: ‘Donna, what do we do in the state of Missouri? Come on. We’re not always being listened to.’ I tell them: It all comes down to redistricting,” Baringer said. “If we’re going to have packed seats, whether it be a House seat, Senate seat or congressional seat, you’ll get exactly what you’re getting now for the next 10 years.”

Jeff Smith, a former Democratic state senator from St. Louis who earned a PhD in political science and completed his master’s thesis on redistricting, said it’s not historically unusual for Black Democrats to team up with Republicans to create a congressional map that increases African American representation.

That happened in North Carolina and Georgia. But Smith noted that such arrangements transformed primarily Democratic congressional delegations into largely Republican ones.

“If you believe that Black political interests are better served by having Black voices in power, then you could conceivably say this is a positive thing,” Smith said. “If you believe that Black voices are best served by having the Democratic Party in a majority, these types of alliances have typically not been positive.”

Yurji Rudensky, redistricting counsel for the Brennan Center, which closely follows election policy throughout the country, said Black Democrats in other states have shunned deals with Republicans to boost minority majority districts. That happened in the 2010s when Stacey Abrams, who at the time was the leader of Georgia House Democrats, rejected such an arrangement.

“It is important for Black communities, particularly in the St. Louis area, to receive effective representation,” Rudensky said. “Whether or not Black lawmakers need to create a political alliance with Republicans in order to make that happen is a different question.”

Filling the gap

In any case, it’s highly likely that redistricting will produce a 1st Congressional District in which a Black candidate would be favored in a one-on-one primary matchup against a white candidate. The Voting Rights Act will protect against any effort to significantly lower the percentage of Black residents in the district. And Republicans who control the redistricting process don’t have any incentive to pursue that route when it could make the districts of Republican members of Congress less safe.

But because the 1st District lost tens of thousands of people over the past 10 years, state lawmakers will have little choice but to expand the boundaries of the 1st District into largely white suburbs that have trended toward the Democratic Party in recent years.

Smith said one possibility is for the 1st District to expand into northwest St. Louis County suburbs like Maryland Heights, which he added have become more racially diverse. While some redistricting prognosticators have suggested expanding the 1st District into increasingly Democratic cities like Kirkwood and Webster Groves, Smith said those municipalities have gotten whiter in recent years.

Outside of the Deep South, Smith said, districts don’t necessarily need to have a Black majority to elect a Black candidate.

Rudensky said there’s been an emerging trend of multiracial voting coalitions that elect Black congressional candidates. One of the examples is in the Kansas City area, where U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, who is Black, has represented the majority white 5th Congressional District since 2004.

Democratic nominee for Missouri's 1st congressional district, Cori Bush, votes at Gambrinus Hall in South St. Louis on Election Day Tuesday, November 3, 2020.
Special to St. Louis Public Radio

A matter of trust

In an interview with St. Louis Public Radio, Bush said protections such as the Voting Rights Act “have been helpful to make sure there’s representation on a federal level for this community — which we deserve to have that.”

Bush added, “I won’t get into the hypotheticals of where I would like the lines of my district to be drawn or any district for that matter.

“But again, voters should pick their representatives,” said Bush, adding that the process should be fair to Black, Latino and Asian residents across Missouri.

Bush added that Republicans haven’t done much lately to make her trust them. Nationally, she said, GOP-led states like Texas have been passing election laws that have been “devastating to our democracy.” She also said Missouri Republicans haven’t exactly been responsive to voter concerns, pointing to how the Missouri Supreme Court had to force the state to follow through on Medicaid expansion.

“I’m extremely concerned about the anti-democratic tendencies, and I’m calling them anti-democratic ... of the Missouri Republican Party,” Bush said. “I don’t believe that they’re looking at fairness or equity and equality and inclusion as they’re making these decisions. I would hope that they would fix that.”

State Rep. LaKeySha Bosley, D-St. Louis, a member of the Black Caucus who serves on the House Redistricting Committee, said having minority representation in Congress goes beyond the ups and downs of partisan politics.

“As an African American woman, I think it’s imperative to be able to see representation,” Bosley said. “Like you need to see yourself in these positions. Not only that, you’re bringing a different voice from someone who has come from the areas that we talk about being underserved all the time.”

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum 
Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Since entering the world of professional journalism in 2006, Jason Rosenbaum dove head first into the world of politics, policy and even rock and roll music. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, Rosenbaum spent more than four years in the Missouri State Capitol writing for the Columbia Daily Tribune, Missouri Lawyers Media and the St. Louis Beacon. Since moving to St. Louis in 2010, Rosenbaum's work appeared in Missouri Lawyers Media, the St. Louis Business Journal and the Riverfront Times' music section. He also served on staff at the St. Louis Beacon as a politics reporter. Rosenbaum lives in Richmond Heights with with his wife Lauren and their two sons.
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