Democrat Trudy Busch Valentine inspired to enter Missouri U.S. Senate race after family tragedies
Name recognition puts Busch Valentine at an advantage among her lesser-known Democratic opponents. But the Anheuser-Busch heiress faces criticism that she is relying on her family fortune and name ID instead of engaging with voters.
This story is part of a series of profiles on leading candidates for Missouri’s open U.S. Senate race, from the Missouri Independent.
For 12 days, Trudy Busch Valentine never left her sister’s side as nurses and doctors did everything they could to save her.
Valentine was 17 when her 8-year-old sister was in a car accident and suffered a severe spinal cord injury.
“That’s where I saw the nurses with the compassion and the competence and the clinical skills,” Valentine told The Independent, “and just caring so much about her and also caring about the family… I wanted to go into pediatric nursing.”
After the loss of her sister, she went on to earn her nursing degree and worked at the Salvation Army Residence for Children in St. Louis for three years caring for vulnerable and homeless children.
Throughout her life, moments of immense grief have driven Valentine towards new paths — including earning a degree in theology and serving as a volunteer hospice nurse after her husband died of cancer in 2002.
Following her son’s death in 2020 from an opioid overdose, Valentine felt drawn to do whatever she could to fight the opioid epidemic and improve access to quality healthcare.
In March, Valentine entered the race for U.S. Senate, becoming one of 11 candidates seeking the Democratic nomination to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt. Like the other Democratic candidates in the race, Valentine has never held public office before.
“I thought, ‘Could I do this?” said Valentine, mother of six children and grandmother to three. “And then my life kind of just went in front of me, and I felt maybe all these times and things throughout my life that really affected me deeply… maybe they’re the exact reason that I can make a difference in a crazy political system.”
Valentine is a member of the family that owned a majority stake in Anheuser-Busch until the brewing company was sold to InBev in 2008 for $52 billion. Forbes magazine in 2020 listed the family’s wealth at $17.6 billion, the 16th largest family fortune in the nation.
While the Busch name recognition puts her at an advantage among her lesser-known Democratic opponents, she also understands it poses the challenge of convincing voters and her critics that she’s not just a “billionaire heiress.”
“I’m lucky to have been born into this American dream,” she said, “and lucky that my forefathers, my dad worked so hard with his company… But I love most to be with real authentic people and hearing from them.”
Plan to strengthen the middle class
As a latecomer to the race, her campaign has mainly consisted of attending holiday marches and rallies for causes so far, coupled with spending $822,135 for campaign TV ads in St. Louis and Kansas City. Those ads are expected to increase as the Aug. 2 primary nears.
Valentine told The Independent that she realizes that entering the race late means that much of her campaign funds will come from her own pocket. Though her campaign wouldn’t provide a dollar amount for her investment, they provided Valentine’s personal finance disclosure information showing she and her husband, John Fries, have a net worth of between $69.4 to $219.4 million across 13 different trusts, bank accounts, businesses, retirement accounts and brokerage accounts.
In addition to her son’s passing, Valentine said she was also inspired to enter politics out of a desire to speak up for women’s rights. She also has grave concerns about the idea of former Gov. Eric Greitens being Missouri’s next U.S. Senator.
Greitens, who resigned as governor in 2018 to avoid impeachment and settle a felony charge, launched a new campaign video last month depicting him hunting “Republicans in Name Only,” which Valentine called “horrendous” and exactly the reason she’s running.
“It’s such a disservice and such a bad thing for people to see, in this age of school shootings, when moms are afraid,” she said. “I’m appalled.”
On the Friday evening after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Roe v. Wade, Valentine attended a rally at Planned Parenthood in St. Louis, previously the only clinic in Missouri that performed abortions.
Holding a bright pink, “Bans off our bodies,” sign up high, she cheered on the speakers and had side conversations with other women nearby.
“It takes away the autonomy, the intelligence, the independence of a woman that we’ve worked so hard to gain,” she said of the court’s ruling.
Valentine’s first major policy proposal, released in May, focused on helping drug addicts recover by using leverage in the federal payments for Medicaid to increase rates to providers, quicker access to treatment and expanded use of telehealth.
They were inspired by her own son’s struggles with addiction. Matt Valentine was 499 days sober in a court-supervised diversion program when painkillers taken for a broken nose triggered a long-term addiction. He died of an overdose in August 2020. But she strongly believes he — like many others struggling with addiction — didn’t want to die, Valentine said.
Last month, Valentine released a 17-point plan for “Strengthening the Middle Class,” which includes raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, expanding options for affordable housing and lowering the cost of medications.
Pat White, president of the Greater St Louis Central Labor Council AFL-CIO, said Valentine’s plan resonates with his members and their mission. While council isn’t going to endorse in the Democratic primary, White personally believes Valentine is the frontrunner among his members.
“Just about everybody either has worked down there or has someone they know who worked down there at one time or another in the construction industry,” White said, speaking of the brewery. “That name definitely resonates well. And you don’t see too many union folks not drinking Anheuser-Busch products.”
Another Democratic Senate candidate, former Marine Lucas Kunce, has put in a lot of work to gain an endorsement from the council, White said. But it comes down to who has the best chance at beating Greitens if he wins the Republican primary.
“If Greitens wins the primary,” White said, “I think she can actually win the general.”
Jim Martin, chair of the Perry County Democrats in southeastern Missouri, said he would consider supporting Valentine if he could see more of her in the rural communities.
“Apparently, Trudy has just kind of written off rural Missouri,” Martin said. “She thinks she’s going to get enough support in Kansas City and St. Louis.”
Valentine said she promises to get out into rural Missouri soon. She has owned a farm in Montgomery for 32 years, where they raise cattle and bison.
“We’re part of that community,” she said. “I feel I am in touch with the rural farmers and the ranchers, and I want to go out there and meet them and listen to them. I absolutely do.”
But a perceived lack of outreach in rural Missouri isn’t the only time Valentine has faced accusations that she’s trying to rely on her family fortune and name ID to win the primary. She was recently criticized by Kunce after a scheduled TV debate had to be cancelled when Valentine ignored invitations to attend.
“The working people of this state deserve to hear directly from the candidates,” Kunce said in response.
Another Democratic candidate, St. Louis businessman Spencer Toder, criticized Valentine in a series of tweets in May, saying he’s been running for the Senate for a year “and spoken at over Dem 100 events and gatherings, I’ve never seen you at one.”
Valentine’s campaign responded to the criticism surrounding the cancelled debate by releasing a statement saying: “Trudy has been engaging with voters in a variety of formats on issues important to Missourians.”
‘Unlearning and re-educating’ on public safety
In her first campaign interview with The Independent in April, Valentine was asked where she may differ from her party. She pointed to the idea of “defunding the police.”
“I think defunding the police is totally wrong,” she said in April, “because we need to be funding the police with the money and training they need to keep all of us safe.”
Sitting down with The Independent again in June, Valentine continued to express opposition to “defunding the police,” though she agrees with many of the calls to action behind the phrase. That includes supporting proposals to decriminalize addiction, allowing social workers to answer calls related to mental health and drug addiction instead of police and re-allocating funds within the police budget towards those social workers.
In any statewide Democratic primary, securing the Black vote is paramount to win — but that will be especially true for a statewide candidate who calls St. Louis her base.
Every candidate that has secured a city-wide office in St. Louis in recent years has put public-safety policies at the top of their platforms. And those policies have specifically addressed structural racism and police brutality in the Black community.
Valentine hasn’t done that yet.
She hasn’t read the 2015 report from the governor-appointed Ferguson Commission that outlines the reasons why civil unrest broke out after Mike Brown’s killing. Many of the calls to action in the report have become pillars in local elected officials’ platforms, as well as the “defund the police” campaign. Several past debates for city-wide offices have been based on the candidates’ understanding of this report.
Valentine vowed to read the Ferguson report.
John Bowman is acting as a political consultant for Valentine’s campaign. Not speaking in his capacity as president of the St. Louis County NAACP, Bowman said he understands that Valentine has to do some fast learning about how different policing looks in the Black community.
“On the hard on crime stuff, it’s got to be a major reset,” he said. “It’s what I call an unlearning and re-educating yourself. And those things will make her a strong representation of all the people and that includes my community especially.”
Bowman has been setting up conversations with Black pastors to help Valentine understand the issues that are important in their communities.
On June 30, Bowman arranged a tour of one of the programs at Annie Malone Children and Family Services that cares for children who are experiencing homelessness and trauma — work that Valentine says is close to her heart. Annie Malone has been a pillar in the Black community since 1888, and that history is celebrated every year with a May Day parade that Valentine walked in this year.
Valentine met with Keisha Lee, interim CEO at Annie Malone, and learned how a flood in January devastated the building where most of their educational programs are held. With pride and sadness, Lee showed Valentine the calming areas where children sat on soft cushions under gentle lights, sensory-play areas for students with autism, the colorful DIY decorations, the variety of activities the children could choose from — no longer usable because of the flood.
“You’re changing communities,” Valentine told Lee. “Please keep teaching me. Whatever I can do to help, please keep in touch.”
Valentine is a true humanitarian, Bowman said, and he wouldn’t be interested in helping her campaign if he didn’t think she was dedicated to learning about and fighting for his community.
“We have given enough support to politicians who have shown up in our churches and shown up in different times and places to get elected,” Bowman said. “And we are no longer in a position to accept that type of glaze over.”
Valentine said she believes that racism has deeply hurt the Black community, and that needs to be discussed — including through talks about reparations.
“We need to talk about slavery and taking people’s rights away,” she said. “And if we don’t learn from it, we will repeat it again. And that’s what I’m afraid is going on right now in the Republican Party. I promise I will look more at reparations, to study it and become more acquainted with it.”
This story was originally published on the Missouri Independent.