Kurt Schaefer wins re-election to 19th District Missouri Senate seat

Stacia and Lena Schaefer celebrate at the watch party in downtown Columbia, Mo., after Sen. Kurt Schaefer wins re-election. (photo by Hilary Niles)

988 words / The Columbia Missourian 

COLUMBIA — No Republican representing Columbia and Boone County has ever been re-elected to the Missouri Senate for a second term. Until now.

State Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, defeated his challenger from the House, two-term state Rep. Mary Still, D-Columbia, by a 15.8 percent margin, or 12,849 votes out of 81,169 cast for the race on Tuesday.

From a watch party with other Republican candidates at the Holiday Inn Executive Center in Columbia, Schaefer addressed a crowd of about 100.

“This is a victory for teamwork,” he said. “It’s a win for education. It is mandate for continuing to reach across the partisan aisle in the service of our neighbors and our shared vision of a stronger, safer and smarter Missouri.

“On an evening when Missourians have shown they are unbound by party, they have told us one thing unmistakably. They want us to pull together. And in my second term, I will be in the harness with the great Boone County delegation to make sure we get the things done we need to get done.”

Despite the wins for Schaefer and his new counterpart in the 44th District Missouri House seat, Republican Caleb Rowden, the mood was subdued as news came in that President Barack Obama had been re-elected.

Schaefer emphasized after his speech that his priority in the Senate would be to “continue to fund public education at the level it needs to be funded.”

Still watched results at Broadway Brewery. Around 10:40 p.m., she conceded.

“I have called Senator Schaefer and left a message of congratulations,” Still said.

She thanked her staff by name and her supporters. “We have sent a message,” she said. “… (Schaefer) will be a better senator because of this race. … I got to be honest and I had a great time doing this.”

Bill Horner, director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Political Science at MU, said he doesn’t believe Schaefer’s win reflects a shift to the right among Boone County voters.

“We know that Schaefer is not well-loved by much of his own party because of his moderate to liberal positions on many issues,” Horner said. While he thinks overstatements are sometimes made about “strategic voters,” Horner said that Boone County voters “are aware of the powerful position Schaefer holds and the good he can do for the university, which is by far the area’s largest employer.”

The campaign

The race between Schaefer and Still, who have known each other since they worked as prosecutor and communications director, respectively, for then-Attorney General Jay Nixon in the 1990s, only became more heated as the campaign wore on. Schaefer indicated Tuesday night it was par for the course.

Schaefer attempted to portray Still as an ineffective negotiator, frequently boasting that he had passed more than 50 bills in four years while Still had passed none. Still tried to cast Schaefer as deceptively conservative, saying he would “take walks” to avoid publicly voting on bills that would reveal his right-wing alignment.

Both candidates spent a lot of money buying airtime on mid-Missouri television stations to spread their messages. The 19th District placed fourth among the most expensive regional ad rivalries logged this election season by Project Open Vault. The two candidates spent a total of $427,595 on 1,348 ads — more than 70 percent of that spending was Schaefer’s — at three Missouri stations.

Schaefer had far more money to spend. His campaign committee hauled in more than $1.2 million since April, while Still’s barely cleared $313,000, according to the most current records available at press time from the Missouri Ethics Commission.

At least $145,000 of Schaefer’s campaign money came from the Missouri Republican Party and the Missouri Republican State Senate Committee.

What it means

The GOP win likely will have little impact on the overall political complexion of the state Senate. Currently, Republicans outnumber Democrats there with a filibuster-proof majority of 26 to 8.

But Schaefer is not just another Republican. The former prosecuting attorney, now a partner at the law firm Lathrop & Gage, LLP, is the current and likely future chair of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, which helps set and oversee all state spending.

Throughout the campaign, Schaefer and Still acknowledged MU’s driving role in the local economy and its dependence on state funding. Schaefer will have to balance this priority for the bulk of the district with the interests of Cooper County, Boone County’s new district partner following reapportionment after the 2010 census.

The agricultural economy of Cooper County moves most of its money through manufacturing, according to Census data. An additional boost comes from hotels and food service, thanks in part to the casino in Boonville. Boone County’s economy, on the other hand, is anchored by higher education and is driven more by retail than manufacturing or wholesale distribution.

There also are cultural differences.

At a recent candidate forum held in Boonville, roughly 35 members of the public who attended responded most favorably to socially and fiscally conservative messages. Among all candidate statements from several local district races, it was anti-abortion messages, support for gun rights, property tax relief for veterans and a defiant attitude toward federal spending mandates that drew the most applause.

Many audience questions centered around funding for public education. On this topic, Schaefer gained ground.

Central to his financial platform is opposition to Medicaid expansion. “Public education is our highest priority. … The federal government is eating up our education money with Medicaid (mandates) they force us to pay. That has got to stop,” Schaefer said.

Dissatisfaction with education policy is one of the reasons Schaefer ran for Senate to begin with, he told the Missourian in an earlier interview. Due to term limits, his next four years in that role will be his last. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Schaefer’s campaigning days are over.

Determined Columbia residents give and receive rides to polling places

789 words / The Columbia Missourian 

COLUMBIA — Karin Davis rolled into Oak Towers on Tuesday morning after getting a ride from Columbia Paratransit to the polling location.

“I’m in a wheelchair, and if I can vote, everybody else damn well can, too,” she said.

The 65-year-old is not shy with her opinions — and she is grateful for the ride.

Davis has relied on Columbia Paratransit for most of her transportation needs for about five years. She is one of 30 or more people who, by mid-Tuesday afternoon, had received help getting to the polls.

The Boone County Republican and Democratic parties, Grass Roots Organizing, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, MU’s Legion of Black Collegians and Economy Cab Co. all provided free rides to voters.

Columbia Transit has extended bus operations until 8:45 p.m.; Columbia Paratransit and Services for Independent Living also chipped in, but rides for passengers with special needs had to have been scheduled in advance.

One woman learned this the hard way when she called on her husband’s behalf to Boone County Democratic headquarters Tuesday afternoon. Harry Feirman, a member of the Democratic Central Committee who was staffing the office at the time, had to tell her that none of their volunteers were equipped to help.

Other callers without special needs fared well. One woman called for a ride and, within minutes and between several other phone calls, Feirman had dispatched a driver. As of about 2:45 p.m., he said they had given about 10 rides.

But most of the calls he had taken were from people unsure of where to vote. Feirman, stationed at a desk facing Walnut Street, entered their names into the Boone County Clerk’s voter information page to look up their polling locations and provide directions if needed.

A more unusual call came on behalf of a Korean War veteran at Truman Veterans Hospital: He needed to vote from the hospital. In keeping with protocols, a Democratic volunteer and the veteran’s wife, a Republican, paired up to help him. The two rode to Boonville to pick up the man’s ballot, turned around to drive it to him in Columbia and waited while he filled it out. At least two hours later, the two were en route back to Boonville to submit the ballot to polling officials.

Marion Mace Dickerson was one of the drivers who called in for duty at Democratic headquarters. This is the second time the retired Veterans Affairs social worker has volunteered to drive.

“It’s kind of fun,” she said, “and it gives me a good feeling to help someone.”

Mace Dickerson said that although many older people lose their ability to drive, it’s nonetheless important that they get the chance to vote.

This resonates with the sentiment expressed by John French. On a short lunch break with NAACP volunteers at the Second Baptist Church, he recalled growing up in northeast Arkansas at a time when his parents had to pass an exam to vote. The business development specialist was a teenager when they returned from their first attempt, defeated.

In the church gathering room, French sported a bright yellow shirt emblazoned with “NAACP VOTER PROTECTION” in black letters. Around him, about two dozen other volunteers, similarly clad, finished a hot lunch of spaghetti with meat sauce, hot dogs with onions and a bounty of chips and crackers. A giant television was wheeled to the front of a riser, election-day news replacing the view of a large wooden cross on the wall. Streamers hung in coils from the tongue-in-groove wooden ceiling, and spirits were high.

The crew had been out on the damp, gray day canvassing neighborhoods around Columbia — Douglass Park, Elleta Boulevard, Indian Hills and others. They used colored markers on a wall map to keep track of where they had been. They were heading out again for more, and French was on his way to a phone bank.

His civic involvement was partly inspired by witnessing the ways integration changed the mainstream. He noticed new issues being introduced into political dialogue and a new interest in people from minority communities once they became eligible voters.

“Things changed,” French said. “But at that time, it was still a struggle.”

Karin Davis also recollects the days of the country’s civil rights evolution.

“I remember watching it on TV, the guys crossing the bridge, with the dogs and hoses being turned on them,” she said.

Like French, she was a teenager at the time. She saw people being knocked off their feet by the force of the water. “If I’d have been a couple years older, I’d have been down to fight with them.”

“People died so you can vote,” she said. “So get off your (butt) and go vote.”

Boone County Campaign Finance Reporting

Campaign finance reporting on local races

A rare breed among American states, Missouri sets no limit to campaign finance contributions in political races. But all that money must be disclosed. So we tracked it.

In Fall 2012 elections, I led the Columbia Missourian’s government reporters in a coordinated effort to harvest and report the campaign finance earnings and expenditures reports of 33 candidates for 14 state and local races. I also helped coordinate efforts with other desks in the newsroom as we worked together to publish a complete set of graphics and a comprehensive online, searchable database of all contributions.

This was all set up for a night-turn project with well over 30 staffers on-deck. We produced and published all of the October quarterly reports the same night they were due to the Missouri Ethics Commission. Two weeks later, for the reports due eight days before the election, we prioritized the races and released the reports in batches.

While none of the reporting bears my name, this accomplishment is an important part of my portfolio because I took responsibility for developing its systems and execution. Leading up to production night, I prepared training resources for our team of Public Life reporters, coordinated work sessions with the information graphics editor and news applications developer, and assisted communications with the copy desk. On production night, I led the reporters through the process of downloading reports, entering data and proofing each other’s work. I also took responsibility for decision-making when we became aware of inconsistent reporting procedures among various candidates. I coordinated efforts with the other desks processing our work, and edited again after publication to ensure accuracy.

Following our first production night, I communicated with all parties to brainstorm and catalog any potential improvements to the process. I implemented all of those changes in time for the next campaign finance report night, two weeks later.

The following links bring you to the fruits of this labor, a project of which many people rightfully feel very proud:

Flash graphic (Sorry, this link is currently unpublished.)

List of races

Online database

Schaefer brings tenacity, ambition to second state Senate campaign

1962 words / The Columbia Missourian

COLUMBIA — Kurt Schaefer doesn’t mind giving advice, but he’d rather be the one making decisions.

The incumbent 19th District senator learned this about himself after advising countless legislators and policy makers as a prosecutor in the Missouri Attorney General’s office.

“After a while, it could get frustrating to see them not taking our advice, especially on policy issues,” Schaefer said. In 2007, he decided to fix that. He’d try to make the laws himself.

Schaefer, a Republican, ran for state Senate in 2008 and beat the incumbent Democrat, Chuck Graham, whose favorability sank after his drunken driving arrest the previous October.

Now Schaefer, who has become chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is running for re-election against Democrat Mary Still, a two-term 25th District representative in the Missouri House.

It is rare for a Republican to represent the Senate district that includes Columbia, which politically leans to the left. Schaefer, who won by fewer than 400 votes in 2008, was the first Republican to take the district since at least 1979. If he wins in November, it would be the first time a Republican would serve two terms in the 19th District seat, he said.

Self-reliance

“My wife told me she’d leave me if I ever ran for office,” he said with a grin last week from his corner office at Lathrop and Gage, the Jefferson City law office where he is a partner. Schaefer left his post as a state prosecuting attorney to join the firm, which is based in Kansas City, with offices around the country.

Schaefer passed a rainbow-colored plastic slinky back-and-forth from hand to hand. The Lathrop and Gage logo is wearing off the side of the prop he often uses to keep his hands moving while he talks.

He and his wife, Stacia Schaefer, joke about her ultimatum now, but running for office was a big decision at the time. Stacia Schaefer had grown up in Jefferson City and gone to school with one of the daughters of former Missouri governor and U.S. attorney general John Ashcroft. She saw firsthand how life could get complicated for family members of public figures.

“But I don’t think it has to be that way,” Kurt Schaefer said. After much discussion, they agreed that he would run, and they would turn the experience into a learning opportunity for their three children: Max, 14; Wolf, 11; and Lena, 7.

Kurt Schaefer reasoned that their kids could learn a lot more about how government works by watching their dad than they could from school. So far, he’s pleased with how it’s worked out.

“We put age-appropriate expectations on the kids. I think they’re very mature for their age,” Schaefer said.

The family lives in a modest red ranch-style home they had built two years ago on the south side of Columbia, on 11 acres at the corner of the historic Douglass Farm. Abby, their 9-year-old mutt, circles the hilltop field every morning and shies away from the coyotes they frequently hear at night.

The Schaefer couple lived in an updated slave cabin on the farm when they first moved back from Vermont. It was small but fully modernized, and having lived in rural New England, the farm’s atmosphere suited their pace.

But the cabin felt too small after their first child was born. The Schaefers moved to a more modern development in Columbia and kept in touch with the Douglass family, from whom they eventually bought the land where their current house was built.

On an autumn Friday evening, Max and Wolf pack for an overnight scouting trip they’ll take the next day, and Lena turns white tissues into Halloween ghosts that she tapes onto the walls around the open-concept living area. An online music station featuring Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, not too loud, pipes lounge music from the living room, where wide windows offer a view of the autumn leaves in the surrounding woods.

Schaefer grew up the youngest of five siblings near St. Louis, in Town and Country. He describes his parents as both “great” and “fairly eccentric.” They traveled extensively as a family — Schaefer had been to all 48 continental states plus Canada and Mexico by the time he was 18.

Ambition

Schaefer took up bass guitar at 13 and continued to play through college at MU. His band, Third Uncle (named after a Brian Eno tune), performed original songs in clubs around Columbia in the mid- to late-1980s.

“Our music was kind of comparable to the Smiths, or Echo and the Bunnymen. But I like all kinds of music,” Schaefer said.

He said he thinks Columbia’s music scene has changed a lot over the years. “Back then, we’d form a band just for the sake of an opening gig, to play something like all 1950s country covers,” he said.

The Blue Note was still at its original location on Business Loop 70 when Schaefer started working there. By the time he left town for law school, he had worked his way from doorman to bartender to manager.

“It was so narrow behind the bar that there was really only room for three or four of us at a time,” Schaefer said. But customers would line up five or six deep. “You’ve got to be able to do multiple things at once,” he said.

Richard King, the owner, would tell them all to never make an empty-handed trip.

“If you’re going to the one end of the bar to get a bottle of beer, you better have something in your hands on the way down,” Schaefer remembered. It’s a lesson well-suited for someone with a constant need to move.

King described the scene as “one big happy family” in the Blue Note’s early days. “We all believed in the music,” he said. But he was not surprised when Schaefer left town to attend Vermont Law School.

“That’s what ambitious people do. They move on,” King said. The friends kept in touch, and they reconnected when Schaefer returned to Columbia.

If Schaefer’s move into law didn’t surprise King, his shift to politics did.

“I was stunned,” King said. He recalled the Christmas party in 2007 when Schaefer shared his intention to run for Senate as a Republican.

“But you’re not a Republican!” King remembered saying. The revelation underscored what their relationship had been, and would continue to be, about: Music. Friendship. Not politics.

Schaefer, unfazed by his friend’s surprise, asked him to put up a yard sign with his name on it. King agreed without hesitation.

“But that does mean I’ll have to put up an Obama sign right next to yours,” he warned. As long as his own name was up there, Schaefer said, he didn’t mind a bit.

Schaefer said he always has been fiscally conservative, and he has long held an interest in politics. After taking a year off from college to backpack through Europe, he returned to MU to study geopolitics. But the professor he had hoped would become his mentor retired, so Schaefer shifted to physical geography, instead. This eventually led to his interest in environmental law.

While in college, Schaefer met Stacia Wyrick. He eventually traded the Blue Note for law school and music for love. He sold his last guitar — a Rickenbacker 4001 — to buy an engagement ring, a square diamond from Betz Jewelers on Broadway. Soon after, the two were bound for Vermont.

Stacia Schaefer got into design at a small, elite publishing house. Kurt Schaefer earned a juris doctorate in 1995 and a master’s in environmental law, magna cum laude, in 1996.

Politics & policy

In many ways, Schaefer’s path of career and family provided the tempo for his evolving political identity.

“Lawyers deal with the law, which is just codification of public policy. They’re all amateur political experts. And every lawyer thinks they know how to run a campaign. And they don’t, by the way,” he said.

But he would learn this later. First, he had another surprise in store.

Schaefer had taken a job with the attorney general’s office, assuming he’d be placed in the environmental division. Instead, they placed him — over much protest — in criminal prosecution, which he was sure he wouldn’t like. Within two months, Schaefer was converted.

“You’re in court all the time, and it’s you and a judge and a jury, and you’re on your own,” he said. “I like the adrenaline. I like the fact that everything is live and spontaneous.”

The Schaefers started their family while he was working at the attorney general’s office, and as their children grew, he began to look at public policy in still another way. Their children attended a magnet school where the curriculum for each student was built around an Individually Guided Education plan, or IGE. If a kindergartner already understood math, he could study with the first-graders, for example.

“But with MAP testing and No Child Left Behind, that took away some of that flexibility,” Schaefer said. “Instead, all third-graders have to be operating on the same page. It makes you wonder whether it’s a good idea,” he said. “And it’s not.”

Rather than protest educational regulations, Schaefer wanted to be in a position to change them.

He likens his role as a senator to that of a prosecuting attorney: “You just have to learn the facts, remember them and craft that into an argument,” he said.

To learn those facts, Schaefer tunes his ear.

Kristin Sohl has worked with Schaefer and other legislators in her role as a child health advocate. She is a pediatrician and medical director of MU’s Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. She also created a program called Community Advocacy Through Resident Education, or CARE, which connects medical residents with legislators to talk about child health in Missouri.

“Legislators have said to me that plumbers unions have better advocacy in the statehouse,” she said. And when doctors do talk to lawmakers, she said, it tends to be about reimbursements or tort reform instead of health.

“The idea is to break the ice, to keep doctors from being nervous about talking to legislators down the road,” she said. Running the program keeps Sohl in touch with legislators, too.

She asks each legislator to meet about four times a year with one resident. Most of the time, she said, they’ll spend up to an hour. Schaefer has participated from the start, as have Chris Kelly and Stephen Webber, both Democratic Missouri House representatives for Boone County. Still also participated in the program early on, Sohl said.

“Kurt Schaefer has always been an absolute advocate for children,” Sohl said. “He meets with us, and is always willing to step up. He listens to residents and helps us navigate the Capitol and the legislative process.”

Strategy

Schaefer enjoys better name recognition now, as an incumbent, than he did in 2008.

At that time, he said, while he had plenty of connections in Jefferson City from his work at the attorney general’s office and at Lathrop and Gage, the people who knew him in town were mostly bar and restaurant owners. It wasn’t a bad group of people to know, he pointed out, because between them all, they know everybody else. Nevertheless, he had a lot of work to do.

At first, he couldn’t get funding from the Senate Majority Fund, so he raised about $100,000 himself from friends and family, he said. He eventually did get some financial backing from his party, but Graham’s campaign still outspent him.

“It’s not a good position to be in, because you don’t have the resources to get your message out,” he said. “And I don’t plan on finding myself in that position again anytime soon.”

It is certainly not a disadvantage Schaefer suffers this year. His campaign has brought in nearly $1 million as of the most recent campaign filings, compared to less than $250,000 by his opponent.

Money isn’t all that’s changed since 2008. Schaefer did some of his own canvassing then, going door-to-door to introduce himself and ask for votes in person. This year, he said, he has little time for it, between his law practice and ongoing work as the Senate Appropriations Committee chair.

Most legislators are done with state work when the session ends, but Schaefer stays in contact with the committee staff every day. He’ll often stop by the Capitol three times a week to consult on revenue and spending estimates or to get updates on interest rates for potential future bond issues, for example.

This level of involvement is a good match for Schaefer’s interests.

“Most senators are the political people, and their chief of staff is a policy wonk,” Schaefer said, but his relationship with Yancy Williams, his chief of staff, is just the opposite.

“I’m the policy person, and he’s the political person,” he said. Williams is on hiatus from Schaefer’s staff during the election in order to consult for the campaign.

If Schaefer wins re-election, term limits automatically would make his second term his last in the Senate. But that may not make this his final campaign.

“I’m just going to get through this election — knock on wood and don’t jinx it,” he said. “But I always like to do new things. So win or lose, I’m sure I’ll look at other things. We’ll see.”

Fearlessness drives Mary Still’s campaign for 19th District Senate seat

2085 words / The Columbia Missourian 

COLUMBIA — Mary Still is not afraid to lose.

“If I were afraid to lose, I would not have run in this race,” Still said last week.

The two-term 25th District state representative from Columbia opens the door of her paned-glass sunroom to let in a little stormy afternoon breeze. Still, a Democrat, is well aware of the odds she faces in her bid to unseat Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, in the 19th District.

Schaefer’s campaign finance war chest outweighs Still’s by a factor of almost 4 to 1. As one of 34 senators, his name recognition also outpaces that of Still, who is one of 163 representatives of the Missouri House. And her opponent’s chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee, one of the most powerful roles in the General Assembly, makes him all the more formidable.

But Still is not easily intimidated. And she is determined to have a Democrat represent Columbia in the Missouri Senate.

“I can better reflect the values of this community,” she said in a soft Arkansas drawl.

Campaign staffers, friends and volunteers are stationed in her spacious, light-filled kitchen. They work with their laptops here, or from desks at Still’s memorabilia-strewn campaign headquarters on Old Route 63 or walking door-to-door in neighborhoods around Columbia and Boone and Cooper counties.

This is Still’s third campaign for a seat in the legislature, and it’s clear this isn’t her first rodeo.

Decision

Still grew up in Fordyce, Ark., the seat of Dallas County in south-central Arkansas, where her father was the city’s prosecuting attorney for 10 years and the district attorney for about 20. Her mother became the first woman to serve on the local school board, Still said.

“I grew up working on Dad’s races,” she said.

Later, as a wife, Still campaigned again, for her husband. Russell Still, a partner in the law firm Harlan, Harlan and Still, served on the Columbia School Board from 1996 to 2005, including two years as president.

In 2007, Mary Still took early retirement from her work in the governor’s office. She meant to settle down. But four days later, then-state Rep. Judy Baker, D-Columbia, announced her campaign for U.S. Congress, meaning she would not seek her 25th District seat again.

That got Still thinking.

At first, she had a hard time seeing herself in the role of an elected official. For decades she had been on another side — first as a journalist, later as communications director for then-Attorney General Jay Nixon and Gov. Bob Holden.

“And I just felt like, I know the issues. I had been in this community for 25 years. I know all the people,” she said. The other candidates for Baker’s seat were “fine,” Still said, but she thought she was a better fit.

She told her husband first. “He thought, ‘Yes!’ He was very supportive,” Still said. But a touch of reluctance persisted.

“I remember being kind of afraid to mention it to my friends. I just felt like they would think that was ridiculous,” Still said. “I just hadn’t seen myself in that role, and I didn’t think they had either, so I was a little shy about saying I was going to do it.”

A group of friends was at her house one night — Still loves to entertain, if not cook — when she shared her intention.

“They were supportive, too,” Still said. It was one of her friends, a former insurance commissioner who is also a musician, who suggested Still’s campaign slogan: “Still the one,” the title of a 1970s hit song by the band Orleans.

Still ran for Baker’s seat and won in 2008, then won re-election in 2010. Missouri’s legislative term limits allow up to four consecutive two-year House terms, so she could have run again to keep that position in 2012.

“I had a perfectly wonderful Democratic district that I was safe in. I doubt I would have had any opposition,” Still said. Instead, she aimed to unseat Schaefer.

Unafraid to lose, Still is basing her campaign on that fearlessness and the values behind it.

“I am not afraid to stand up for what is right. … This is not the be-all, end-all for me,” Still said. “I’m not going to be afraid to stand up to wealthy special interests. And I’m not going to be afraid to take a politically inconvenient vote. I’m not hand-tied by my party.”

Campaign 

It’s another blustery autumn day, but this time, the storm has passed.

Still, her campaign manager and two volunteers have split into two teams to canvass a west-Columbia neighborhood. They are grateful for the weather’s timing as clouds give way to blue skies and sun.

A friend drives and doles out the names and addresses of potential voters on their list. Still’s passenger-side door is open as soon as the car stops, and she’s halfway out before her friend has put the car in park. Still leans in.

“Where am I going? Who am I talking to?” She always has a name to say when anyone opens a door.

“This is my favorite part,” she says between houses.

Still enjoys the scenery — a pond by an old farmhouse, an English cottage garden, the way any remaining gray clouds make the autumn colors more vibrant. But mostly, she says, she likes talking to people because she always learns from them.

Like the teacher she met once who was just getting home from work at 7 o’clock on a Friday night. Or the young man today who’s just moved from Salt Lake City to take a job with Schneider Electric. Or the Muslim boy who expects his parents to vote but doesn’t say for whom.

Four years ago while canvassing, Still approached the home of an elderly man who was outside gardening. She introduced herself to Gene Ridenhour, a retired general surgeon and recent widower. The two got to talking — about family, about gardens — and have stayed in touch ever since.

“I was just very impressed with her principles and her demeanor and the way she discusses things. She’s just a good person,” Ridenhour said. “She goes to the point real quickly. She’s very sincere. She just represents a lot of good things about people.”

And they both like plants. “That’s one of the relationships we had in terms of sharing,” he said. “The flowers and bushes and shrubs and trees.”

Ridenhour, who does not consider himself a political animal, thinks of Still not as a politician but as a friend.

“I’m just getting to be an old man and worried about the future of the country,” he said. “I’m to the point where I dislike politicians because they make all sorts of crazy laws, and they’re all for themselves.”

“I don’t think Mary’s that kind of person. She has a husband who’s a lawyer, and they’re doing fine,” he said. “You can tell from her home that’s she’s just a classy lady. It’s so elegant but yet warm.”

Still and her husband raised their two girls, now grown, in a historic house near Columbia Country Club. At 3,751 square feet and with nine rooms, including four bedrooms, the large house is made cozy by patterned rugs, antique wooden furniture and cushioned couches. Crystal glasses are set out in a corner of the dining room, apparently ready to use.

“And it’s surrounded by nature,” Ridenhour said. He’s helping to keep it that way.

Still tells the story of her friend planting a row of cypress trees at her house two years in a row, because the first batch didn’t survive the summer drought.

“That is a man of great faith,” Still says. “Here he is, 80 years old, and he’s planting trees.”

Conviction 

During Still’s first term as a state representative, an MU graduate student in public affairs gave her a call. His name was Michael Butler.

“I want to work for you,” he said. Still was flattered, but said she didn’t have the budget to hire more staff. So Butler offered to volunteer.

“I said, ‘Come on down!’” Still recalled.

Butler ended up working as Still’s legislative assistant when the position opened up, and she credits him with teaching her how annual percentage rates work — the cornerstone of her efforts to reform the payday loan industry.

“Keeping up with her as an LA was challenging,” Butler said. “She’s energetic. She’s very organized. And she taught me the importance of media.”

Still is also forgiving, he said, recalling the time he sent the wrong letter to her press list.

“Oh, no!” she said over and over, hands to her head, as soon as they realized the error. But then she moved on.

Butler still cringes thinking of it, but Still said she can’t even remember it happening.

“She was empowering,” Butler said. “She still allowed me to send things out and had me call the media to give them a heads up about what had happened.”

In addition to showing him how to recover, Butler said, Still taught him how to recruit supporters and cosponsors for legislation. And ultimately, she inspired him to run for office last year. He is now, at 26, running unopposed to represent the 79th District in St. Louis, Butler’s hometown.

“I’m a person who believes one person can make a difference,” Still said.

Her closest inspiration is her own mother, whom she credits as having integrated the school system in Fordyce — an accomplishment highly unpopular with many people in the town.

“She was instrumental in making it happen in a very smooth way,” Still said, alluding to a “very interesting” story that she refuses to tell on the record.

“The first thing she had to do was get a white teacher to agree to teach in the black school.” Still’s mother eventually persuaded the minister’s wife to do so, using what Still calls an “unconventional approach.”

Beyond that, all she’ll reveal is that she learned her mother was “a very clever person.”

In Still’s own legislative work, there has been more opportunity for conviction than for compromise, she said, but she will compromise when it’s reasonable and genuine.

“I’m in the minority. And they’re not going to let me do anything,” she said. “I would love to be in the position to compromise. If they don’t want you to get anything passed, they’re not going to be working with you.”

Still has tried since she took office to reform the payday loan industry. She also has promoted a tax on tobacco. Her legislation didn’t pass, but it was very similar to Proposition B on the Nov. 6 ballot.

As a senator, the Democrat might hold more leverage than she has in the House. “I can filibuster!” she said.

The method of holding up a legislative hearing is only allowed in the Senate. But a filibuster only works until it’s overridden by a two-thirds majority of Senate colleagues.

Role of government 

Still has said repeatedly that the “deck” in Jefferson City is stacked against the middle class.

“We want to restore the contract between Missouri and working families,” she said at a League of Women Voters forum. “To do that, we must be fighting for higher wages, affordable education and opportunities for all — young women and minorities included. We must be fighting for jobs, not kowtowing to special interests.”

And herein lies one of the fundamental characteristics that distinguishes Still’s political philosophy from that of her opponent, she said: her perception of the proper role of government in society.

“I think you have to have an efficient and effective government, and you can get so small that you’re neither,” Still said.

She pointed out how much the Columbia area’s economy depends on state government funding. And she thought back to her father’s mother, who kept framed pictures of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy on the wall of her upstairs hall back in Fordyce.

Still’s paternal grandmother was widowed with seven children when Still’s dad was about 10. Her grandmother collected Social Security and was able to send Still’s two aunts to college. Her father and uncles pursued higher education through the GI Bill, Still said. Three went on to become lawyers. One became a doctor, and another pursued a career in the military.

“I see now, looking back, what a challenge that was for her to raise seven children as a widow,” Still said. “So you have to realize that government played an important role in that family’s life and their ability to earn an income, pay taxes and give back.”

Accusations, denials swirl in state General Assembly election

Nancy Copenhaver claims that Rep. Mary Still offered her money to switch out of the 47th District primary in March, but Still denies it. Meanwhile, two local statehouse races heat up with the hubbub.

1297 words / The Columbia Missourian

COLUMBIA, MO — Nancy Copenhaver wants it all to go away. But the controversy surrounding the Democrat’s claim that she was offered money in March to leave the 47th District primary race against John Wright only seems to be picking up speed — and intrigue — the longer questions go unanswered.

A student at an MU-hosted candidate forum on Tuesday evening asked Rep. Mary Still, D-Columbia, to respond to a story that broke over the weekend on Mike Martin’s website, the Columbia Heart Beat. Martin reported it was Still who had made the offer.

“It was to pay for my ENTIRE campaign if I would run in a different district,” Copenhaver said in the Heart Beat article, which reported that the capital letters were Copenhaver’s emphasis.

Still, who represents Missouri’s 25th District in the House of Representatives, is running to unseat state Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, for his 19th District seat. Still flatly denies she made any such offer to Copenhaver.

But Copenhaver on Friday told the Missourian that the Heart Beat report is accurate. She clarified that she had assumed Still was offering Wright’s money, because Still had her own race to run and is not independently wealthy to afford such an offer.

That’s a slightly different take than one put forward by Mitch Richards, Wright’s Republican opponent in the general election. He raised the topic at a candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters at Columbia Public Library on Thursday evening.

“Nancy told me that in fact it was not hers (Mary Still’s money). That it was his, Mr. Wright’s,” Richards said in his opening remarks.

Richards and Wright were seated next to each other in a panel with four other House candidates. Richards looked straight ahead at the roughly 100 people in the audience while making his opening statement. Wright, head tilted and jaw set, kept his eyes on Richards.

The conversation

Still acknowledged that she called Copenhaver in March to talk strategy and to suggest that the former state representative run this year in a different district. Copenhaver, a retired teacher from Moberly, was elected in 2000 to serve the 22nd House District. She lost the general election for the same seat in 2002 and 2004.

“I did have a conversation with (Copenhaver), and I think a lot of people did because we knew that John was going to be a very strong candidate,” Still said. “She was not aware of some of the factors … and he was going to have a lot of support from the education community.”

Still said she talked with Copenhaver to inquire whether she or Wright could run in a different district.

“Nancy said no, she was not going to do that,” Still said. “I respected her decision. I never made an offer” to pay her off to move to a different district.

Copenhaver confirmed that she had been expecting support from the education community. While she felt she had it, she said Still’s assessment of Wright’s strong standing with that sector also proved accurate during the subsequent campaign.

Whether Copenhaver had conversations about switching districts with anyone other than Still remains unclear.

“I don’t remember that I did,” Copenhaver said, adding that one reason she didn’t want to run in a different district is simply because she lives in the 47th. She declined to discuss any other rationale.

“It’s a different situation now than it was then,” Copenhaver said.

She said that she was offered financial support in exchange for switching districts only one time — by Still.

Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, has worked with Still in the General Assembly since 2008.

“The conversation never came up in my presence,” Kelly said. “Is it possible that someone misconstrued something from a conversation? Yes. Is it possible that Mary Still bribed anybody? Absolutely not.”

Copenhaver maintained there was no way she could have misconstrued a conversation about general campaign finance strategy to be a blatant offer to be paid to leave the 47th District primary race for another district.

The primary

Monetarily, Copenhaver faced an uphill battle in challenging Wright.

He had less than $1,000 on hand at the end of March, just days after the alleged offer was made, according to campaign finance reports to the Missouri Ethics Commission.

But the following quarter, his campaign grossed more than $72,000 in contributions. In July, Wright contributed at least $88,000 of his own money to his campaign, according to the website followthemoney.org. By the time he filed a campaign finance report eight days before the primary, which he won by 28 percentage points, Wright had brought in a total of nearly $170,000, including his own money.

Copenhaver’s campaign grossed $31,800 overall, including at least $9,600 she put in herself.

Copenhaver declined to comment on the strength of Wright’s campaign. As for why he might have felt compelled to offer her money to leave the race, Copenhaver said she figured it would save him money to not have to run a primary.

“That’s kind of common sense,” she said. The less Wright would spend on a primary, the more he would have left for the general election.

The heat turning up

Copenhaver’s accusation has tightened the tenor of both the 47th District House race, which she lost the chance to vie for, and the 19th District Senate race, in which Still is challenging incumbent Schaefer.

At Tuesday’s forum at MU, Schaefer and Still each stood up from their chairs when it was their turn to speak. Schaefer responded to the student’s inquiry about the Heart Beat article after Still denied the charge.

“You can’t pay somebody to get out of a race,” he said. Still threw her head back and laughed at the suggestion she had.

“I’m a former prosecutor,” Schaefer added. “If you offer somebody a monetary benefit to get out of a race, it has criminal implications.”

Two nights later at the library forum, Wright responded to his opponent Richards’ implication that Still had bribed Copenhaver on Wright’s behalf.

“I’d like you to understand that if you’d like to accuse me or my campaign of any wrongdoing of any kind that I and we will be prepared to evaluate appropriate, prompt and legal action under Missouri libel law,” Wright said. “In the meantime, I can’t respond to rumor and innuendo on the Internet about conversations that I never had participation in.”

Richards sat back and appeared slightly flushed at the suggestion of legal action.

Should a campaign finance complaint be filed, the Missouri Ethics Commission would assess whether the issue falls under its jurisdiction, according to procedures that are explained on its website. The commission can refer civil or criminal matters to appropriate authorities and dismiss any complaint it deems “frivolous.”

But at this point in the campaign, state law prevents the commission from investigating allegations of candidate misconduct, other than failure to file personal financial disclosure statements or campaign finance disclosure reports. The commission is prohibited from accepting any other complaints within 60 days before an election.

Wishing for resolution

Copenhaver noted on Friday that she did not voluntarily come forward with information about Still’s phone call. Rather, she said, she simply responded to questions submitted by Martin.

She said digging into the issue further serves no purpose and distracts from the policy issues at stake in the election. She hopes the campaign for the 47th District can move forward from here.

“All I’ve done is verify what’s already out there,” Copenhaver said in explaining her conversation with the Missourian. “I don’t know how much more clear I can make it that I don’t want to say anything on this issue.”

Missouri House and Senate candidates take questions from the public

Published the night of a public forum, this article summarizes the positions of eight candidates for state General Assembly seats on three of the topics discussed.   

998 words / The Columbia Missourian 

By Hilary Niles and Raymond Howze 

COLUMBIA, MO — Thirteen questions, eight candidates, four districts and about 100 people added up to a revealing night at the Columbia Public Library on Thursday when the League of Women Voters hosted a candidate forum.

Six candidates for three seats in the Missouri House sat side by side at the front of the room. They answered questions, most of which came from the audience. The two candidates vying to represent the Senate’s 19th District took questions separately.

Bonnie Friehling said she reads about the candidates in the papers but likes seeing them face to face. Watching the candidates exchange dialogue in person gives her a better sense of why certain candidates appeal to different people.

“I’ve never seen Mary Still and Kurt Schaefer go head-to-head,” she said. “I saw quite a bit of distinction between their outlooks, what kind of people they are and how they approach things.”

Problems and priorities 

House District 44

Ken Jacob, D-Columbia, said economic vitality, including jobs, is the most important issue facing the state, but partisan bickering is hindering progress. Until we overcome that, he said, our economy will struggle.

Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, agreed that politics have become more polarized and that jobs and the economy are the most important part of this election. He said he wants to expand entrepreneurship locally and statewide.

House District 46

Rep. Stephen Webber, D-Columbia, said industries such as health care and engineering are “desperate” for jobs, but Missouri doesn’t have enough trained professionals to fill them.

Fred Berry, R-Columbia, said the biggest challenge in the state is jobs. “We need small business start-ups back, and we need to make a positive business climate to get investors to come into the state.”

House District 47

John Wright, D-Columbia, said the city has done well at creating jobs, citing its 5 percent unemployment rate. “We understand something here in mid-Missouri.”

Mitch Richards, R-Columbia, said jobs are a priority in this year’s election, but Missouri residents are overtaxed and micromanaged. “We need to be talking about the fact government doesn’t create jobs, people do.”

Senate District 19  

Rep. Mary Still, D-Columbia, said her priority would be to implement the Affordable Care Act. “If we don’t take the money that the federal government is going to give to our hospitals, we’re giving it up to other states.”

Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, said his biggest priority would be to pass a bonding bill to fund education, mental health programs and roads, including Interstate 70.

Federal health care regulations 

House District 44

Jacob said the benefit of setting up a Missouri health care exchange is so obvious that debating about it is irrational.

Rowden said he is concerned that funding the Affordable Care Act will take money away from education. “As much as we’d like to say we’re entitled to (affordable health care) and government should give it to us, it simply isn’t possible.”

House District 46

Webber said if a health insurance exchange isn’t done through the Affordable Care Act, Missouri should create one itself. “This fight is about whether should we have a website where people can shop around.”

Berry said $50 million does not need to be spent on an insurance plan comparison website. “The federal government doesn’t provide it, the taxpayers of America provide it.”

House District 47

Wright said he has to purchase health care for his employees as a small business owner, but the insurance costs are already high, and they keep rising. “I look forward to the opportunity to look at one site where they have to compete to for my business.”

Richards said he has met many small business owners who say the Affordable Care Act will bankrupt them. “If we expand Medicaid, which is very much the implementation of Obamacare, we’re going to cost this state a lot of money.”

Senate District 19 

Still said Missouri should set up its own health care exchange rather than have a federal exchange imposed upon the state. She sees the offer of funding for Medicaid expansion as an economic development tool that Boone County should be clambering to get.

Schaefer said he would prefer a block grant from the federal government for states to administer as they wish. He is concerned about related regulations that haven’t been set yet by the federal government and doesn’t want to fund an expanded Medicaid at the expense of education.

Education

House District 44

Jacob said this community’s economic well-being is inextricably linked to MU. He said higher education funding and capital construction at MU have declined since he left office in 2004.

Rowden said being attractive for business starts with an education system that produces a high-quality workforce.

House District 46

Webber said higher education programs such as the nursing program at MU are limited by the number of students they can accept. “There are industries like health care and engineering where people are desperate to hire qualified individuals.”

Berry said education is one of the pillars needed for a “rock-solid” state. “Missouri can be on top again through right-to-work, tax reform and smart planning in the legislature.”

House District 47

Wright said that Missouri’s lack of education investment puts pressure on many of the state’s school districts. “We have fallen to 46th in the country in state investments in education.”

Richards said the election is “absolutely about jobs,” but disagreed with the assertion that job creation falls on education funding. “The fact is we need to not look at spending more money but how we’re spending that money.”

Senate District 19

Still supports the fall ballot’s cigarette tax to help fund education. She added it’s important to have a local person appointed to the MU Board of Curators and criticized Schaefer for not making that happen.

Schaefer takes credit for restoring Gov. Nixon’s $106-million cut to the university in the last budget and providing increased funding to public schools. “Education must be our No. 1 priority after public debt.”

State Senate candidates engage in spirited debate

Candidates for one of the state’s most-watched Senate races square off in a forum hosted at the University of Missouri. This article was notable in the publication’s website analytics for the amount of time people were spending on the page the day of publication — four minutes, on average, and up to seven minutes for viewers from a particular referring website. 

752 words / The Columbia Missourian

COLUMBIA, MO — Rep. Mary Still and Sen. Kurt Schaefer leveled heated accusations at each other Tuesday when they faced off in a forum hosted by Pi Sigma Alpha and the MU Political Science Club in MU’s Allen Auditorium.

Still hopes to unseat Schaefer as Missouri’s 19th District state senator in one of the state’s most-watched campaigns this season.

“They definitely went at it a little bit,” said Trey Sprick, president of the student organization Tigers Against Partisan Politics.

Philosophy of public service

The tone for the evening and a major current in the campaign surfaced when a student panelist asked whether the candidates would prioritize his or her parties’ platform or the interests of their constituents.

Still emphasized her values.

“I will be there to represent you, the values we share, and to fight for working families. It’s working families that are getting squeezed,” Still said. She promised to prioritize constituents over special interests if elected to the Missouri Senate. “Not special interests, not any party, and especially not the Tea Party.”

Schaefer emphasized his legislative record as evidence that he can get things done.

“I would work with Republicans, Democrats, anyone who has an idea and wants to work to make this a better state,” he said. “I have sponsored and passed over 50 bills, most with overwhelming bipartisan support.” He also underscored his powerful position as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which he was chosen for after two years on the job.

Higher education

Many questions from the student panelists focused on higher education.

Both candidates disagreed with Senate Bill 389, passed before either was elected. It transferred some powers from the UM System Board of Curators to the General Assembly. And both agreed that the board should include student membership, although Still claimed to have taken that stance before her opponent.

Schaefer and Still support the November ballot measure to raise the tobacco tax for different reasons. If passed, new revenues from the tax would fund K-12 and higher education.

Still maintained Schaefer has only recently converted to supporting the tax increase, while she has spoken out for it for years. She compared it to the song lyrics, “I was country before country was cool.”

Schaefer said he supports it as a way to discourage smoking because the state spends so much money on health-related complications from smoking because of Medicaid and Medicare obligations.

Both candidates pledged to ensure that any new revenues for education raised through a tobacco tax hike would not be offset by reduced funding from the state’s general revenues.

Still said that funding for higher education has been cut every year since Schaefer became chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, while the state has promised more money in tax credits to corporations for economic development.

“That’s better invested in the university,” Still said.

Interstate 70

The candidates mentioned several possible solutions for funding I-70 repairs and upkeep, including the option of bonding.

“I believe pouring concrete is a very good way to stimulate the economy,” Still said. She said she is not fond of toll roads, and confessed that she recently got a bill from the state of Illinois for some tolls she apparently missed on a recent road trip.

Schaefer suggested the option of an increased diesel tax, especially because the trucking industry recently said they would rather pay that than a toll, he said. He also said that 50 percent of the traffic on I-70 drives straight through the state, which makes him question the logic of putting state dollars to work for out-of-state drivers.

Term limits

Schaefer and Still agreed that it’s unlikely term limits would be repealed.

Schaefer said he thinks complications from term limits have caused a loss of collegiality at the Capitol, while Still blames term limits, in part, for greater influence from lobbyists.

“We probably can’t get rid of term limits, but that makes it all the more important to have campaign contribution limits,” Still said.

Missouri campaign finance law includes no caps on campaign contributions.

Copenhaver-Wright controversy

Still denied that she had any involvement in an alleged payoff offer received by Nancy Copenhaver in exchange for dropping out of her primary race against John Wright for the 47th District House seat.

Schaefer responded by distancing himself from the allegations, but also cited Copenhaver’s credentials as a former state representative andMoberly city councilwoman.

“Is she lying?” Schaefer asked Still, without looking at her. He pointed out that paying someone to get out of a political race has “criminal implications.”

Insurance bill triggers contraception debate

1465 words with explanatory info graphic table and supplemental information box / Graphic concept by Hilary Niles, design by Aaron Cooper / The Columbia Missourian

In the wake of Congressman Todd Akin’s controversial campaign-trail statements about rape in fall 2012, any mention of reproductive rights became an instant lightning rod in Missouri politics. I had read superficial treatment of a related bill about insurance coverage, and when I studied the legislation itself, I realized just how incomplete those reports had been. This explanatory piece digs into the legal authority, policy implications and ideological motivations behind a bill that, it turned out, very few policy makers fully understood.

Earlier this year, Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed a bill that would modify state laws regarding abortion, contraception and sterilization. On Wednesday, members of the Missouri General Assembly will meet for their annual veto session and are expected to try to override Nixon. There’s a good chance they’ll succeed.

JEFFERSON CITY— A debate mixing the issues of access to birth control and abortion with those of religious freedom and states’ rights would be an emotional undertaking any time. But it becomes all the more tense when it happens in the middle of a political campaign season.

Earlier this year, Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed a bill that would modify state laws regarding abortion, contraception and sterilization. On Wednesday, members of the Missouri General Assembly will meet for their annual veto session and are expected to try to override Nixon. There’s a good chance they’ll succeed.

The core of Senate Bill 749, sponsored by Sen. John Lamping, R-St. Louis, is that insurance companies would not have to cover contraception, abortion or sterilization if they object to those services on religious or moral grounds.

The bill also would allow any employer to prevent such coverage from being added to group insurance plans when it conflicts with his or her moral, ethical or religious beliefs. State law now allows only religious organizations to prevent that addition to their coverage. The bill contains a retroactive clause that would make it effective Aug. 1 if the General Assembly overrides Nixon’s veto.

“It’s basically giving the insurance companies (the right) to not cover additional things, even if the employer and employee want them,” Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, said.

Schaefer said he objects to SB 749 on that principle and on the legal grounds that it contradicts federal law.

State Rep. Mary Still, D-Columbia, who is campaigning to replace Schaefer as the 19th District senator, also opposes the bill.

“We’re talking access to birth control,” Still said. “I believe that access to contraception is important to a woman’s health and economic well being” because it allows a woman to plan for a pregnancy.

“To deny that portion (of health insurance) that is uniquely important to women is discrimination,” she said.

While the bill’s description implies that it’s written to protect religious freedoms, Lamping said he sponsored it as a matter of states’ rights. He denied that the bill restricts a woman’s access to health care.

“This bill does no such thing,” Lamping said.

The price of access

The legislation’s impact on “access” depends largely on how that term is defined.

“You have access under SB 749 just like current employees do now who work for religious organizations,” Lamping said.

If those organizations prevent contraceptive services from being added to their coverage, employees can purchase contraception privately or opt out of their employer-based group plan, Lamping said.

In that case, they can access insurance for contraception elsewhere, such as through a spouse’s plan or by purchasing private, individual coverage that includes those services, Calvin Call, executive director of the Missouri Insurance Coalition, said.

“That’s an expensive proposition for women,” Still said.

Access: a federal mandate

An estimated 10.7 million American women use oral contraceptives and 10.3 million opt for sterilization, according to a 2010 report from the Centers for Disease Control.

Yet, almost half of all pregnancies in the United States are unintended — a rate that doubles or triples for women who are 18 to 24, poor, or unmarried and living with their partners.

Partially because unintended pregnancies are associated with increased risk of birth complications, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently changed a policy, under President Barack Obama’s direction. Effective Aug. 1 of this year, all insurance policies are to provide contraceptive services, education and counseling directly to women and free of charge.

This rendered moot religious organizations’ exemption from the requirement to provide access to contraception. Yet, while they would not be forced to subsidize contraception directly, religious employers argued, those services still would flow through their group health plans.

Lawsuits challenging the federal mandate are pending. In the meantime, legislators such as Lamping are doing what they can to contest it.

“What’s extraordinary … is that it’s the first federal government mandate for state health insurance,” Lamping said. “That’s where 749 became a bill.”

Employees who want coverage for birth control but can’t get it through their employers may feel forced into a take-it-or-leave-it decision: Should they take what they can get through work? In that case, they could go without contraceptive insurance and just buy their contraception privately. Or, should they find an entirely different plan that covers it?

Lamping recognizes this, and he maintains that providing access to those services through group plans forces a parallel all-or-nothing decision for employers with strong objections to contraception: Should they offer health insurance, knowing that it may ultimately be a vehicle for contraception, or should they not offer health insurance at all?

Two colleges in Florida, Ave Maria University and Florida Catholic University, reportedly have cited the mandate as part of their reasons for choosing to discontinue health insurance coverage for their employees.

Lamping listed Catholic hospitals, high schools and adoption agencies as the types of religious organizations that may choose that path as well.

In that case, like anyone who chooses to find their own insurance rather than settle for a plan that doesn’t meet their contraceptive needs, those employees could access — and pay for — health plans on the open market.

States’ rights

Lamping isn’t alone in his belief that Obama’s policy overstepped the federal government’s jurisdiction. Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, said he understands why Lamping would say that.

“It’s a politically popular thing to say, and I actually agree with him,” Kelly said. “But state law cannot abrogate federal law.”

Kelly said he also believes the law is unnecessary because Missouri statutes already protect employers from having to pay for contraception or abortion coverage.

“So what they’re actually doing is denying the employee their moral or religious discretion,” Kelly said. He is urging his colleagues to sustain Nixon’s veto of SB 749 when it comes up for an override vote.

Schaefer takes a similar stance.

“This law is not needed to tee-up a fight with the federal government,” Schaefer said. If Missouri wants to fight the federal mandate, he said, the place to do it is through the courts.

Religious freedom

Senate Majority Floor Leader Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, said that, from a business standpoint, he thinks most companies will continue to include contraceptive coverage in their group plans.

“Insurance companies will provide a plan that meets the purchaser’s requirements,” he clarified by email.

Dempsey is one of four co-sponsors of SB 749, along with 32nd District Sen. Ron Richard, 6th District Sen. Mike Kehoe and 2nd District Sen. Scott Rupp.

“It’s a religious freedom issue,” Dempsey said. “Obama made a ruling related to employers that have a religious mission. He took an option away from them. And we are trying to put that option back in place.”

Still couldn’t disagree more.

“If you’re in the business of providing insurance, I think it’s important to consider the needs of the person you’re insuring, and that’s also a religious issue,” she said. “To be fair and open-minded about the needs of a woman is an important tenet of my religion.”

Still also is concerned about the very premise of SB 749: that a business regulation could be based on “religious beliefs or moral convictions.”

“It’s a slippery slope of how you define moral convictions,” she said. “What if you are a Christian Scientist? And I think Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe in blood transfusions. It’s moving in that direction. The state doesn’t need to be making laws about it,” Still said. (Her impression of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ policy on blood transfusions is partially true.)

Women’s health

Above all, SB 749 is a women’s health issue to Still, she said. She doesn’t buy the argument that it has anything to do with states’ rights.

“We have addressed that issue with the Civil War,” she said. “This bill deals with contraception.” Still said she ties that directly to a woman’s health and economic well-being.

“Your insurance is a benefit of your employment,” she said. “To say that an employer can deny birth control (as a women’s health service) is discrimination.”

She also challenged Schaefer to filibuster SB 749 when it comes up for a vote.

“I voted against it previously, and I see no reason I would change my position on that,” Schaefer responded.

“A filibuster in a special session … Even the Democrats won’t likely do that,” he said, arguing that all filibustering would do is make the session longer and more expensive.

Schaefer said he hasn’t decided whether he will speak in opposition to the bill or just vote against it.

“I don’t know. We’ll have to see what the debate is,” he said.

When it passed the General Assembly, representatives in the House voted 105-33 to approve SB 749, while the Senate voted 28-6. To override a veto, votes of 109 in the House and 23 in the Senate are required.

Comparing Insurance Costs

Health insurance costs vary widely depending on the age, health and habits of the insured and the trade-off between premiums, co-pays and deductibles, among other considerations. There is also a difference in cost between individual and group plans, in no small part because employers typically pay for at least a portion of group plans.

In Missouri, the statewide average cost of individual health insurance is $2,364 annually, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Employer-based premiums average $5,019 per year per employee, of which $1,155, or 23 percent, is paid by the employee while the remainder, $3,864, is picked up by the employer.

But those figures don’t account for the potential cost of deductibles.

To get a better sense of how much health insurance might cost on the individual market, the Missourian sought online quotes for preventive care for a 37-year-old woman who doesn’t smoke. The lowest monthly premium quoted was $135 and included a $10,000 deductible. The highest monthly premium quoted was $229.74 with a $2,500 deductible.

Columbia rally sparks debate over women’s issues

image of newspaper front page

Article exploring the emergence of women’s health as a campaign issue following controversial remarks by Congressman Todd Akin / 581 words The Columbia Missourian

image of newspaper front page
photo by Kayla Kauffman / Missourian

COLUMBIA, MO — A blond woman going by “Pillamina” and donning a birth control dispenser costume led a rally of pink-clad women and men holding signs that said “Women Are Watching” outside Rep. Mary Still’s campaign office Thursday evening.

“When women vote, Democrats win,” Still said with a smile — and to great applause. A crowd of about 120 supporters had come out to hear her and others speak as part of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s “Women Are Watching” bus tour, of which Pillamina was the ringleader.

The women’s health organization’s 11-state bus tour had been announced before Rep. Todd Akin’s controversial remarks on pregnancy and rape. Akin’s comments have catalyzed abortion and women’s health — issues that were significant considerations for many voters — into a lightning rod on the national campaign trail.

In Boone County, Still is seizing that fire as fuel in her bid to replace Republican Kurt Schaefer in his 19th District seat in the Missouri Senate.

Still said in an interview earlier Thursday that Akin’s comments were “a window into the views of the far-right fringe … very prominent in the (Missouri) House and Senate.”

“Todd Akin’s idiocy is a very convenient diversion for Rep. Still,” Schaefer said Thursday before Still’s rally.

The crowd at Thursday’s rally — a solid majority wearing pink T-shirts with the “Women Are Watching” logo and holding matching signs — was a mix of mostly women and some men of many ages.

Schaefer accused Still of riding the wave of Akin’s controversy to divert attention away from her lack of leadership.

“We need to focus on economic development, job creation, public education funding, all those things I have been working so hard on for four years in the time that Mary Still has done nothing,” he said.

But Still said Akin’s comments have focused attention on an issue that some would rather avoid. She said Schaefer doesn’t want to talk about women’s health because he has a record of not standing up for women and that he doesn’t understand women’s health as a fiscal policy issue.

“The ability to plan your family provides you an opportunity to provide for your children in a way that will ensure that they have a better future,” Still said. “And certainly, reproduction” — including the option for a woman to choose abortion — “is a health issue for women as well. … Access to contraception and emergency contraception prevents abortion,” she said.

But the difference between Still’s and Schaefer’s positions on birth control can be hard to find.

“Birth control is a medical issue and none of the government’s business,” Schaefer said. Access to family planning and contraception for both men and women is “an important part of anyone raising a family,” he said. “I absolutely agree with her on that.”

After hearing that Still had accused him of not standing up for women, Schaefer vigorously refuted the charge. He pointed to restored funding for emergency room rape kits and domestic violence shelters, protections for rape victims who become pregnant, and $8 million in funding for smoking cessation programs for pregnant Medicaid recipients as part of his record in defense of women.

There will be time before Sept. 12 for them to hash out their credentials for local women’s votes. Senate Bill 749, which would allow insurance companies to deny access to birth control for certain employees, comes up for a possible veto override that day. Both Still and Schaefer voted against the legislation, which passed nonetheless but was vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon.