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.
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.”
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.”
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.”