Lindsay Wise, Jason Hancock and Bryan Lowry, Kansas City Star, March 28, 2018
African American leaders in Missouri are frustrated with what they see as Sen. Claire McCaskill’s lackluster engagement with minority voters.
Frustrated enough that they refused to sign a letter pushing back against comments made last month by Bruce Franks, a prominent black activist and state legislator from St. Louis, who called on McCaskill to “show up” and earn the support of minority voters in her state.
Among those who were approached by McCaskill are U.S. Reps. Emanuel Cleaver of Kansas City and Lacy Clay of St. Louis, and state Rep. Gail McCann Beatty, the minority leader in the Missouri House.
Each declined to sign.
But as McCaskill works to burnish her reputation as a centrist, Cleaver and other African American leaders said they worry she’ll leave minority voters on the left with the impression that she’s taking them for granted — and it could cost her turnout in the urban centers that are crucial to her base.
McCaskill’s campaign said she has a long record of standing with and fighting for Missouri’s African American community, starting with her time as a prosecutor and continuing with her work as a U.S. senator.
Asked about the letter after a town hall in Kansas City on Wednesday, McCaskill said: “I think maybe the letter elevated the issue maybe more than it should have been and it was fine. I mean, listen, here’s the bottom line: I am going to work very hard and not take one vote for granted. I am blessed to have a lot of friends and a lot of supporters in the black community and I am not going to take one of them for granted.”
McCaskill pointed to Wednesday’s town hall in an a predominantly African American neighborhood as an example of her outreach.
She emphasized the urgency of saving the Dreamers, the undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children, quoting Scripture about how the sins of the father shall not be passed onto to the child. “Can I get a witness?” she said to the crowd.
McCaskill is widely considered one of the most vulnerable Senate Democrats going into the 2018 midterm elections. Her predicament with African American communities in her state is illustrative of the broader challenge the Democratic Party faces as it struggles to find a winning formula in the age of Trump: Can the party make a strong, populist appeal to white, working-class Trump voters without alienating its base, including minorities and immigrants?
McCaskill has held more than 50 town halls in less than a year, a fact her campaign regularly highlights as evidence of her willingness to listen to Missourians.
Of those gatherings, however,only a few have been held in predominantly African American communities in the state’s urban centers, St. Louis and Kansas City.
Franks said in an interview with The Star this week that it’s clear McCaskill’s campaign is not doing the same level of outreach in communities like his as it’s doing in rural Missouri.
“I don’t think it’s even close to equal,” said Franks, a Ferguson protester who toppled a political dynasty to win his seat in the Missouri House in 2016. He helped lead protests last year in St. Louis after a white police officer was found not guilty in the shooting death of a black suspect.
The last time Rep. Brandon Ellington, a Kansas City Democrat, said he remembers McCaskill coming to his inner-city district was for a meeting at the Bluford Library a few years ago. Ellington said McCaskill’s lack of outreach to the inner city and African American voters is consistent with the way that the Democratic Party as a whole targets the inner city.
“They don’t,” he said. “They depend on our votes without trying to reach out to us. That would be true of her and the entire party.”
Ellington and the other African American leaders who spoke with The Star for this story said there’s no doubt they will support McCaskill and campaign for her in their communities. The last thing they want is for a Republican to take her seat.
Outside Missouri, Cleaver and Clay’s African American colleagues on Capitol Hill have taken them to task about some of her election-year votes and positions — most recently for comments she made on cable TV that they interpreted as supporting possible changes to the diversity immigration visa lottery. McCaskill has said that she’s not willing to take anything off the table in trying to find a solution for Dreamers.
Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, Congressional Black Caucus chairman, was concerned enough that he sent McCaskill a letter “to clarify some issues concerning the Diversity Visa program,” said CBC spokeswoman Kamara Jones.
Richmond and his colleagues in the CBC have worked hard to educate different stakeholders about the importance of the program, Jones said. She said the program, which is the primary way that African immigrants enter the U.S., “has been subject to significant misinformation as a result of President Trump’s mischaracterizations of it.”