ST. LOUIS – House District 80 is one of the most liberal districts in all of Missouri. It leans farther to the left than the Tower of Pisa when viewed from the East. The district consists of the Shaw neighborhood, the Hill, and Tower Grove South, and it’s considered one of the most LGBT-friendly, diverse and multinational areas in the city. Outgoing Rep. Mike Colona, D-St. Louis, has represented the area since 2008 and has regularly crushed any Republican opposition that may challenge him. His closest election was in 2012, when he won with 76 percent of the vote.
With Colona leaving the seat, the two Democrats expected to fight most for his seat highlight the differences between what appears to be a growing gulf within the party. Whether attorney Peter Merideth or longtime Democratic operative Ben Murray takes over that seat, it could signal the new direction of the Democratic Party.
Murray says he explains the difference between himself and Merideth to voters in the simplest way.
“He’s a little more Hillary Clinton, I’m a little more Bernie Sanders,” Murray said. “If I was knocking on somebody’s door in South City and they say, ‘I’ve heard stuff about you, I’ve heard stuff about him, give me the one sentence difference,’ I think I would probably say something like that.”
Murray, in keeping with his own work for the Bernie Sanders campaign, has a slightly more progressive list of endorsements that does not necessarily fall into that same establishment frame. The environmentalist Missouri Sierra Club has endorsed him, but unions like the local chapters of United Auto Workers Union and the American Federation of Teachers have also announced their support for him. Murray can also boast endorsements from both of the two major pro-abortion rights lobbies in the state in NARAL-Missouri and Planned Parenthood, though Merideth has also been endorsed by the latter.
“In terms of approach, in terms of the people that are supporting us, I’ve got folks like Alderwoman Megan Green, [Alderman] Shane Cohn, the real progressives,” Murray said. “He’s got more establishment…. I’m a little more lefty.”
Reps. Michael Butler, Stacey Newman, Joe Adams and Bill Otto; St. Louis City Treasurer Tishaura Jones; and St. Louis County Assessor and Attorney General candidate Jake Zimmerman have also endorsed Murray.
On the other hand, Merideth, who said he likes both Sanders (for his ideology) and Clinton (for her pragmatism), has endorsements from many traditional Democratic allies. This list includes union organizations like the AFL-CIO, the St. Louis Police Officers Association, the Firefighters Local 73, and the St. Louis City Labor Club. He also has an endorsement from the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys, and his list of person al endorsements is impressive. St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay; St. Louis Board of Alderman President Lewis Reed; state Sens. Jamilah Nasheed, Scott Sifton, Gina Walsh and Joe Keaveny; outgoing House Minority Floor Leader Jacob Hummel; and state Reps. Gina Mitten and Josh Peters all support his candidacy.
Merideth agrees that the two have largely similar stances on the issues, but adds they have different approaches. He characterizes himself as a “pragmatic progressive” and believes that the problems where liberals and conservatives can find agreement, like criminal justice reform and Medicaid expansion should be prioritized.
“I am a big believer in broad coalitions, on working with not just moderate Republicans, but even moderate Democrats, which I get attacked for a lot by the other campaign,” Merideth said. “There’s a danger of becoming the Tea Party of the left where we don’t want to work with people.”
Murray is leery of that philosophy.
“I take a pretty suspicious review of currying favor with the majority and playing nice with the Republicans,” he said.
The fight between Murray and Merideth seems indicative of the fight within the Democratic Party at large especially this election cycle between hardcore progressive, compromise-averse Sanders supporters and the establishment liberal wing of the party led by Clinton. Still, the talk of this pronounced difference may just be talk, and there are multiple indications the race between Murray and Merideth may tilt Merideth’s way.
First, Merideth has maybe the most important endorsement of all – Colona’s.
Second, Clinton beat Sanders by quite a lot of delegates when the dust settled and according to a poll from Remington Research for MOScout published last week, Merideth has a considerable lead over Murray: 49 percent to 16 percent.
And third, Murray’s closeness to Alderwoman Green may raise eyebrows among people with deep knowledge of Missouri politics. Last December, when votes were being cast in St. Louis to approve the plan for a new football stadium, Green alleged that a “loved one” many thought to be Murray was offered an unspecified political favor by a pro-stadium group for her support of the stadium proposal. Both the FBI and the St. Louis Metro Police found nothing to substantiate her claims of bribery and corruption.
Merideth has also won the endorsement of the 15th Ward Democrats… which is represented by Green on the St. Louis Board of Aldermen.
Still, it remains to be seen if Merideth can carry these advantages to the ballot box in August, just over a month away.