ST. LOUIS, Mo. – In just a few months, Representative Mike Colona will vacate his chair in the Missouri House, unable to run due to term limits. Barring an incredible upset from Teressa Ezell, the Green Party candidate in the 80th district, Peter Merideth will be the new state representative in the House.
Merideth defeated his fellow Democrat, Ben Murray, in the August primary, carrying 60 percent of the vote, but his race to win the Democratic bid for the seat was, by no means, an easy one.
He says that the most difficult challenge was dealing with comments made by a St. Louis police union official. Merideth says many of his constituents found the comments offensive and were upset that he still accepted the endorsement of the police officer’s association.
Merideth said he had to be careful, especially since he wants to work on criminal justice reform.
“The police have to be at the table for any and all of those conversations,” he said. “To outright reject them because of some offensive statements seems like it might help me in the political race to get the job, but it would hurt my ability to do the job.”
Despite that, and negative attack ads from his opponent, Merideth says that his attempts to run a clean and positive campaign made the difference.
“The outcome, and the way things played out only proved my philosophy that that’s not how you win an election.”
But he attributes the victory to his presence in the community. A small community law attorney, Merideth has been involved in the Shaw neighborhood for some time. He’s a classically trained tenor with a music degree, and can often be found singing in the choir at St. Margaret’s Church.
“I’ve built a relationship in this community,” Merideth said. “People know who I am, and I just stayed with that. Staying with a positive campaign about what I wanted to do, and who I have been so far, I think that was the most effective approach.”
For Merideth, taking Colona’s former seat is an opportunity to continue the strong representation for the Democrats in a historically blue district. While he says he considers himself to be quite liberal, he wants to be realistic in his approach as a representative.
“People recognized that, even when some dirt is thrown at me, they were able to look past that and say ‘No, we trust him.’ he said. “I was excited to see that one of the most progressive districts in the state was able to look at this race and say ‘How best can we actually achieve some of the progress we want?’ and they said they want to send someone who is looking to negotiate, looking to find a way to work in our best interests. That gave me hope that maybe we’re not as divided as it sometimes feels.”
Merideth wants to work on several issues during his time in the House, but the two that stand out are criminal justice reform and Medicaid expansion.
“I do think there’s room for common ground on those issues,” Merideth said. “I think there’s actually a fairly strong consensus about Medicaid expansion, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. I’m realistic about that. But what I do think that we can take a new approach and start looking at some of the elements and seeing where we can connect the dots, whether that’s managed care, or dealing with disability coverage, things where there’s room to accept some these federal dollars that will make a huge difference in the lives of Missourians, especially in the rural areas.”
Merideth has also made it known that he believes criminal justice reform is necessary. He says that he thinks there’s a willingness to talk about the issues, such as body cameras, traffic tickets, and municipal courts, the latter which he says is at the core of the problems with criminal justice.
“It starts turning people into being on the wrong side of the law, over small infractions they just can’t afford to pay,” he said. “So they end up in cycles in which they start seeing the police as their enemy, and I think that not only makes the lives harder for the people on the poorer ends of our communities, it also makes it harder for law enforcement to do their jobs.”
To get anything done on these two platforms, Merideth knows that compromises have to be made across the aisle. But Merideth says it isn’t something he will shy away from. Indeed, he faced criticism through the election for that very word: compromise.
“The attacks were truly about style, about willingness to compromise,” Merideth said. “It was about having friendships with people that are considered too conservative by the opposition, and who I’m often not on the same side as.”
In Merideth’s mind, finding ways to work together is the whole point of the legislature. He doesn’t want to be there as a symbolic post.
“I am a believer that progressive doesn’t just mean being against things like money in politics, it actually means things like progress in government, and that requires compromise, especially when you’re a super-minority,” he said.
Heading into his first session at the state capitol, he says he’s optimistic. His goal, in simple terms, is to go to work, make a difference, and help the state move forward. He says if he can get anything done that helps his constituents, he’ll consider it a success.
“I try to be pragmatic, and I really want to work on things in Jefferson City, not just be a protest vote,” he said. “That’s not good enough for me.”
Benjamin Peters is a reporter for the Missouri Times and Missouri Times Magazine, and also produces the #MoLeg Podcast. He joined the Missouri Times in 2016 after working as a sports editor and TV news producer in mid-Missouri. Benjamin is a graduate of Missouri State University in Springfield. To contact Benjamin, email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @BenjaminDPeters.