Missouri Times Publisher Scott Faughn (SF) sat down with Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker (JPB), discussing her roots, her career, and where she goes from here as the newly elected chair of the Missouri Democratic Party.
SF: You have been an elected official for some time. You have experience down in Jefferson City and here, what made you decide to take on the challenge of leading the Missouri Democratic Party?
JPB: I do question it some days. I really did it out of a sense of duty. I’ve been a Democrat my whole life, but like you laid out, I’ve been a member of elected office for some time and it seemed like it was time for me to step up and do a little more.
SF: Start with what seems to be the hardest question. There seems to be there was a dichotomy that interested a lot of people that watch politics, how in August you have people vote overwhelming against right-to-work, a signature Republican idea and a signature thing the Democratic Party has fought. Then they flipped and voted Republican in the fall. How do you go to that union member in eastern Jackson County or Jefferson County or Clay County and start with the folks you traditional have and bring them back into voting Democrat, especially at the state level?
JPB: It is a challenge right now, especially in the state of Missouri, but I believe that the ideas and the values of the Democratic Party speak to those individuals that you referenced. It’s an opportunity really to bring them back home. I think Democrats have been vilified and some of us fall into the trap of defending why we are not villains and I think we need to just stop doing that. Let’s stand for what we stand for. Let’s be that party of the big tent. We really are the party of the big tent. There is room for us to have different opinions under that tent, and all of us still be Democrats. So, I see my challenge is trying to unify this party and keeping us together. We have different policy positions on certain issues.
SF: To me, a lot of that outstate Missouri, or even suburban Missouri, goes to guns and abortion. Those are things that are generally attributed, I’ve always felt like, as an observer of politics, that the guns and abortion issue is a huge limiting factor to Democrats winning votes. Like we just discussed, what do you do as a party that, especially at the national level, is pro-choice, and pro-gun control. How do you articulate a message that reaches people that aren’t?
JPB: I think the Democratic party is about so much else. It is about trying to expand a paycheck of folks like my parents who were real working class folks. My mom was a secretary when she wasn’t at home raising us and my dad worked at a manufacturing plant and did form by flashlight when he got home from work. That’s who we are. Again I think its, we, Democrats have allowed others to really put us into a false category as villains. What I would say to those people who are looking for their party who are looking for where they want to come home to, to come back home to the Democratic Party. We are good, honest, hardworking people and we care about everyday values and every day that individual is trying to make their paycheck work to pay their light bill as well. That is what we need to be about. We need to focus on those issues far more than some of the issues that cause people to run to their corners.
SRF: Gov. Nixon who knows something about getting votes, no one has ever got more votes in the history of the state than Gov. Nixon, said Democrats always put a high value on work. Is putting the value on work gonna reach people?
JBP: I think so and also to remind people that even though we tend to, we are in a time when we are getting more polarized, perhaps that’s true that we are more divided, we don’t have to be that. We don’t have to fall into that kind of speak. We need to be the party that’s about everyday lives. We need to talk about health care, what is affordable health care, what is good public policy on health care, and allow others to have a debate about other things. We need to talk about how to expand our paychecks. Those people that work, we need to make sure we are providing them with enough work for them to do, we want to make sure we are expanding our workforces, manufacturing and other industries. About 10 percent of our workforce in Missouri is manufacturing jobs, so we want to keep those and we want to expand them. Because I benefited from my dad’s hard work. No one gave us anything, we worked for it. I want that to be the message of the Democrats: that we are good, decent, hard working people. And we want to serve all Missourians, not just Missourians that live in certain quadrants.
SRF: You mentioned polarization. When I hear that word in today’s politics I think Donald Trump. You are an educated woman, a professional. That is a group of people that voted for Trump, not a majority, but a disproportionate amount as normal and had misgivings about that. When you talk about how to reach women, such as yourself, what will you be telling Democratic candidates to do and what kind of strategy will you implore to not only win that group but to win it by a large margin that helps carry the races?
JPB: Maybe the message is too simple. Even though you pointed out I have some degrees, I kinda take this down to the basics for myself and for other candidates that I have supported over time. And that is let’s just focus on what we do well. And there is a whole lot of noise in the air right now and it is divided and it is kind of awful really. I don’t care what party you are from, it’s awful right now. So let’s just try and shut that out and let’s be who we are as Democrats, what do we offer. There are policies that reach every day working class people’s lives. That means people who live in suburbs, that means women who look like me. And we don’t have to throw bombs in order to do that. We don’t have to focus on all that is wrong and negative in politics right now and maybe in the White House, We need to focus on what we can bring and what we can deliver and why we are the alternative. Why we are the better choice. Consider coming back home.
SRF: When I hear you talk it sounds a lot like Claire McCaskill, and when I think of Claire McCaskill in my mind I don’t think of a democrat I think of Claire McCaskill. Maybe because she has a lot of success and a big personality. I always felt like this last election, she knew how to go to places like Sedalia and Kennet, and talk to people. She sounded a lot like a rural Missourians. You seem to have a similar tone in your voice. Looking back on her career first, someone I know you know well, how should Missourians, regardless of party, remember her service?
JPB: You know, I think when public servants leave office people are a little more generous.
SRF: Do you think she deserves it though?
JPB: I do think she deserves it. Here is how I know her. I think people know her through her different contacts with her. I know her as a very young, I thought I knew a lot more than I really did, young assistant prosecutor. Lawyers we think we know a lot. And she taught me how to carry that newfound power that I had with a level of humility. She taught me how to work hard, she taught me how to take risk, she taught me how to give a damn and care about my community outside of the courthouse doors. For those things, I am grateful. I don’t seek to sound like her, I sound like who I am. Maybe as a prosecutor it makes you a little sharp on the tongue. That perhaps is true. I’ve been a prosecutor now about 20 years, so I can’t undo that.
SRF: Now where did you grow up at?
JPB: I grew up in Parkindy, Missouri.
SRF: Where is that at? I’ve heard of it, but I don’t know what county and exactly where it is at.
JPB: It is in Texas County. And I am really so proud. That is my home. I grew up on a family farm there. But during the 1970s my dad couldn’t make a living, had to support his family so that is why he went and got a manufacturing job. I am proud of my family, I am proud of that heritage and history. Those are good, good folks.
SRF: Texas County roots and ended up in the job you are in now as Jackson County prosecutor. Like I said maybe a reason you sound a little bit like when you talk about politics and work.
JPB: Perhaps. I just know who I am. I am a collection of things. I now live in Kansas City and I very much love this home. I love my life here but I look back on those years, the first couple of decades of my life growing up on a family farm, I romance about that too. It is a beautiful place to live and grow up and i am so grateful, so grateful for what my parents were able to give me, which was the only way I am able to sit here and talk to you now is because my dad especially installed in me a notion in me that find out who else in the room is a leader, find out how hard they work and then work harder than them. So that is the only reason I am here. I am not here because I am bright, I am here because I work hard.
SRF: There are people that have mentioned you are a statewide office in the past, being chair of the party you connect with a lot of Democrats around the state, is that something you are considering in 2020 or are you?
JPB: No it will not be something I consider in 2020 and I am very happy to stay here at home and I will be running for my seat again as county prosecutor. I love that job. In fact, I am about to head back out to a meeting where we will talk about how to better help this community through crime reduction efforts.
SRF: Claire McCaskill said she is not running. It looks like Senator Sifton intends to run. Nicole Galloway hasn’t said. That will be a person you work with quite closely going forward, whoever the nominee is. Do you see the field expanding, is there someone else we should be keeping an eye on?
JPB: I don’t have any names I am going to throw out today but yeah, I do think it is possible that field will expand. I am excited to sit back and see what happens.
SRF: The Missouri Democratic Party about abortion. There was some sort of language on a platform or something. I always felt like Claire McCaskill might have been pro-choice but she might have understood why people were pro-life. How do you make that come through in a state party that has these..you mentioned the big tent, is it a big tent, are pro-life candidates welcome to run in the Democratic Party?
JPB: Yeah. Yes. That’s true. Although it is a platform of the Democratic Party, I very much support the democratic process within the Democratic Party and those committee members decided that platform and I support that. When I was in the House for the 39th district of this area, what I focused on the issue was what I knew. And I have known woman, that I have walked into court with representing them, who were impregnated by rape or incest and that is a real factor. It is a real thing, it really happens. I know that because I have actually seen it happen and I have had to deal with the fallout through the criminal justice system when that occurs. That is a real issue. I have also had a colleague, whose baby died in utero and she desperately, her and her husband desperately wanted to have that child. Those women fell into a category of women that I think deserve our protection.
SRF: Lastly, if you are thinking about running for state rep somewhere in like Jefferson County, what would be your pitch to get someone to run as a Democrat in 2020?
JPB: I would say, look at the Democratic Platform. Everyone knows their jurisdiction best, I don’t know Jefferson County the way people born and raised there know it and know how to represent it. It is a representative government, so they should care the title of Democrat proudly but they should also represent their district. So, I am willing to support whomever those candidates are that feel like they can do that.