JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — With a Republican supermajority dominating Missouri, Lauren Gepford was made to guide the state’s Democratic Party.
Gepford, the Missouri Democratic Party’s executive director, doesn’t shy away from the losses she’s experienced in her work. She worked on a few Missouri state representative campaigns when Democrats attempted to take back the House in 2009 — Gepford was still in college at the time — and joined former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen’s unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate in the 2018 midterm elections.
But the 30-year-old is passionate about public policy and thrives off the thrill of the political game.
“This is the right time for me to be doing this job because I choose the hardest battles,” Gepford told The Missouri Times during an interview over lunch at The Grand, just up the hill from the Capitol building.
“I don’t typically want races that are obvious wins for Democrats. That’s what motivates me. If we were a blue state, I think I would find the job much less interesting and challenging.”
Gepford was tapped as the latest executive director for the party in January. In Missouri, Republicans control both the state House and Senate; and the state’s chief executive, Gov. Mike Parson, is also a Republican.
Her interest in public policy stems from her upbringing and education. In high school, Gepford joined multiple mission trips to Juárez, Mexico — a place known for its excessively high rate of murders, especially of women. She began to research: Why is this happening? What public policy decisions have contributed to the violence and poverty?
“This is the right time for me to be doing this job because I choose the hardest battles.”
Gepford’s father, too, influenced her in a way that would put her on a political path. A criminal defense attorney, he would often take his daughter with him to court and would at times allow clients who couldn’t afford to stay anywhere else take refuge in their house. Through him, Gepford learned and became passionate about criminal justice.
The No. 1 priority for Missouri Democrats is the upcoming gubernatorial bid. While she hasn’t officially announced her candidacy yet, state Auditor Nicole Galloway is largely considered to be the frontrunner for the Democratic nominee. Galloway is the lone Democrat holding an elected executive branch seat and is seen as a less controversial figure in Missouri politics.
“In order to have any sort of power back, we have to have the governorship,” Gepford said.
Next on the Democrats’ to-do list is flipping two Republican-held seats in the state Senate: SD 15 held by Andrew Koenig and SD 19 held by Caleb Rowden.
But aside from winning elections — at the state and local levels — Gepford also plans for the party to do more community outreach in areas not considered to be its typical “base” under her leadership.
When asked about the biggest issue facing Missouri today, Gepford pointed to the political dissonance among people in the U.S., including in the Show-Me State, that she said has only been exacerbated during the Trump administration.
“There’s a division among working-class people, people of color, black people, brown people, new immigrants, white people. There’s been this division and animosity that I think has really been wedged into the rhetoric,” Gepford said. “There’s so much distrust among working-class Missourians, so not only are these racial issues, but we also have so little faith in our government after many years of corruption and quid pro quo stuff going on in Jefferson City.”
“So all that together, I feel like we need a boost in morale and believing in government and trusting one another again,” she added.
When it comes to inspiration, Gepford looks to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Even if she can be at odds with other Democrats at times, Pelosi has “stuck it out” and done her best to lead the party, Gepford said.
“I do look to her for inspiration because sometimes this job is not the easiest thing, and you do get a lot of ridicule and critique, and I think she works through it gracefully,” Gepford said.
But any negativity that has come with the job hasn’t deterred Gepford yet. In fact, she said she feels “good” about the upcoming 2020 elections and the ability to reach new voters ahead of time.
Be sure to catch Gepford as she makes her This Week in Missouri Politics debut Sunday.
Kaitlyn Schallhorn is a reporter with The Missouri Times. She joined the newspaper in March 2019 after working as a reporter for Fox News in New York City. Throughout her career, Kaitlyn has covered political campaigns across the U.S. and humanitarian aid efforts in Africa. She is a native of Missouri who studied journalism at Winthrop University in South Carolina. Contact Kaitlyn at firstname.lastname@example.org.