Government & Politics

McCaskill asked black leaders to push back on criticism of her campaign. No one would.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill held a town hall meeting Wednesday at a multipurpose center in Kansas City.
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill held a town hall meeting Wednesday at a multipurpose center in Kansas City.

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.

“I’m going to vote for Claire, but Claire is going to have to bring her ass to St. Louis,” Franks said to applause at a town hall he hosted Feb. 17.

In response to Franks comments, McCaskill had asked African American elected officials in Kansas City and St. Louis to sign the letter.

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.

“I’m 100 percent certain that nobody signed it,” Cleaver said in an interview Wednesday with The Kansas City Star. “We talked about it very seriously and strongly and every one of us said, ‘We’re going to support her, but signing this letter isn’t going to achieve what she wants. It’s just going to make people angry.’ ”

Cleaver said he’s sympathetic to McCaskill’s plight. She’s a Democrat running for re-election in a state Republican President Donald Trump won by nearly 19 points in 2016. He understands she must win over some right-leaning voters to survive.

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.

“The state is large and diverse, but she might need to take the campaign into the repair shop in the black communities,” Cleaver said. “I think if people see that she’s actually trying to win them over then I think it will be a benefit to her re-election.”

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.

“Nothing has, or ever will, change that commitment,” said Meira Bernstein, McCaskill’s campaign spokeswoman, in a statement.

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.

“I’m doing things like today. I am doing meet and greets. I’m trying to be everywhere I can possibly be to listen,” McCaskill said. She touted her record on criminal justice reform and support of Pell Grants.

“I try to be the kind of senator who listens and responds to the needs of the African American community,” she said.

During her event at the Robert J. Mohart Multipurpose FOCUS Center, she fielded questions on issues ranging from gun violence, to her reluctance to support efforts to impeach Trump, to local concerns, such as a nearby gas leak.

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.

Wednesday marked her first town hall in Kansas City proper in the past 12 months after previous visits to Independence and Parkville, two predominantly white suburbs. It was sparsely attended compared to her other events in the region.

“I’ve gone all over this state. I’ve gotten in trouble no matter where I go, somebody says, ‘Why aren’t you here?’ I spent many, many days out in some of the most rural parts of the state, places where I’m not very popular because I thought it was important to listen and learn from people who don’t agree with me,” McCaskill told the crowd at the opening of the town hall.

“But invariably when you do this people start tapping their foot. It’s a big state: Why haven’t you been here?”

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.

“It’s about coming to economically distressed communities and saying, ‘We haven’t forgot about you, our most dedicated base, our most dedicated voters,’” he said. “Don’t take our vote for granted. You can’t rely on the African American establishment or the African American politicians to get you that vote. No, it’s your job to show my community why they should vote for you. I can go all day and say ‘Vote for X politician,’ but if X politician isn’t showing up, folks notice that.”

The few events McCaskill’s campaign has done in minority communities have been onshort notice and not in the neighborhoods that need the most attention, Franks said.

Franks said he reached out to McCaskill’s office after she held a town hall on Jan. 27 at Harris-Stowe State University, an historically black public university in midtown St. Louis. The campaign called him back on Monday.

“If I need to fly to DC to meet with you, I’ll do it, so I can help you engage the community,” Franks said he told the campaign. “But I’m not going to do it for you.”

He said he wants to help McCaskill.

“But you have to want to help yourself,” Franks said. “You’ve got to want to win this race. I’m just asking you to show up, like I would any politician.”

McCann Beatty, a Kansas City Democrat who serves as minority leader in the Missouri House, said McCaskill contacted her a couple of weeks ago to express her concerns about the comments Franks made in St. Louis on Feb. 17, when he said she needed to show up more in minority communities.

McCaskill wanted McCann Beatty to sign a letter her campaign had drafted in response.

“My concern is I serve in the House as the minority leader with Rep. Franks, so that would put me in a bad position,” McCann Beatty told The Star.

“But it goes back to Rep. Franks simply asked for her to come into our areas so that our folks know who you are and know you care about their issues,” McCann Beatty said. “He’s repeatedly said he is supportive of her. We are both supportive of her. But there are concerns in our community. And it’s an easy fix. Just come and address the community.”

Others make a similar argument.

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.”

Democrats need to be cautious going forward because minority voters are paying close attention to what’s been happening and who has been in positions of power and not done anything for them, he added.

“If you’re not communicating with folks,” Ellington said, “it’s impossible to understand the circumstances and conditions in which they survive.”

The result could be voter apathy, a possibility that Democrats can ill afford in such a crucial Senate race.

“I’m fearful that’s what we’re going to see in 2018 and going forward if we continue to neglect and not engage the citizenry as a whole, and only show up in certain segments of the state at election time,” Ellington said.

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.

“Claire McCaskill has been my friend and colleague for more than 30 years,” Clay said in an email. “She has my strong support and helping her win in November will be my top priority, along with my reelection to the U.S. House.”

Jamilah Nasheed, a state senator from St. Louis, will be one of McCaskill’s top surrogates in St. Louis, stressing the need with her constituents for strong turnout.

Some people in Nasheed’s district were upset with McCaskill about her vote to end the government shutdown in January without a deal for Dreamers.

“She’s going to have to go to her constituency base and get them to understand why she decided to take that vote,” Nasheed said.

She said her constituents aren’t as engaged as they should be, especially given the stakes of McCaskill’s race, which could decide control of the U.S. Senate.

“One thing for sure we can all agree on is we don’t need another Trump supporter carrying the water and dancing to the tune of Donald Trump’s buffoonery,” Nasheed said. “We need a level-minded person like Claire, who is a centrist, which is not bad, who understands the needs of St. Louis. We should never jeopardize losing a Democrat United States senator because of our little differences. We have to look at the big picture.”

Nasheed believes McCaskill will respond to the critics who say she isn’t reaching out enough to minority voters.

“Claire is a veteran in politics,” she said. “She knows what to do and how to get it done. She’s very strategic. And I know she’s listening.”

What matters, said St. Louis Comptroller Darlene Green, is that McCaskill has shown up for the African American community through the work that she’s done in Washington.

“Every time I have had to reach out to Claire, she’s there,” said Green, who spoke to The Star at the suggestion of the McCaskill campaign. “I’m an elected official citywide. I’ve needed support for grant dollars for police, training and body cameras for police and I got research and help from her staff without question. … She’s called me personally in the throes of other urban issues and let me know she is there.”

Voters who showed up to hear McCaskill speak in Kansas City remain squarely behind her.

“ I think she’s really for the people,” said Tim LeBlance, a 54-year-old retiree who attended the town hall.

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 immigrationvisa lottery. McCaskill has said that she’s not willing to take anything off the table in trying to find a solution for Dreamers.

The lottery, which Trump has said he wants to cancel, enables people from countries with low immigration rates a chance to come to the U.S.

“In fact I was coming down the escalator from the Capitol and ran into one of the female CBC members who jumped all over me: ‘You and Lacy better get things organized in Missouri or we’re going to have to continue to take these kinds of stances,’” Cleaver said.

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.”

Cleaver said his read of the situation right now is that McCaskill is getting the message, and she’s working to create a stronger relationship with African Americans in both Kansas City and St. Louis.

“The relationship is not broken,” he said. “It is bent somewhat, but I think if she works hard to reconnect she’ll be able to win.”

Lindsay Wise: 202-383-6007, @lindsaywise