By Sam Levin
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Republican Ed Martin wants your vote. Really, really badly. Tell him what street you live on (he's going to ask), and Martin may follow up: Which side? He's memorized the boundaries of Missouri's 3rd Congressional District down to the lane stripes.
He could be our salvation, this chummy Catholic conservative with the boyish grin, brazen tongue and yard signs everywhere. Or he could be a hard-right, hothead demagogue antichrist (with yard signs everywhere). It depends on your politics.
But here's what doesn't: Even as the economic storm clouds part, voters still feel hard-strapped. Initiatives such as the stimulus that were meant to rescue us from a fearful recession have bred new fears of the national debt. We binged on Hope and Change. Now we're hung-over.
The mood nationwide is anti-incumbent, and St. Louis' own incumbent Democrat, Russ Carnahan — endowed with all the charm and charisma of C-SPAN — is spending more cash than ever before to keep his seat.
That's because the most dangerous place to stand in "MO-3" is between Ed Martin and an eligible voter.
"He is the one of the hardest-working candidates I've ever seen in my life," says John Hancock, former chairman of the Missouri GOP.
Just as well, say political observers. Martin is clearly the underdog in the 3rd District — solidly democratic territory stretching from University City to Ste. Genevieve. His base is juiced up, but he can only win this race by wooing undecideds. That's a tall order for a guy famous for partisan zeal.
"I like Ed," says Mike Kelley, former chairman of the state Democratic party. "He's a person I've had drinks with before, and a person I've worked with before.
"But working with Ed is like working with a lit firecracker. It's gonna explode; you just don't know when."
On a recent September morning, Martin busts out of the back door of his campaign headquarters, a one-story brick house in south city whose basement office is nicknamed "The Freedom Bunker." He beelines for his F-150 pickup — license plate: "9-11" — with a water bottle in one hand, a Blackberry Curve in the other (he's checking it) and folded-up MapQuest directions between his teeth.
"The Tea Party endorsed me, did you know that?" he says, pulling onto Hampton Avenue. "They actually endorsed me." Well, duh. Wasn't Martin an originator of the St. Louis Tea Party? Didn't he stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Bill Hennessy and Gina Loudon on the steps of the Arch at the first gathering in February 2009, expecting 150 people when 1,500 showed up?
"Yeah," he says, "but their policy was no endorsing of candidates." This is true. Hennessy, cofounder of the local grassroots coalition, feared that picking favorites would scare off libertarians, the religious right or disaffected Dems.
Now, Hennessy says, it would be "irresponsible" not to endorse Martin.
"If you look at the rate we're piling up debt, at some point it doesn't matter what party you belong to," Hennessy explains. "You gotta look at your kids and take a stand for the future."
Martin has made fiscal conservatism his core message. Rarely does he miss a chance to denounce the "runaway spending" embodied in "Obamacare" and the stimulus package. His number-one priority, he says, is jobs. In December, he wrote on his website that "job creation requires nothing more from our government than a willingness to let it happen."
Yet that's tough to square with what he told Charles Jaco in August — that he "emphatically" supports government-funded, WPA-style public projects. (He even once wrote a column in the Metro Evening Whirl advocating federal spending for colonies on the moon and Mars.) Only the government can afford such large-scale undertakings, he explains. His beef with the stimulus package, in fact, was that it didn't create enough shovel-ready jobs — a bit of careful triangulation from a candidate who's publicly pledged never to vote for a tax increase.
Martin's anti-tax stance is precisely the reason why the National Federation of Independent Businesses chose to endorse him. On this crisp fall morning, he's heading to a press conference to announce it at a design firm on South Jefferson Avenue.
Martin crosses the parking lot, whistling. He sports a black suit, apple-red tie and businessman's haircut. Inside, he does what he does best: talks up the race, razzes folks like a frat boy, works the room. After a quick video shoot, Martin pivots to face the seated office workers. "Are there any other voters here?" he says.
Within minutes he's back out the door, checking voicemail.
"Gosh," he says, hanging up, "you meet people on the trail, they're wonderful, and they don't stop calling you." Martin affixes his cell-phone number to every e-mail he sends. He responds to all e-mails personally.
Cruising back to the Freedom Bunker, Martin speaks through yawns, which seems to happen anytime he sits for more than five minutes. Asked how much he sleeps per night, he gets distracted by a lawn festooned with his signs.
"Oh, there's a patriot!" he says. "Look at that. Hmm, that's a nice yard." A neighbor's yard displays even more. "Hey — somebody's motivated over here! Yeah, I don't know how many hours I sleep. Not very much. The kids are the wild card."
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