If the Republican Party were allowed to script the first headline of a Democrat's campaign for U.S. Senate, it would read something like this:
"Trudy Busch Valentine Apologizes for Participating in All-White Veiled Prophet Ball."
That is indeed the headline from last Thursday's Kansas City Star. One never gets a second chance to make a first impression, and that's the one Busch Valentine made with voters in the state's most influential newspaper.
Busch Valentine's apology was prompted by a story in the Intercept, a national news organization prominent on the left. It appeared at light speed for a campaign that was only 48 hours old (possibly a record).
But Busch Valentine could not have been surprised by the issue raised in the Intercept piece. After all, she was there when the VP Organization crowned her its Queen of Love and Beauty in 1977.
And, as the Intercept noted, she "stood alongside the 'veiled prophet': a man chosen to oversee the annual ball whose identity remains hidden beneath a white cloth resembling the hoods worn by Ku Klux Klan members." And yes, civil rights demonstrators were arrested outside. And yes, the Veiled Prophet was founded by former Confederate officers in the 1870s in angry response to a workers' revolt.
But the problem for Busch Valentine isn't what she was doing in 1977. It's how she handled it in 2022.
I understand this isn't how Democrats think, but Busch Valentine had no reason to kick off her Senate campaign by apologizing over what she was doing way back then as Gussie Busch's 20-year-old daughter. Instead — now that she's running for statewide office in Missouri — she had every reason not to apologize.
Fighting the VP Organization is in my blood. In the 1980s, the RFT's first successful crusade was our years-long effort in opposition to millions in blank-check handouts of public tourism money to the VP Fair. I was the loudest voice in town on this, pretty much alone in the media, and a prime focus was the organization's racist heritage. (Comptroller Virvus Jones would have the guts and smarts to get the spigot turned off.)
But the problem wasn't the kids of the Veiled Prophet elitists; it was the elitists themselves. So, anyone want to take a swipe at the beloved Gussie Busch?
More important than any of that, there's a U.S. Senate seat in play in Missouri. Its outcome might determine the future of American democracy. The large majority of Missourians never heard of the Veiled Prophet and don't care about it.
The race to fill Senator Roy Blunt's seat will not hang on liberals and progressives in St. Louis. To win statewide, a candidate needs to speak American and display authenticity, common sense and compassion and — most importantly — exude a sense of purpose and self-confidence.
Here's an answer I would have suggested for Busch Valentine's use:
"I'm not here to talk about the 1970s, especially when I'm running against a political party that wants to take us back to the 1870s on the subject of race relations. You want to know about 2022, I'll tell you: I wish I could be in the Senate right now to vote for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson's historic nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. Why don't you go ask those 19 Republicans running on the other side about how they would be voting? And I might add that I care about eradicating systemic racism throughout our culture, too. And about being honest about our country's racial history — good and bad — in our public schools. You want to talk about that?"
Instead, Busch Valentine's instinct was to assume the customary position of guilty white person groveling for forgiveness over racial trespasses of an era gone by. Guess what? That might placate progressives, but as they say outstate, "that dog won't hunt" in Missouri.
Sure, people like me can find it gross that Busch Valentine was a Veiled Prophet queen. But people like me aren't going to determine this election.
A Democrat cannot win a general election for U.S. Senate playing into the stereotype of weak and wishy-washy liberals who are preoccupied with "political correctness." Opening a campaign with an apology to Black people about something that happened in 1977 pretty much checks off that box.
If that sentiment is offensive to people in St. Louis — Black or white — so be it. The sad truth is that more voters outside St. Louis would be attracted to a headline that says "Heiress Refuses to Apologize."
Democrats have to make a decision: Do they run to feel good about themselves or do they want to win? There's a fellow leading the Democratic primary race named Lucas Kunce who has demonstrated he gets this. I've written about him in this space before.
Kunce has defied all norms. As a Marine with 13 years of service, Kunce has brought a "devil may care" swagger like no Missouri Democrat in memory. His Twitter account brims with bold language — including vulgarity — aimed at Republicans and "corporate" national Democrats alike.
Kunce is proudly a one-trick pony: He is running on raw populism and a commitment to changing the balance of power in the direction of everyday citizens. He rails against giant corporate and political interests that have "stripped Missouri communities for parts."
He even greeted Busch Valentine with the implication that billionaire heiresses do this as well. That's not necessarily accurate, but his loose-cannon approach is working.
A big reason Busch Valentine is in the race is that the overwhelming favorite among party regulars — former State Senator Scott Sifton of St. Louis County — was crushed by Kunce. Out of nowhere, Kunce was able to raise more than $2 million in mostly small donations overnight, more than double what a smart, respected and experienced party regular could muster.
There's four months for Busch Valentine to battle it out with Kunce, and she may emerge as the candidate with the best chance to take on disgraced ex-Governor Eric Greitens or anyone else in the Trump-worshipping Republican field. She doesn't need to look or act like a tough Marine, but she does need to connect — like Kunce has — with everyday Missourians outside of the St. Louis region.
Democrats can only win if they can bring home a substantial portion of these traditional voters who were hoodwinked by a world-class New York con artist named Donald Trump. That won't be easy.
Trump was the antithesis of decent and down-home Missouri family values, unless you have a family of porn stars. No working-class member of the Trump base could ever enter his Mar-a-Lago club without a towel draped over their arm.
But Trump captivated these folks by making them feel heard (even though that was one of his many lies). And he sealed the deal by impressing them with one special attribute:
He never apologized.
Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at [email protected] or catch him on Donnybrook at 7 p.m. on Thursdays on the Nine Network and St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).