How a Newly Energized Lacy Clay Is Playing Kingmaker -- and Joining the Revolution

Congressman Lacy Clay thanks Moms Demand Action for supporting his legislation that would give cities the freedom to enact tougher gun laws without approval from state legislatures.
Congressman Lacy Clay thanks Moms Demand Action for supporting his legislation that would give cities the freedom to enact tougher gun laws without approval from state legislatures. STEVEN ENGELHARDT

When it comes to Democratic Party politics, do not underestimate Congressman William Lacy Clay.

Last Tuesday, Clay announced his support for the presidential bid of Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA). In so doing, Clay become just the fourth member of the Congressional Black Caucus to endorse Harris. Five members had expressed support for former Vice President Joe Biden.

Two days later, Harris proceeded to wipe the floor with Biden at the Democratic presidential debate, a beatdown that left some wondering if Biden was really only 76 years old. It's far too early to draw conclusions about the 2020 primary election, but it's safe to say that Harris catapulted into the top tier of the crowded Democratic field, at Biden's expense.

In endorsing Harris, Clay had stepped out early and forcefully for an uncertain candidate, much as he did twelve years for a fellow named Barack Obama. Clay endorsed Obama on May 11, 2007, a time in which Obama's 19 congressional supporters were dwarfed by Hillary Clinton's 30 and John Edwards' 14.

In an interview with CNN last week, Clay said, "Like President Obama, I feel Kamala Harris is a transformative figure. I think the timing is right to signal to people in my state; This is who I favor."

Clay added, "I have nothing against Vice President Biden. We have a great personal relationship. But this is my choice. This is who I feel I can get behind. She has the skill set to beat Trump."

Harris returned the favor. "I'm incredibly honored to have Lacy Clay's support," she said. "Lacy's passion for service was inherited from his father and now lives on in his tireless advocacy for the equity and opportunity of all Americans."

That was interesting. Yes, Clay has always been vocal on civil rights issues. And he advocates for his district as much as the next congressman. But locally, "tireless" is not a descriptive customarily affixed to him, even by allies.

Maybe a new Clay has been molded. It was a strangely high-profile week for him: The Harris story had followed news coverage about Clay co-sponsoring articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump, a move that couldn't have brought joy to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Then he made another splash co-authoring a strong bill to allow cities to pass tougher gun laws in defiance of draconian state laws prohibiting them from doing so in places like Missouri.

Where did this come from? Clay has long been a reliable liberal Democratic vote, but hardly a legislation machine. And not a renegade.

Indeed, last July, none other than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — aka the rock star AOC — made a special trip to St. Louis to support Clay's primary challenger, community activist Cori Bush. AOC had even shouted out Bush nationally on June 26, the night the New Yorker stunned the political world by unseating Joe Crowley — like Clay, a seemingly untouchable Democratic stalwart with two decades of experience.

Bush, an activist in the Ferguson protests and beyond, had positioned herself to Clay's political left. It didn't help Clay that, years earlier, he had noticeably failed to show up publicly until four days into the world-televised unrest, despite it being in his district. AOC apparently saw Clay as another Crowley. Clay had endorsed Hillary Clinton in June 2015, helping her head off a surprisingly strong challenge from Senator Bernie Sanders. That endorsement made Clay appear an establishment insider to progressives; Sanders staffers had set up the organization credited with Ocasio-Cortez's win.

"What I'm asking for you to do is to support my sister Cori Bush," Ocasio-Cortez told a St. Louis crowd of rallying for Bush. "Support her because she supports improved and expanded Medicare for all. Support her, because she believes in tuition free college. Support her because she believes in criminal justice reform and ending the war on drugs. Support her because she believes in a green New Deal to save our climate and our planet for our future."

Nothing quite like this had ever happened in Clay's long career, which stretched back to his election in 1982 as a state legislator and included winning in 2000 the congressional district that his father had held for 32 years. Bill Clay, founder of the Black Congressional Caucus, is arguably the premier civil-rights leader in St. Louis history, dating back to his leading role as an alderman (and his arrest) in the famous 1963 protest of racist hiring practices at Jefferson Bank.

Could the dynasty be in danger? Could Lacy Clay, previously known as one of the most liberal members of Congress, be taken down by a national wave of woke progressives for whom he wasn't liberal enough?

Short answer: No.

In the final tally: Clay defeated Bush in the Democratic primary by a landslide twenty-point margin. Bush's consolation prize is that she came closer than any other challenger had. Clay had crushed fellow Congressman Russ Carnahan by 30 points in a 2012 primary and state senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal by almost 36 points in a 2016 primary.

For Clay, fending off the AOC whirlwind by twenty was a statement win. The mighty political organization created by his father (or the machine, to those who didn't like it) proved itself as formidable as ever.

With both Ocasio-Cortez and Clay then in the new Democratic majority, one might assume that, at best, the two would co-exist uneasily, he the defiant party-establishment regular, she the progressive disrupter. If so, one assumed wrong: Clay is nothing if not a shrewd politician, and he proved it by becoming a co-sponsor of AOC's signature Green New Deal legislation.

Historically, Clay has been better known by environmentalists as an ally than a champion. In 2018, the League of Conservation Voters gave him an 89 percent rating on its National Environmental Scorecard Lifetime, placing him in the bottom third of congressional Democrats (albeit far higher than Republicans). A lot of Dems got a score of 100.

But Clay can read the mood of his party. It doesn't get more progressive than the Green New Deal, and while many other establishment Democrats were cautious about supporting it, you cannot say that about Clay. Announcing his co-sponsorship on February 19, just seven months after Ocasio-Cortez came to St. Louis to campaign against him, Clay posed for a beaming photo with his new teammate.

click to enlarge Congressman Clay, left, with new colleague Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York.) - COURTESY OF LACY CLAY
Congressman Clay, left, with new colleague Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York.)

"Others may ignore the scientific evidence or even lie about the threat, but this Congress must deal with the hard, indisputable facts and act now," Clay said of climate change in a press release. "The Green New Deal is an aspirational roadmap for transformative, progressive legislation that will make America stronger, safer and healthier for generations to come."

Meet the new — or is that renewed? — Lacy Clay, outspoken voice on the environment. And a guy who knows his way around the halls of Congress, especially on his side of the aisle.

This cannot be comforting to Bush, who announced on February 2 that she would challenge Clay again in 2020. Would Ocasio-Cortez campaign against one of the co-sponsors of her proudest piece of legislation? Doubtful.

And should Harris end up on the 2020 presidential ticket, neither Bush nor anyone else need bother pulling on Superman's cape by opposing one of her earliest supporters. Lacy Clay knows his Democratic politics.

Speaking of which, I'm not betting against Kamala Harris right now.

Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at [email protected] or catch him on St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann and Jay Kanzler from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).

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