New Dem Party Chair Susan Montee: "We're Down About as Far as We Can Go"

Dec 7, 2010 at 4:00 pm
Can she bring her party out of the doldrums?
Can she bring her party out of the doldrums?
One month after Missouri's Democratic candidates suffered a series of bruising defeats in the midterm elections, the party swiftly moved to make a change at the helm.

Out as party chairman is Craig Hosmer, who held the post for two years. In his place: State Auditor Susan Montee.

Montee's appointment marks the first time, at least in recent memory, that a state auditor has assumed the role of Missouri's top Dem. But Montee should have plenty of time on her hands: She herself lost her race for reelection to Republican Thomas Schweich.

Montee breaks the mold for a few additional reasons. She comes from Buchanan County, in the hinterlands just north of Kansas City, which is not known for producing many Democratic votes. She's also one of the first incoming chairpersons of late who wasn't handpicked by the governor. (Montee is a Claire McCaskill loyalist.)

We recently caught up with Missouri's chief money cop, who expounded on the fundraising challenges of her new role, the Nancy Pelosi effect -- and bringing more mid-state hoosiers into the Democratic fold. After the jump, some excerpts from our conversation.

Daily RFT: Over the last four years Missouri has taken a hard turn to the right, and Democrats here took a drubbing in this year's midterms. Does this concern you?

Susan Montee: It does. Part of it is a shift, with some of our voters switching to the Republicans. Our other problem was that Democrats didn't turn out to vote, which was clearly a big problem.

Why didn't they come out?

Because national elections are separated somewhat from state races. In 2008, there was a virtual tie in presidential votes between Barack Obama and John McCain. But [Democratic Governer] Jay Nixon won the state with a 19-point margin, and we picked up House seats. The national issues effect state races.

But Republicans came out to vote in this off-year election, as if they were voting in the presidential election, right?

That is true. Republicans came out vote, and generally, the Democrats did not. That's where, in my view, messaging was important, and we fell behind on ability to do that. First, the messaging out of the national party and White House was very convoluted. There were so many months we were talking about health care in general, without talking about the positive aspects of the bill. As a result, we got bogged down, and everyone wanted to run away from it. And on a state level, we did noting to show how Missouri Democrats are different than California Democrats, or Washington, D.C., Democrats. So people in the state were left with the national message, and that bled down to state races.

It goes back to messaging. We have state rep candidates in districts who have very little in common with Nancy Pelosi, or Barack Obama, and yet the Republican campaign against them is, 'Oh they're part of this national problem.'

So what makes a Missouri Democrat a Missouri Democrat?

There are unique industries to Missouri. Take cap-and-trade; even though it's part of the national message, we could be uniquely hurt by some of the policy. But it's not even as simple as that. Things here are very localized; things that are important to state rep candidates in Kirksvillie aren't necessarily important in Kirkwood. Part of the reason we're considered a bellwether state, or something of a microcosm of the nation, is that the southern part of state is different from the northern.

There are conflicting state and regional issues, and we've got to find the common threads. Take something like tax credits, which are very important to St. Louis because of the redevelopment inside the city. That doesn't mean everyone in the rest of the state should be opposed to them. Some state rep areas don't realize that redevelopment in St. Louis could create jobs there as well.

Last month you drew a line in the sand by saying you thought the Missouri Democratic Party needed to change. What did you mean?

Part of it is messaging, and part is structural. We need to do more in outreach and getting volunteers on a permanent basis. In 2004, when Claire McCaskill was running for governor, John Kerry pulled out of Missouri with about three weeks to go, and most of the field program we were relying to get the vote out went with him. We didn't have enough time to regroup, and we realized we needed to go into the counties and create a network of volunteers so we could do things ourselves. But this year, right back to problem of 2004. We didn't have as much support as we needed for the Senate race. Had we worked harder to develop a ground game within the party structure, we may have been able to get more to get votes out.

Your critics in the Republican party seem to be enjoying the fact that your appointment comes on the heels of your own defeat last month in your re-election bid for state auditor. How do you respond?

(Laughs) Here's what I'd stay to that: Sometimes having a loss makes you learn more than you do from all your wins. I think that's a question that could be asked of Kit Bond or John Ashcroft or Jay Nixon or Claire McCaskill, or the two Republicans talking about running next time around -- Jim Talent and Sarah Steelmen. I've been on the ballot ten times, and this is my first loss. When you lose an election you shouldn't just pack up and go home. You should learn from that and say, because of the experience I've had in both winning and losing elections, I know what challenges we face, and that makes me a stronger candidate to lead the party than if I'd never lost an election before.

How should we interpret the fact that the electoral map shows Missouri as one large bloc of red, with two tiny patches of blue hovering above St. Louis and Kansas City? Will your rural background resonate with folks in between?

I think so. In rural areas, it's difficult to get people to think they're important to the state as a whole, and that their votes count. If you look at the way that I've approached things in all counties in the last four years, it shows I recognize the challenges we face in smaller communities, not just from a vote or political standpoint, but from the economic challenges these areas are facing. A lot of those challenges don't have anything to do with party label. I've had the responsibility of auditing 89 counties, including the smallest counties, in the last four years, and I recognize what's happening in terms of not having jobs, and not being able to collect enough money to meet their budget needed to deliver important services.

Why is your background as state auditor a good thing for State Democrats?

In most statewide offices, the work they do isn't as localized as the work we do in the auditor's office. In addition to the 89 counties, I've done an increasing number of petition audits in small communities, jurisdictions and fire districts that elect their own officials. Next Tuesday I'll be in the city of Willard, in southwest Missouri, putting out a public delivery of the audit of city. Even though very few people in Willard probably voted for me, I'll be talking about things that go on in their city and what they should be looking for in their elected officials. And I'll be holding their feet to the fire to make sure they deliver the right services. So that gives me a unique viewpoint.

What are your goals as incoming chair?

I'd like to bring back the theory that, regardless of who the governor is, the party will be there for everyone. In the past, there's been more of a support structure to elected officials who've helped raise money into it. I'd like to try to make it more of self-sustaining party, in that everyone has a part of raising money, and we'll have a structure there that will benefit all elected officials. In the last several years, the party has been an apparatus that's been there for the governor candidate, in a climate where there were campaign limits. Now that there are no campaign limits, the governor can raise unlimited funds into his account, and so can other state-wide officials [like the Democratic attorney general, treasurer and secretary of state].

What are the biggest challenges you face?

Some of our biggest challenges are obvious. We're down about as far as we can go, I hope, in terms of our state legislative numbers, so were working out a way to elect more house members and senators, while at the same time working at the redistricting process [next year, as a result of the 2011 census], which is going to be difficult for both parties. Recruiting candidates will also be difficult, especially now that we're so much in the minority.

What, specifically, should folks here in St. Louis expect from you?

St. Louis is a part of a structure that's already very good in terms of getting out vote, so we're heavily reliant on the city to keep doing the things they're doing right. Sometimes St. Louis feels taken advantage of, in that a lot of money and the biggest bloc of voters come out of St. Louis, and yet everyone is only talking about the out-state. St. Louis folks say, 'You have to include us in decision-making process as well,' so definitely that's going to be done. If we get the [2012 Democratic] Convention here, it will not only be a wonderful boon to the city and the state, but certainly a big lift for Democrats everywhere. We have a good, strong bid, and the St. Louis business community has been a strong proponent, so we're keeping our fingers crossed.