People within the region and other parts of Missouri refer to it as “the bible belt”. Southwest Missouri is teaming with conservative lawmakers.
Shortly after announcing his candidacy to run for the 32nd District state Senate seat, Republican House member Charlie Davis of Webb City said, “I’m going to go on a strong constitutional, conservative-Christian platform, to be the voice of life in Missouri.”
The region is home to the state’s 7th Congressional District, a seat which was last held by a Democrat in 1960. It’s current seat holder, Republican Billy Long, was an early supporter of Donald Trump in the 2016 election cycle. The conservative-Republican footprint in southwest Missouri is substantial.
But one outpost within the region’s largest city, Springfield, qualifies as a pocket of Blue in a sea of Red. The 132rd state House District incorporates inner city Springfield, which includes three college campuses and a community college.
Democrat Crystal Quade, who represents the district, says the area is diverse. She also says she doesn’t shy away from expressing her views as a progressive.
“I took endorsements from Planned Parenthood, from NARAL, from PROMO,” said Quade. “I worked with the labor groups. I worked with NEA and the education groups. I was never not strong in my opinion of that. If anyone ever asks me my personal stances on these super partisan issues, I put it out there.”
But Quade also contends she votes for her district, having learned on the job as a social worker how to remove her personal biases and judgments from critical decision making. “I think part of being a good legislator is being able to walk in the door and pause on your own personal emotional beliefs on things, and think about things critically.”
An issue that has brought many members of central Springfield together is the city’s high rate of poverty, as high as 30% according to the U.S. Census Bureau
The city manager and city council, along with faith and business leaders, identified pay day lenders as a leading contributor to poverty last year. They determined that the high interest, short term loans the lenders offered tend to lead customers into a cycle of debt.
In 2016, the city sent a letter to the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) asking the agency to rein in the lenders’ practices. The bureau issued a final rule to stop payday “debt traps” earlier this month, a move that was strongly criticized by Missouri 3rd District Republican Congressman Blaine Luetkemeyer.
He said the short-term loans serve a purpose for people who need quick cash. He claimed the CFPB was overstepping its bounds and placing burdensome regulations on business.
Springfield City Councilor Mike Schilling, who pushed for the letter to be sent to the CFPB, sees it much differently. He thinks pay day lenders are predatory.
“There’s no way for low income people, through the regular channels of the finance system to borrow money apparently,” said Schilling. “Banks don’t want to fool with small loans. So this other thing has emerged. And they take advantage and exploit people and get them hooked.”
Schilling is a Democrat who served four terms in the Missouri House representing the 136th District.
Springfield faith leaders have also taken an active role in the pay day lending issue. Pastor Daniel Chisholm of United Heights Baptist Church helped to form an arrangement with a credit union adjacent to his church to offer relief to people in a bind with pay day loans.
“They come to us, and if they qualify we can take them across the street to the credit union where our church has an account,” said Chisholm. “They can secure enough funds to pay off their high interest loan, and in turn repay the credit union at a substantial reduced rate.”
The loans are backed by church members so the credit unions have a source of collateral.
Chisholm is a member of Faith Values of Southwest Missouri, a group dedicated to improving the quality of life in its community. Earlier this year, its members stood outside Republican Senator Roy Blunt’s office holding signs in support the Affordable Care Act, (ACA), which the GOP attempted to repeal several times.
They also staged a gathering outside Representative Long’s office in May in protest of the bill passed by U.S. House Republicans to replace the Affordable Care Act.
Jeff Munzinger is a member of Faith Values. He ran for the 136th state House seat as a Democrat in 2016 and lost to Republican incumbent Kevin Austin, the Assistant Majority Floor leader. Munzinger claims there’s too much money in politics and points to Austin as an example.
“In 2015 I think he took $15,000, at least from lobbyists for that,” said Munzinger. “He took more lobbyist money than anybody else in the Missouri House and Senate.”
Faith Values supports an effort called Clean Missouri, which is seeking to limit campaign financing, as well as eliminate lobbyist gifts and gerrymandering of voting districts.
Numerous Republicans in Jefferson City have said they would like to do away with lobbyists gifts, but have been unable to move legislation through a legislature the party dominates.
Republican Governor Eric Greitens ran on a platform of getting rid of corruption at the Capitol. But he has a nonprofit, A New Missouri Inc., which is allowed to collect unlimited sums without ever reporting the source of the donations. The dollars collected in such an arrangement are often referred to as dark money.
Susan Schmalzbauer is the Faith Voices Congregational Coordinator in Springfield. She says lawmakers are polite when members of her group bring up issues they think are important such as pay day lending, but nothing ever gets done. She thinks there’s a clear reason for the inaction.
“It’s because our votes don’t get them elected,” Schmalzbauer said. “What gets them elected is the money and the lobbyists. Because we know that only 10% of all our races are competitive. So really, our votes don’t carry that much weight.”
The group also backs priorities central to the progressive agenda, such as raising the minimum wage. Schmalzbauer calls her support for hiking minimum pay a family agenda.
“A living wage is one of the issues that people are afraid to talk about, because a living wage for a single mother and a child is $20 an hour. That would be the amount of money that would help lift the family out of poverty so they wouldn’t have to struggle.”
Faith Values Springfield meets on a regular basis to discuss causes and projects it backs, such as Clean Missouri.
If a portion of Springfield embraces values put forth in progressive politics, Quade, the Democratic House member, knows conservatives still dominate the region.
“I think that when it comes to reelection, obviously I have no doubt that I will be challenged since I’m the only blue (state legislative member) south of Columbia. But I’m honest. And I think that that will go a long way.”