FOCUS Hosts 6th Annual Public Ethics Conference

Becky RasmussenNews

On May 31, 2018, a cohort of elected officials, academics, lawyers, candidates, students, and community members gathered at the University of Missouri St. Louis for a day-long discussion on the subject of “Leadership, Ethics & Political Parties.” The 6th Annual Public Ethics Conference was sponsored this year for the first time as a partnership between UMSL and FOCUS St. Louis, with support from the Missouri Humanities Council. The purpose of the conference was a bipartisan conversation about the proper and ideal role of political parties in our democracy, addressing questions ranging from from “Should we even have political parties?” to “Does it mean anything to be a Democrat in St. Louis City?” Speakers included both academics and political practitioners from St. Louis, Jefferson City, Washington, DC, and California.

To set the stage, Dr. Wally Siewert, Director of Civic Engagement for FOCUS St. Louis posed a series of questions, including: “How much power do and should political parties have over money, candidates, policy and messaging?” The first panel to address these issues were a set of St. Louis Democrats who illustrated both the powerful ties, and deep differences, that exist inside a political party in a city where that party has a stranglehold on power.

Panel 1: One Party in Power: St. Louis Democrats
  • Virvus Jones, former Alderman, Assessor and Comptroller, political commentator and and consultant
  • Annie Rice, 8th Ward Alderwoman and 5th District Committeewoman to the state Democratic Party
  • Brian Wahby, former Chair of the St. Louis Democrats, and Missouri Delegate-at-large to the Democratic National Committee

Beginning the conversation, Brian Wahby emphasized the challenges of leading the 56-member central Democratic Committee given the vast diversity of opinions represented in that body. He postulated that perhaps these days party labels are more akin to a brand than anything else.

As a former Committee member, Alderwoman Annie Rice honed in on what seem to be a dizzying variety of definitions in the city of what it means to be a Democrat. Rather than attempting to paper over these differences to maintain party unity, she suggested that a healthy debate on values in the region would actually strengthen it: “There are three independents on the Board of Aldermen, that’s three campaigns that were run on issues … voters are smarter than we give them credit for.”

Former Comptroller Virvus Jones began by telling the story of how he became an “accidental politician” due to crystallization moments like the Jefferson Bank protests and the death of MLK Jr. He pointed out that he has become more of an “independent Democrat” in recent years due to what he sees as two Democratic parties in the city, divided by race. He lamented the ability of St. Louis Democrats to break out of the mold of crony capitalism and actually prioritize those portions of the population who have been left behind by the policies of the party that receives somewhere above 90% of the votes of African-Americans in this country.

Both he and Rice lamented a breakdown in trust, and a variety of measures to combat this breakdown were suggested, primarily focused on a re-prioritization of voter engagement. “We don’t have a party problem, we have a which-people-are-getting-elected problem!” Jones commented. All three panelists agreed that one of the foundational problems was the lack of a clear resounding vision of the future among the region’s leadership.

Panel 2: One Party in Power: Republican Legislators
  • Franc Flotron, Former Senate Republican Minority Floor Leader, Principal at Flotron McIntosh
  • Michael Gibbons, Former Senate President Pro Tem and founding member at GibbonsWorkman

In describing their experiences, both former Senators Gibbons and Flotron noted the lack of power of the party structure in campaigns, and in the legislature. According to them, the party largely stays out of primary contests, and given the safe districts in the state, largely needn’t put huge resources into general elections. In the legislature, it is the leadership on the floor who largely controls the agenda. However, they do have levers of power that run through the party structure, which can include threats of primary challengers for legislators that refuse to toe the party line.

The panelists also pointed out that both parties have in recent elections barred certain candidates from the ballot. They also expressed skepticism that those candidates were barred for the reasons publicly given by the party. Both former Senators lamented the loss of institutional knowledge in the legislature due to term limits. “We went from the dean of the senate being someone who had served for 43 years, to myself, who had served for four and one half years,” said Gibbons. They expressed the hope that the party structure would ideally provide some of that continuity of knowledge in understanding the legislative institution.

Keynote and Response

The keynote address of the conference was given by former Congressman Mickey Edwards, Vice President of the Aspen Institute, former Harvard and Princeton Professor and author of (among other books) “The Parties vs. The People: How to turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans.” The keynote response was given by Dr. Daraka Larimore-Hall, Co-Vice-Chair of the California Democratic Party and founder of Modern Action Strategies.

This keynote and response paired up two impassioned arguments – the first for the idea that we should get rid of political parties entirely because they are the root of all of our political problems, and the second for the idea that political parties are not only essential and inevitable, but can be the answer to many of our political problems.

The exchange was fierce but friendly, modeling the best practices in public debate in a powerful way. Congressman Edwards made the case that not only were political parties intentionally left out of the constitution, but our founding fathers inveighed against the idea of political parties. He made the argument that getting rid of political parties was neither radical, nor would it change anything fundamental about American politics because it would bring us back to where our politics started. Second, he suggested this was voters are already headed, with more and more (now over 40% in many places) registering as “independent.” They consider themselves “á la carte” voters who form alliances based on issues, not blind party loyalties.

He argued that political parties foster the idea that “my victory depends on your defeat,” making the claim that parties are “an American cancer” that appeal to those who don’t trust citizens. “Parties call the shots and the voters are denied the right to choose,” Edwards said. Instead, he recommended creating a system of civic clubs and interest groups to form coalitions based on issues, which can re-arrange themselves in the face of changing circumstances, instead of being locked into a slate of positions. He suggested that the requirement to toe the party line when in office entirely neuters the independence of elected officials, and locks them into antagonistic partisanship when they should be engaging in creative coalition-building.

Presenting an alternative view, Dr. Larimore-Hall provided the audience with a fierce defense of parties as the core of a modern democratic process. He described them as the structure through which those who don’t have power can achieve policy change. He inveighed against the idea that we should return to a system created for white male landowners to rule over everyone else, commenting that there is no coincidence that political parties grew fastest during the first half of the 20th century when large groups of immigrants and former slaves and their children were finding a political voice. He argued that without parties there would be no one to hold those who are elected to the promises they made during their campaign. According to him, voters are not dumb, but they have (and should have) busy lives, probably lacking the ability individually to follow every procedural vote in the capital. In his view, it is precisely the fact that parties engage in a dogged no-holds-barred defense of specific value sets, and the interests of their members that make political parties so valuable.

Perhaps Sarah Willey, an audience member, said it best in a tweet: “Mickey Edwards and Daraka Larimore-Hall have me feeling like #SchroedingersActivist; I want to both abolish and strengthen parties.”

Rounding out the conversation, Dr. Wally Siewert pointed out that first of all, both presenters sought the same thing: a healthy, more robust, more representative political process characterized by both vociferous debate, and practical coalition-building – with differences of opinion were about how to bring that common goal to reality. This basic agreement on the goal also extended to the facts, though the descriptions were different. For instance: where Congr. Edwards saw today’s hyper-partisanship as a prioritizing of ends over means, demeaning the processes and institutions of American democracy, Dr. Larimore Hall characterized the same phenomenon as a result of a long-overdue resurgence of the voice of the marginalized. While Dr. Larimore-Hall saw the influence that political parties have over officials elected under their banner as a “holding accountable to core values,” Congr. Edwards described the same dynamics as a “neutering of the electeds’ independence.” While Congr. Edwards saw the party label as a broad brush that perniciously subsumes important differences among candidates, Dr. Larimore-Hall saw the label as a vital shorthand for voters who want to make sure candidates adhere to their core values.

Perhaps the most important lesson here is that there is no perfect system, parties or no parties, the only constant in politics is the need for vigilance on behalf of engaged and educated citizens.