Better Together’s Biggest Threat? A ‘Reasonable Republican’ in Jefferson City

When it comes to forcing a shotgun merger-wedding on St. Louis city and county, Better Together (BT) swears by three organizing principles.

First, that the residents of the city and county cannot be trusted to improve their own governance. Second, that the only way to correct this deficiency is to impose BT’s superior vision on those residents through a statewide vote to amend the state constitution. And third, that the 4.8 million Missourians who reside in neither city nor county are pliable.

All three pearls of wisdom — carved onto sacred tablets descended from the top of Mount Rex — may this week receive the beginnings of a blasphemous challenge from the state legislature. Most foreboding is HJR 54, a measure introduced by Representative Dean Plocher (R-Des Peres) that would beat BT to its statewide electoral punch.

Plocher is proposing a constitutional amendment of his own, one that throws down for the seemingly obvious principle that citizens in places like St. Louis should not have new governance structures inflicted upon them by those who live elsewhere. It reads:

“No ballot measure that would dissolve any city or county or merge any city or county with another city or county shall go into effect unless the ballot measure is approved by a majority of the votes cast on the measure in each affected city or county.”

The measure also provides that if another constitutional amendment — such as BT’s — is on the ballot concurrently with Plocher’s, the local-approval requirement would apply to it. That means BT’s plan would need to earn a “yes” vote from residents of both the city and county (although not each municipality within the county).

On Monday, HJR 54 was voted out of the House General Laws Committee, which Plocher chairs, so it’s moving toward a full vote of the chamber. That’s still a long way from Senate approval, but Plocher tells me he’s optimistic that “we can get this across the finish line.”

He’ll have plenty of folks in St. Louis rooting for him.

A recent Missouri Scout poll revealed the depth of resentment for the BT plan among county residents, who currently oppose it by a whopping 65 to 21 percent margin. Republicans are against it by an even more eye-popping 80 to 13 percent spread, with Democrats opposed 52 to 29 percent. The poll, taken April 3 and 4 among 1,106 likely 2020 general-election voters, had a three percent margin of error.

Those numbers drive home the essential point that BT is attempting to use the statewide ballot to thwart the will of the people in St. Louis. But Plocher’s proposal isn’t just about BT. It’s about the broad principle that no county in Missouri should be forced into merging with another by outsiders.

Non-St. Louis voters across Missouri are not stupid: They realize their state has a financial stake in St. Louis’ success. And if BT can use Sinquefield’s money and its own fuzzy math to make this a one-sided argument about economics — and not principle — they have a good chance to convince voters that they’ll be saving their own pocketbooks with a merger vote.

If I was devising a campaign to sell Missourians on the local-vote requirement, it would have a simple motto: “You could be next.” Still, it’s not clear whether the opposition has enough resources to get out such a message effectively. For now, at least, it’s all about the legislative process. And Plocher has an uphill fight.

Sinquefield contributes handsomely to campaigns of elected officials in Jefferson City on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers. Many of them can be expected to push back, by happy coincidence, on any measure that would jeopardize his cause of the moment.

The Senate is probably more likely to resist Plocher’s effort than the House. A measure similar to Plocher’s has been gamely advanced by Senator Jamilah Nasheed (D-St. Louis) — but my sources say it’s less likely to advance because, well, she’s a Democrat.

Nasheed disagrees with that assessment, arguing that she has gotten other bills passed. Regardless, Nasheed typically minces no words as to her intent to derail BT’s plan: “I’m adamantly opposed to this because it’s not democracy, and it’s definitely going to dilute black representation.”

Both are true. But unless and until Democrats can diminish Republican’s mega-majority stranglehold in the capitol, the GOP won’t permit even the appearance of Democratic success on a major issue like BT’s proposal. Like it or not, this is a job for Republicans, and a tough one at that. (It’s ominous that no Senate Republican is pushing the way Plocher has in the House.)

Plocher offers the most promising chance. He’s a reasonable Republican — my phrase, not his — and though for many of us that’s sadly as oxymoronic as “jumbo shrimp,” “guest host” and “civic progress,” the fact remains that BT’s measure can only be stopped in the legislature if Republicans are willing to back up their traditional “local control” rhetoric with action. “I filed this because it’s the right thing to do,” Plocher says. “It’s the process that I’m taking a position on. The will of the people matters most, and we have long stood up to say that the will of the people and the right to self-determination mean something. Having our government structure imposed upon us from outside is not the sort of democracy I want to live in.”

Plocher alludes to another key strategic point: “This view should be equal between rural and urban voters. What’s going to happen when we in the big cities want to impose our will on smaller counties and force them to consolidate? They might be thinking about that.”

Even so, Plocher has not officially signed on to the anti-BT resistance. “I commend Better Together for putting all this time and effort into discussion that I think the region needs to have,” Plocher says. “They’ve already shown a willingness to listen to others and make changes to their proposals. At this point, I’m neutral on their plan. I’m open to some form of merger, and I respect them for what they’re trying to do.”

Ironically, with such “reasonable Republican” commentary on the merger plan, the guy who may pose the biggest threat to BT understates the passion of his own constituents. Plocher, who lives in Des Peres, represents an 89th District that includes all or part of Kirkwood, Chesterfield, Frontenac, Town & Country and his own hometown. Based on both anecdote and the rhetoric coming from mayors and other elected representatives, those areas appear to be a hotbed of anti-BT resistance.

The electoral reality, however, is that wide opposition in the St. Louis area — evidenced by the Missouri Scout poll — can be overcome with a much smaller margin of “yes” votes for the BT plan among non-St. Louisans. They outnumber city and county residents nearly four to one, yet have no reason to care about a city-county merger even as they hold the power to force it. Especially with a guy spending $20 million or more to prey upon their disinterest.