SIKESTON - Democratic members of the Missouri House and Senate and state Democratic Party leaders gathered at the Malone Street Grill Wednesday for the first stop on what is described as a "listening tour" of Southeast Missouri.
Sen. Maida Coleman, a Sikeston native who represents the 5th District in St. Louis and is presently assistant minority floor leader, said the tour was conceived by the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus.
"The tour was initiated by the Black Caucus because of a surprising number of calls from African-Americans throughout the state," Coleman said. "People tend to seek out people who are like them."
The idea caught on among other Democrats in the state General Assembly who also decided to come along. "You have to be a Democrat to be on this tour," said Sen. Rita Heard Days of the 14th District, which includes St. Louis County near the airport.
About 70 local residents reportedly joined the touring officials behind closed doors at the Grill to discuss issues, invitations having been distributed though the Democratic Party's "usual channels" to include a cross-section of professionals from the community.
"We're really just listening to concerns of the people in this area," said Days. While legislators "sometimes think we know what's best for the people, Days said it is important to hear things from "the people's perspective."
Coleman said she wanted to see and hear concerns and issues of constituents who don't have an African-American or Democratic legislator to represent them, noting this area is no longer the Democratic Party stronghold it traditionally was. "This area no longer has any Democrats in office," said Coleman.
In addition to hearing concerns from area residents, Days said they were looking at "how to recapture" Southeast Missouri for the Democratic Party.
Coleman said urban constituents seem to be more "politically astute" than their rural counterparts. "They don't know where to find help."
Days said the issues are the same - education, jobs, economic development - but they have a much harder impact on this area than in urban areas. "What can we do to help the plight of constituents in this area?"
"I remember the time when it was all Democrats in this area," said Democratic House Leader Rep. Mark Abel of Jefferson City, 103rd District. Seeking a "better connection with the people in this part of our state," Abel decided to join the tour and seize an opportunity visit, listen and "see where our message is not catching on."
Abel said like elsewhere around the state, people are looking for opportunities, education and jobs but are facing "barriers to opportunity" and should be able to look to the government for help, as people "sometimes need a helping hand to achieve those (goals).
"It's really the same message we hear everywhere," he said.
May Scheve, chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party, said they want to make sure everyone in the area "knows and hears the message loud and clear" and wants to bring to the table "issues that effect our every-day lives."
The Democratic Party is "dedicated and driven to take back the area," Scheve said, adding that the current elected state officials are "truly not representing the people of this area."
Scheve said her party needs to recruit candidates that "live the lives of constituents in this area" and will listen to concerns about issues such as education and healthcare.
"They're fighting the governor tooth and nail," Scheve said of the current representatives.
While acknowledging the rural-urban divide in Missouri, Able said the Democratic Party "is a very diverse party" which has "always tried to balance the needs of all people in the state."
Republican legislators are not always able to vote how they wish, Abel said, because they face reprisals from the house speaker and other Republican Party leaders.
As this area has higher unemployment and more reliance on the state for things like healthcare, "The needs match what the Democrats have always been about," Abel said.
Abel said the tour is not a call for candidates, however, but is a listening tour, and that he and his fellow Democrats care about the needs and concerns of people in this area.
Republicans said they were for education and seniors in the last election, according to State Rep. Mike Sager of Kansas City, 48th District representative. "But they lied."
They're about protecting taxes and yacht owners, Sager said, and wondered aloud, "What lies did they tell the people down here to get them to vote for them?"
Republicans have run their campaigns on the lie that things can get better with no increase in taxes, according to Sager. "Sorry, that's not the way it works," he said.
Only six states have lower overall tax burdens than Missouri, according to Sager. He said this is bad because there is no money for services. "You know what? Services cost money," he said.
Economic development efforts are failing because Missouri has less "advertisement money" than its competing states, he added.
And while they may not raise taxes directly, Sager said the Republican state legislators are forcing other political subdivisions like schools and local governments to raise their tax rates to make up the difference.
Sager blamed teacher layoffs and educations cuts on Republicans and said all the other states surrounding Missouri found a solution to their education problem: "They went out and found more revenue."
Being in the middle statistically in education is not good enough, according to Sager. "Why aren't we number one?"
Sager said what he heard from those gathered inside is there is a belief that no one is listening, that people want to see change.
People are disenchanted with the bureaucracy and believe state money is handed out via the "Old Boys Club," he said.
"The 'Old Boy's' network in Jefferson City is gone," Sager said, crediting term limits and noting there is now more freshmen in the general assembly than ever excepting Missouri's first general assembly.
Also from Kansas City, Rep. Craig C. Bland, 43rd District, said he is looking at "what is it that the state can do" to make things better, although things won't change overnight.
Bland said it is important to bring information to those in this area, "to let them know about the different programs that are in existence...let them know what is available."
Following the Sikeston meeting, the tour group headed east to Charleston to visit the middle school, followed by a town hall meeting at the New Madrid Community Center and a visit to Caruthersville.
The tour continues today with stops in Portageville and Hayti scheduled.