Lembke fights for political survival in race against Sifton
If this is state Sen. Jim Lembke’s last stand, he’s not going down without a fight.
The Lemay Republican won four years ago by an incredibly close margin, picking up a previously Democratic Senate seat in a decidedly bad year for the GOP. But instead of playing it safe, Lembke emerged as one of the most contrarian – and controversial – state senators.
Lembke’s efforts to constrict state tax credits, change the Missouri nonpartisan court plan and push back against extending unemployment benefits made him a lightning rod for criticism. He became emblematic of a bloc of state senators willing to fight and filibuster, even against his own party’s legislation.
It’s perhaps not surprising that Lembke’s penchant for controversy made him vulnerable against state Rep. Scott Sifton, an Affton attorney with a substantial campaign war chest. As some Democratic state senatorial hopefuls seek to out-conservative their GOP opponents, Sifton portrays Lembke as too extreme for a district that became more Democratic through redistricting.
But Lembke has a reputation for being an especially hard worker on the campaign trail, an attribute that helped him in 2008. And with his legislative career on the line, he says he’s knocked on nearly 17,000 doors in a district that includes south St. Louis County, Webster Groves, Maplewood, Brentwood and Crestwood.
“We really haven’t changed how we’re doing things,” Lembke said. “The reception that I’m getting is more encouraging than 2008. And I think that’s because of the contrast between myself and my opponent. This is the greatest contrast that I’ve had in any race.”
Sifton has few flattering things to say about his adversary: He paints Lembke as an obstructionist who refuses to compromise. He also is quick to highlight how Lembke accepted plenty of meals, entertainment and trips from lobbyists.
Still, Sifton does recognize Lembke's skill as a campaigner. But when told of Lembke’s reputation for tenacious work on the campaign trail, Sifton said, “That’s one of the reasons I was recruited.”
With a laugh, Sifton added, “We’re both working very hard – our field teams both run into each other frequently.”
Lembke had a controversial streak even before he made it to the Missouri Senate. In the Missouri House, Lembke co-sponsored a constitutional amendment undoing a 2006 ballot initiative protecting stem-cell research. He also was one of the strongest proponents of altering the nonpartisan court plan, an effort he pursued in the Missouri Senate as well.
But with the stem-cell issue fading into the background, Lembke spent his four years in Senate largely espousing “contrarian” positions on economic issues. He routinely voted against Republican budgets, arguing they represented wrong priorities and missed opportunities. He was one of four Republicans who tried to eliminate state projects funded with federal stimulus money. And he opposed so-called "right to work," a position in line with a district full of union members.
Perhaps most notably, Lembke sought to rein in tax credits, which he portrays as “welfare for the rich.”
“I think I’ve always been a contrarian. I don’t always toe the party line. I represent my district and make my own decisions based on two things: That’s my oath to the Constitution and the fact that I serve in a republic,” Lembke said. “When you look at issues like targeted tax credits and the idea we have record redemptions this year of $629 million, I think we can make an argument that it would make sense to have some sensible reforms so that maybe we can find $150 or $200 million.”
“So it’s not throwing the baby out with the bathwater," he added. "It’s saying, ‘can we have reasonable caps?’”
Lembke was also one of a quartet of senators who filibustered the extension of unemployment benefits up to 99 weeks. He drew criticism when he said on the Senate floor that people need to “get off their backsides and get a job,” a remark he ascribes to the heat of Senate debate.
“It’s important to realize that I was supportive of the first three extensions of the unemployment benefits that the feds put on top of what we were doing in the state of Missouri that took it to 79 weeks,” Lembke said. “But with this last extension that took it from 79 weeks to 99 weeks, that’s where myself and some of my colleagues said, ‘You know, enough is enough.’ First of all, we’ve got a federal government that’s broke. And they don’t have the money to be sending to the states to be doing this extension.”
Lembke’s controversial stands likely assured a strong re-election challenge. He defeated Democrat Joan Barry in 2008 by only 70 votes when the south St. Louis County-based district was fairly even from a partisan standpoint.
But his task has been made more difficult when more Democratic-leaning municipalities in St. Louis County – such as Webster Groves – were added to the 1st District through redistricting. While south St. Louis County residents are receptive to socially conservative candidates like Barry or Lembke, places like Webster Groves tend to support candidates for abortion rights.
“It’s more challenging in those areas,” said Lembke, adding that Republican Rich Magee – an anti-abortion candidate – performed well in 2010 against state Rep. Jeanne Kirkton, D-Webster Groves. “There are fiscal conservatives in Webster Groves and Brentwood and in Maplewood and Rock Hill. My brand of good government and being a good steward of the people’s money play well in that part of the district.”
Taking the risk
Sifton's challenge becomes apparent as he walked a line of brick bungalows on Dorisann Court in Affton.
While going door-to-door in the small subdivision, Sifton encountered Democrats who enthuastically supported his candidacy, Republicans who won’t ever vote for his party, genuinely undecided voters and even some elderly residents who had forsaken casting a ballot forever -- and he jots notes about each household into his iPod Touch.
Sifton wasn’t initially planning to leave the House early to run against Lembke. He had initially signed up for re-election, which he won in 2010 after a lengthy tenure on the Affton School Board.
But things changed after redistricting. The fundraising of Lembke’s presumed opponent – former state Rep. Sue Schoemehl – was relatively lackluster. And Sifton said he received increased pressure to challenge Lembke.
“I was strongly encouraged to run by folks who believed that I would provide the best chance of winning this seat for the Democrats,” said Sifton in an interview while canvassing. “It’s really not much more complicated than that. People reached out to me, felt that I would give us our best chance to win. After giving it a lot of very careful thought, I was persuaded to run.”
Unlike Barry and Schoemehl, Sifton is supportive of abortion rights and embryonic stem-cell research. He’s also for expanding anti-discrimination laws to include sexual orientation, an issue highlighted in a press conference he attended earlier this year. He told the Beacon during primary season that Democrats had “always run a conservative Democrat against Sen. Lembke and it’s never worked,” adding that “I don’t think you beat Jim Lembke by sounding like Jim Lembke.”
Sifton believes that “this district … is very representative of the region as a whole and our state as a whole. It’s a district where a lot of people feel strongly on both sides of certain social issues. And I think likewise, there are many who similarly may have not have strong feeling but are not enamored with extremism on either side.”
Sifton said he will be more cooperative than Lembke in carving out economic incentives for businesses. He criticized Lembke for helping to scuttle an economic development package during the 2011 special session, which he said showcases a difference in philosophy toward attracting business.
“His view is that the business community reaches up to government for help for targeted industries, he doesn’t think government should help because in his view that’s picking winners and losers,” Sifton said. “My view is we’re surrounded by eight states. We have to fight for every job. And if we in government fail to work the business community, we pick one loser and eight winners.”
Additionally, Sifton ardently opposed changing the nonpartisan court plan. He also says that Lembke’s filibuster of extending unemployment benefits was “absolutely inexcusable” and indicative of the incumbent’s obstructionist streak.
“I know that some viewed that it was the way of the Senate to hold something up rather than get outvoted on it, and unfortunately Sen. Lembke really has been one of the greatest abusers of that tactic of obstruction – even though he’s a member of a majority,” said Sifton, adding that he’ll be more judicious in how he uses the filibuster if he’s elected.
Questions of influence
While Lembke and Sifton have substantially different views, their sharpest exchanges involve questions of outside influence.
Sifton in particular targeted Lembke’s acceptance of lobbyist meals, trips and gifts – a common attack during state legislative campaigns. The issue may have been magnified when KSDK identified Lembke as one of the top recipients of lobbyists' gifts.
For his part, Sifton said Lembke’s acceptance of gifts has been excessive. According to Missouri Ethics Commission reports, Lembke took over $17,800 in lobbyists' gratuities since he entered the Missouri Senate in 2009 and thousands more since he was elected to the House in 2002.
“Taxpayers provide us with $100 a day for meals and lodging. Monthly rent in Jefferson City is a couple hundred bucks,” Sifton said. “And what many legislators do, is they call a lobbyist to pick up the dinner tab so that legislator can then pocket that daily $100. And all I can say is, that's not what I’m there for. And when you have somebody doing it to the tune of $30,000, I think it really raises a fair question as to what they’re there for.”
Although Sifton promised to push for legislation to curtail lobbyist gifting, those efforts have gone nowhere. Besides Lembke, some Democratic senators have taken thousands of dollars in meals, entertainment or travel over the years.
“It’s not a question of partisanship; it’s a question of who’s doing it to what degree,” said Sifton, who added that legislation curtailing gifts could find traction. “There are a couple dozen of us on both side of the aisle that refuse to take any – including leaderson both sides of the aisle. So it’s not a 'D' versus 'R' thing – it’s a good government thing.”
Lembke, a full-time legislator, says that lobbyists have little influence on his decisions, as evidenced by his going against the grain of the Republican game plan. He also notes that Sifton’s received thousands of dollars from attorneys.
The above video is an attack ad against state Sen. Jim Lembke from Missouri's Future. The third-party committee is funded almost exclusively by attorneys, a group that Lembke clashed with in the past.
A third-party group known as Missouri’s Future emerged recently to attack Lembke. The group is funded almost exclusively from attorneys and law firms.
“So he’s putting forth the pretense that I can be influenced by a meal,” Lembke said. “Doesn’t it logically follow that he can be influenced by hundreds of thousands of dollars of campaign contributions? Now I don’t want to impugn his character and say that he can. But if we’re looking at the two things, what would have more influence over a candidate?”
Sifton said the difference is campaign contributions pay for expenses during an election, while lobbyists' gifts amount to personal enrichment.
“What Jim Lembke has taken is personal enrichment from the job he’s been elected to,” Sifton said.
The bigger picture
The battle for the 1st District is the only competitive state Senate contest in the St. Louis area, especially since Sens. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, and Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, are running unopposed.
But the 1st District contest is a building block in the Senate Democrats’ long march back from legislative oblivion, the low point of which came two years ago when the minority caucus dwindled to eight seats out of 34. This year, Democrats will almost certainly have at least nine seats going into 2013.
State Sen. Jolie Justus – a Kansas City Democrat who will likely serve as the Senate's minority leader next year – said the main goal is to reach 12 members, which would be one more than the 23 senators needed to override a veto.
“If we went in with 12, then that would be just a huge victory,” Justus said. “Now I understand there are some issues when it comes to a veto that, frankly, our folks might not stick with the governor – especially on those social issues. But, especially from a negotiation standpoint, it’s incredibly important that we at least have the possibility of the 12. Because I think when you’re negotiating, it makes your contribution much more powerful.”
Justus, Schmitt and Dempsey pointed to at least three other competitive state Senate seats beside the 1st District:
- The 3rd District, which has Democratic Rep. Joe Fallert of Ste. Genevieve challenging Farmington Republican Gary Romine. Fallert may be helped by the fact that the district leans Democratic – especially areas of Jefferson and Ste. Genevieve counties.
- The 25th District, where state Rep. Terry Swinger of Caruthersville is facing off against Poplar Bluff Republican Doug Libla. While southeast Missouri-based leans decidedly Republican, Justus said Swinger’s “extremely conservative” views and folksy reputation could prompt an upset. He even released a campaign ad recently that emphasizes his socially conservative views.
- The 19th District, where state Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, is battling state Rep. Mary Still, D-Columbia. Schaefer broke a decades-long trend in 2008 by winning the Boone County-based seat, which traditionally gravitates to the Democratic Party. While Schaefer, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has a big fundraising edge and was likely helped when GOP-leaning Cooper County was added to the district, a Republican hasn’t won re-election to the 19th District in recent memory.
“What’s interesting for these four Democratic candidates is all four of them have a voting record,” Justus said. “And you can’t really hide behind that. So you won’t see, for instance, Sifton trying to paint himself as a right-wing conservative. He may be moderate or a pragmatic or whatever it is that he is. But he can’t paint himself as an extremely conservative Tea Party candidate. Because he’s not. He’s got a voting record.”
Dempsey – who is expected to become the next pro tem of the Missouri Senate – said his party is well-positioned for the next two weeks.
Romine and Libla, he said, have business backgrounds that fit the district and have emerged as formidable fundraisers. And Dempsey said Schaefer’s role as Senate appropriations chairman could be a big selling point in a district that includes the University of Missouri-Columbia.
But Dempsey expects the battle between Sifton and Lembke to be tight.
“The thing about Jim Lembke is no one works harder on the ground than Jim,” Dempsey said. “It’s kind of a tale of two communities in that district. The northern part I’d say leans Democrat and the southern part leans more core Republican, socially and fiscally. And so, I think, turnout is going to drive a lot in who ultimately prevails in that district."
“So that one could go either way,” he added.
For stories about the issues and candidates in this election from St. Louis Public Radio, the Nine Network and the St. Louis Beacon, visit BeyondNovember.org. For a collection of Beacon stories, visit our 2012 election page.