Message from Missouri: 'This is our country! Let's take it back!'

ST. LOUIS – Voters here in the Show Me State want George W. Bush to show them one good reason to give him four more years in the White House in the Nov. 2 election. Missouri labor and its allies have seen enough already and are working hard to “show Bush the door in 2004.”

Defeat of Bush is not the only aim, however. Missouri Treasurer Nancy Farmer is running hard to oust Republican Sen. Kit Bond, a Bush clone. She hammers Bond for supporting tax giveaways to corporations, rewarding them for closing their plants in the U.S. and moving overseas. If Farmer succeeds, it would be a long step toward ending GOP control of the U.S. Senate. Incumbent Gov. Bob Holden, a Democrat, is seeking re-election with strong labor backing. There is also a broad movement spearheaded by gays and lesbians to block a constitutional amendment, on the Aug. 3 primary ballot that would ban same-sex marriages.

There is a spirited race for the seat vacated by the former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt. Russ Carnahan, son of the popular late governor, Mel Carnahan, is the favorite. But one of his rivals is Jeff Smith, a youthful Washington University college professor whose glossy, widely distributed brochure states, “Hold Bush accountable for his lies. The rush to war in Iraq is one of the biggest mistakes in American history. … This is our country! Let’s take it back!”

‘We need a voice in the Legislature’

John L. Bowman Sr., an auto worker active in the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU), is making waves in his campaign for a second term representing the 70th Legislative District that includes his hometown, Northwoods, in St. Louis County. A tall, genial man, Bowman had just come off night shift at the Chrysler plant when he spoke with the World. He chuckled when asked if he was headed home to get some sleep. “No,” he replied. “Sleep can wait.”

He was on his way to the local McDonald’s restaurant where his campaign workers rendezvous every morning and evening before fanning out to ring doorbells and talk to voters. “We need a voice in the Legislature that is a clear advocate for working families on issues like living wage jobs, health care, and education,” he said. “The Bush administration is pushing states into a fiscal crunch. Special interest groups are at an advantage, getting more tax loopholes. The burden is being thrown on lower-income working people.”

Bowman served a term in the Legislature in 2001 and pushed through bills providing tax credits for teachers who dip into their own meager income to buy school supplies for their students, and a bill to mandate teaching of “financial literacy” in kindergarten through 12th grade. He also succeeded in pushing through a bill to extend benefits to thousands of poor people facing termination of their Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) benefits. From 1998 to 2000, he served as a Northwoods alderman.

Bowman said his canvassers urge people to vote in the Aug. 3 primary but also in November to oust Bush and other right-wing Republicans. “My campaign represents opposition to the right wing,” he said. “Opposition at the state level is central to turning back the tide of right-wing oppression at the national level.”

‘Vote theft was not limited to Florida

Bowman has inspired people to canvass door-to-door in 101-degree heat when a Huck Finn-style dip in the Mississippi makes more sense. Much of the sweat is being shed at the headquarters of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), where scores of union and community activists staff a state-of-the-art phone bank to register new voters and turn them out both for the primary and general election. An army of volunteers leaves every morning to go canvassing.

A huge voter turnout in the city of St. Louis and surrounding St. Louis County and in Kansas City, Mo., on Nov. 2 is key to defeating Bush in this battleground state. Bush stole Missouri by a razor-thin margin in 2000 amid widespread charges that thousands of Black voters were disenfranchised.

Lew Moye, a 40-year veteran of this city’s Chrysler plant and a close friend of Bowman’s, told the World, “A lot of people in 2000 showed up at their polling places on election day and were told their names were not on the voter rolls. They were purged.” A judge ordered the polls kept open to accommodate thousands of voters who had been waiting in long lines in Black precincts in St. Louis. “Senator Bond went through the roof,” Moye said. “He went to a higher court and got an order to close the polls. It was very similar to what they did in Florida.”

Moye, chairman of the United Auto Workers Local 110 Shop Committee representing 4,000 workers at the Chrysler plant and also president of the St. Louis Chapter of the CBTU, said, “We have to turn out in record numbers Nov. 2. We cannot allow ourselves to be discouraged by what happened in 2000. People need to go to the polls early and report any kind of harassment, any attempt to deny them their right to vote.”

He added, “I think we’ve got a great chance to defeat Bush in Missouri. It’s just a matter of getting our voters out to the polls.”

Working people “are not better off today than they were four years ago,” Moye continued. “Bush hasn’t done anything for us. He’s got us bogged down in a war we can’t win. We’ve got a health care crisis that is just getting worse. If ever there was a need for a change in the White House, it is now. I believe the people of Missouri are going to do their part to make that change this time around.”

Since Bush stole the 2000 election, Moye said, Missouri has lost 37,400 manufacturing jobs and 141,915 workers in the state are unemployed. The jobless rate jumped from 4.4 percent in January 2001 to 4.7 percent in April 2004. At least 28,800 jobless workers in Missouri have exhausted their unemployment benefits without finding new jobs.

“Bush has done nothing to stop the plant shutdowns,” said Moye. “On the contrary, he has encouraged outsourcing with his support of tax loopholes for companies that move overseas.”

‘Bush defeat will boost union power

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, by contrast, vows to close those loopholes and reserve tax credits for companies that build plants in the United States. Moye pointed out that Bush is also a labor-baiter and union-buster who denied union rights for thousands of Homeland Security employees. Kerry refuses to cross picket lines and he supports the Employee Freedom of Choice Act to make it easier for workers to win union rights.

“The defeat of Bush would be a big rebuff to the right-wing tendencies in this country,” Moye said. “It would send a signal that unions must be able to organize workers without restrictions, obstacles and harassment. And it would go a long way to revitalize the labor-African American alliance that is the basis for all progressive change in this country,” said Moye.

“It’s a myth that Bush is going to sweep rural Missouri,” he said. “Factories in rural Missouri are closing the same as in the cities. Who is dying in Iraq? It’s poor rural whites and poor urban African Americans.”

In addition to Bowman, the CBTU has fielded Fay Davis, an autoworker, and Jay Ozier, a carpenter, for re-election to the Missouri Democratic State Committee in their respective wards.

“All of these candidates are pushing to get rid of Bush,” Moye said. “We’re walking the streets, knocking on doors, talking to people about what it will mean to elect workers to office like John Bowman and how his victory in the primary will help turn out a big vote to defeat Bush in November.”

One of Bowman’s most enthusiastic backers is Shirley Johnson, a three-term alderman in the town of Northwoods. “John’s ideas and issues are basically the same as mine,” she said. “The needs of working families, education, health insurance, a woman’s right to choose. The incumbent opposes a woman’s right to choose. I’m definitely in favor of choice.”

She added, “As an African American leader, John is capable of turning out the vote not only on Aug. 3, but also on Nov. 2.”

‘ ‘The feel of a strong people’s movement’

Bowman’s legions of canvassers have included activists with Planned Parenthood, SEIU, and a contingent of members of the Communist Party USA and Young Communist League (YCL). Collectively they have visited more than 1,500 homes in the community northwest of downtown St. Louis. The Party and YCL members are volunteers in the CPUSA-YCL “Midwest Project” that targets key battleground states in the surging “dump Bush” movement. Many canvassers end their conversations with the appeal, “Let’s put John Bowman in on August 3rd, and George W. Bush out on November 2nd.”

Jim Wilkerson, district organizer of the Kansas-Missouri CPUSA and himself a CBTU activist, hailed the team mobilized by the Party and YCL. “The Party and YCL are rising to the occasion, coalescing with other progressive forces to defend democracy and defeat Bush in November,” he said.

Canvassers have come from California, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, Illinois, and many other states. George Robbins, a teacher from Buffalo, N.Y., said, “Forty years ago I was a volunteer in the Freedom Summer Project registering Black voters in Mississippi. I spent the first evening at the home of Fannie Lou Hamer. Here we are today working for a big vote to get Bush out. Like then, this effort has the feel of a strong people’s movement.”

Across town, Audrey Hollis, an organizer with Jobs with Justice, said her group is “reaching out to under-represented voters and new Americans. We are not only registering them to vote but we are educating them on the issues. The election in Missouri is very, very close. If we get just three additional voters in every precinct, then we will win. Bush and corporate America are shifting costs to the backs of employees and working people. We are losing income, losing health care and pensions. It is hitting everybody. The gap is widening between the wealthy and the workers. Can Bush be defeated? Yes. There is a lot of hope and energy in the air.”

Mark Fraley, civic engagement director for the Missouri Progressive Vote Coalition, said that as a rule of thumb, 50 percent or fewer of low-income people vote. But in 2000 and 2002, after an extensive campaign by the coalition, 67 percent of low-income people voted. “It shows that if the means are available, poor people will vote,” Fraley said. “This election is especially unique in that the electorate is so polarized. The two parties are focusing so much on winning over that tiny percentage of undecided swing voters that they ignore this huge pool of disenfranchised people who are disgruntled with the system.”

‘Every vote counts in Show Me State

Fraley added, “We are going to shopping centers, welfare offices, bus and metro stops. We approach people and register them to vote. Sometimes it is in the workplace.”

In the one year since the project began, he said, over 42,000 voters have been registered. “We plan to register 56,000. We are working all over the state of Missouri. We are just now moving into the get-out-the-vote stage. This is the most important election of our lifetime. Missouri has picked the winner in every election since the Civil War.”

This is the state where voters cast their ballots in the 2000 election for Democratic Senate nominee Mel Carnahan, who had died in a plane crash, rather than Republican John Ashcroft. Bush got his revenge by naming Ashcroft as Attorney General.

“That vote for Carnahan symbolized the growing sophistication of Missouri voters,” Fraley said. “After all, if you had a choice of voting for a dead man or voting for John Ashcroft, who would you vote for?”

‘The author can be reached at greenerpastures21212@yahoo.com.