On the Trail: Missouri gubernatorial candidates talk about a post-Ferguson agenda

Mar 28, 2016
Originally published on March 28, 2016 11:12 pm

A few months ago, Starsky Wilson ended his time on the Ferguson Commission with stirring and strong words for politicians who would have to do the work ahead.

“If the win for you is getting elected, we don’t need you,” said Wilson, the president and CEO of the Deaconess Foundation. “If you eat steak because you got what you wanted in the community that’s still fighting for a generation, you’re not the one.”

Wilson helped produce the commission’s detailed report of policy proposals, many of which have gained favor across the country. For instance, candidates favorable to overhauling the criminal justice system ousted elected prosecutors in Cleveland and Chicago. And both Democratic presidential candidates have made closing the nation’s racial divide a priority.

It’s a much different story in the race for Missouri governor.

The four Republican candidates have made a point to show solidarity with law enforcement – and have often criticized the protest movement and policy push that followed Michael Brown’s shooting death. Likely Democratic nominee Chris Koster is striking a different tone from his Republican counterparts, but he, too, has emphasized his bond with police officers.

Leadership in the midst of the Ferguson unrest may be one of the most important issues in this year's gubernatorial contest. So we asked all five major candidates to talk about this topic in detail. Several candidates answered questions on episodes of Politically Speaking. Koster talked at length on the subject at Democrat Days in Hannibal. And GOP gubernatorial hopeful John Brunner’s provided written responses.

Here are some excerpts (and, when available, the full audio) of the candidates’ views on a post-Ferguson agenda:

Author and Navy SEAL Eric Greitens

On the public policy push that followed Brown’s death: “I believe that we actually have an incredible opportunity. So here’s the opportunity: If you had said to a lot of people 18 months ago or two years ‘Tell me about Ferguson, Mo.,’ nobody would have known. They wouldn’t have known what happened in Ferguson. People now know that there’s a problem. People now know that there’s a challenge. People now know there are kids down there, a lot of those kids who can’t read, who feel disconnected.”

On the shortcomings of the response to the Ferguson unrest: “We did not have that leadership that we needed on the front lines. The first thing that you have to do if you’re going to solve these problems is you have to go to them. And look, I walked around Ferguson. I talked with dozens of the people who were out there protesting. And I just asked them: ‘Tell me why are you out here?’ And you listen to people. And you hear the anger and the fear and the frustration that’s there. I also talked with our police officers: St. Louis City. St. Louis County. Missouri Highway Patrol. They were out there. They felt that they had been abandoned.” (By the way, Nixon discussed his response to the Ferguson unrest at a recent press conference. Click here to listen to what he had to say.)

On tensions between African-Americans and police: “We have to demonstrate the police officers have our support. That’s one of the first things we have to do. Our law enforcement officers do some of the most difficult, dangerous work in the community. And they deserve to have somebody who really understands what it means to put on body armor and wear a sidearm. Who understand what it means to step in the dark and do dangerous work."

Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder

On how he would have responded to the Ferguson unrest: “I would have used our fine guardsmen and women for the purposes for which they were trained and for which they were ready to mobilize in the streets: To protect lives, safety and property of our people. We had guardsmen at Busch Stadium. We had them at the Galleria. We had Guardsmen at Lambert Airport. And we had guardsmen at the seat of county government in Clayton. There was no significant trouble in any of those locations.

“… And it was an atrocity. It was a betrayal of state government. Now if you say, as Gov. Nixon has in the closest he has come to an explanation? ‘Well, we didn’t want them in there to provoke.’ Well then why were they sent in the next night? They were sent in Tuesday night and there was no rioting to speak of.”

On the Michael Brown case: “The clear message is ‘Missourians are demanding a return to law and order.’ And that is true of black, white, brown and any other color in Missouri. We cannot have a peaceful and prosperous Missouri if we had what went on in Ferguson.

“You said some people who are friends or radio hosts who had me on their show think Ferguson was overblown. It was overblown when it was based on a lie. It was based on a lie that has been exposed as a lie by the Obama Justice Department. Mr. Holder took until March, but he did come out in March of 2015 with a fairly conclusive and exhaustive report saying there never was any hands up don’t shoot. Yet we have members of the St. Louis Rams football team coming in hands up don’t shoot. We had members of U.S. Congress on the floor of the House of Representatives doing hands up don’t shoot. This was a pernicious myth on which the whole thing was based.”

On whether he regretted sending a Tweet expressing condolences to Brown’s family or attending Brown’s funeral:I do not. I think it was important to indicate respect for all sides and for all citizens. And at the time, nobody knew the facts. That’s why I opposed the rioters' rush to judgment and demanding, in a fashion not too far from a lynch mob, mob justice for Darren Wilson. And I think the Obama Justice Department entered into that when Mr. Holder came to town and visited the family of Michael Brown, but did not visit the family or the person of Darren Wilson. I noted that in my Pledge of Allegiance, we pledge ‘liberty and justice for all.’ We don’t put the thumb of one side of the scales of justice and say ‘we’re on this side.’”

On the Ferguson Commission report:I am frankly disappointed in the Ferguson Commission report on a number of accounts. I think they ignored the issue of school choice and charter schools, which we should be expanding. Michael Brown graduated from an unaccredited school. It is not clear what kind of future he was headed for. We all hoped for the best for him as we do for every young person graduating in Missouri or not graduating. But he did not appear to be on a track headed to success when he was knocking over a convenience store a few minutes before the fatal encounter.

“I would have no opposition to [police body cameras]. The question would be funding. And I’d be for doing it. And I’d study how Texas and how other states have done it. I’m a civil libertarian. I don’t want the police beating up on anybody in an unjust matter. I take my civil liberty lesson very seriously.”

Businessman John Brunner

On how he would have handled the aftermath of Brown’s death differently: “I would have immediately opened lines of communications to the mayor of Ferguson, other mayors, local and county officials. I would have immediately directed the Highway Patrol and National Guard officials to open lines of communication and offer immediate assistance and help coordinate responses. There would have been no question by the public, businesses or police agencies of the rules of engagement or our coordinated response. I would have been in the community meeting – not in front of cameras – but privately with key community leaders, local and state legislative officials, activists and law enforcement officials.

“Most importantly, I would have not squandered the last six years allowing our schools, economy and transportation to miserably fail our communities.”

On the Ferguson Commission report: “My company has operated in Wellston for almost 100 years, a community that faces many of the same if not worse challenges as Ferguson. Unrest is not the problem – it is the symptom of hopelessness and joblessness, and a failing education system. We have had enough reports and excuses, it is time for action. Rather than focus on policy, I will act immediately to support a well-trained police force, oppose ticketing schemes that harass citizens, create accountable schools that provide a quality education, create jobs and restore hope.”

Former U.S. Attorney and Missouri House Speaker Catherine Hanaway

On what she would have done differently during the Ferguson unrest: “[Gov. Jay Nixon] created a sense of urgency and tragedy and a sense of panic by calling out the National Guard, but then he didn’t deploy the National Guard to protect facilities. And candidly, he did not stand up for law enforcement – even when the Obama Justice Department said there was not an excessive use of force. I know that came sometime later. But at every turn, he seemed, frankly, not to know which direction to go. He kept sending contradictory messages. He didn’t lead. You have to lead from the front. So I would have set a reasonable curfew. I would have kept command and control local. Not by that, I meant Ferguson – but St. Louis County. I would have used the Highway Patrol to augment. I would have been in that community having conversations.”

On St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch’s handling of the Darren Wilson case: “I thought Bob McCulloch did a courageous job. The easier thing would have been to say ‘here attorney general – you take this case. I don’t want to take the heat.’ He took it to the grand jury. He kept that case in the grand jury a long time and put a great deal of evidence before them. There can be some discussion about the quality of all of that evidence. And then for him to come out and make a very public statement in prime time so that everyone could hear directly from – I think he truly led.”

On the Ferguson Commission report: “I have spent substantial time going through the report. I have talked to some of the commission members. I’ve in particular I’ve focused, as a former prosecutor, on the recommendations with respect to law enforcement. I have very serious concerns about how we find the money to implement many of the proposals that are contained in the report. I disagree with some of the expanded social services proposed by the report. Look, we’ve tried many of those social services solutions in those neighborhoods now for decades. The War on Poverty has been the greatest losing war of the 20th and 21st century.

“I don’t think just repeating those same kinds of social welfare programs over and over again is going to change the dynamic. But I do think that there are some other recommendations, particularly with respect to law enforcement, that are worth looking at. I wished that the commission had been a little bit more focused on ‘How do you pay for it and how do you narrow it down to a smaller set of recommendations?’”

Attorney General Chris Koster

On bridging the divide between African-Americans and law enforcement: “I think a lot of us who carry a badge in our back pocket are concerned that 15, 16, 17 year olds may not view policing with the respect that we want them to view it and that we are trying to foster in all communities. And so, I’ve been going out along with Sam Dotson to African-American high schools in north City and north County every month to speak to school assemblies about law enforcement as a profession. What it pays. What the hours are. How you get your education paid for. Pension benefits. Health care benefits. Prestige and ability to add meaningfully to a community. And those discussions have been going great. I think both Chief Dotson and I have felt that has been a very positive experience for us. Hopefully it is opening some minds. We feel like the meetings are going well. And I will continue that. And frankly, would continue that even as governor. Because I think it’s that important.”

On releasing police body camera footage:The issue of body cameras is also something that I have advocated for. Obviously you are well aware that we have one disagreement between my point of view and the press’ point of view on the easy availability of those video tapes for the 5 and 6 o’clock news. I would like to make sure that those tapes are utilized for policing and law enforcement benefits. That’s an issue that has to be addressed in the legislature. But by and large, I am a strong advocate for body cameras.”

On whether his past support from law enforcement groups would affect his ability to support an overhaul of the criminal justice system: “I don’t think so. For example, on the body camera issue: The intermediate issue about what these video tapes are used for, whether the media can take a video from a DWI and put it on the 5 o’clock news and the 6 o’clock. Police simply don’t want to be stringers or runners or frontmen for what is increasingly an infotainment media. And quite honestly, I 100 percent agree with them. So before we can get to body cameras, we’re going to make certain that the concerns of law enforcement are addressed. Throughout my career, I have been a strong supporter of the men and women in blue, and the men and women in the deputy sheriff’s offices. And we have protected them on work comp issues. I’ve protected them on salary issues – making sure their salaries were appropriate and increasing. And that kind of absolute loyalty to law enforcement has been a hallmark of my professional life for 20 years.”

On whether he would have handled the aftermath of Brown’s shooting death differently: “I think it would have been better if the governor had been there on day one. What I think is under appreciated is the security concerns that the Highway Patrol was communicating to the second floor – to the governor’s office – that were serious. And so the decision that was made on day one and day two is understandable. But I think in retrospect, what the Joplin crisis and what the Ferguson crisis certainly highlighted was that the chief executive must be there immediately and must be there in person. And I think the security concerns that Gov. Nixon perhaps yielded to that were raised by the Highway Patrol would be something I would advise go in a different direction.”

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics. 

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