Missouri's Female Trouble
In the hopes of being both politic and polite (an esteemed value in this semi-Southern state), pro-choice Missourians are extremely careful with their words when forced to discuss the topic. "I don't say 'I'm pro-choice,' I just say that I'm for leaving these matters to a woman and her pastor," explains Sara Lampe, a Democratic candidate for the state legislature in Springfield, Missouri's third-largest city, which is home to two Bible colleges and the international headquarters of the Assemblies of God church. "And then," adds Lampe, "I move on." Lampe has plenty else she'd like to discuss. A former teacher and principal who lives with and cares for her 91-year-old bedridden mother, she would like to focus her campaign on elder care and public funding for education. As a divorced mother of three, she'd also like to ease the multiple burdens shouldered by other single moms (who, she says, won't vote in substantial numbers until the polls are located in supermarkets). But running against a Republican incumbent who has worked as a Christian counselor using "conversion therapy" on homosexuals has meant spending considerable time and energy staving off questions about abortion and its more ambiguous though equally potent cousin: "values."
For Chere Chaney, the GOP push on values--a mix of same-sex marriage, abortion and vague ideas about personal piety--is a constant frustration. "They keep saying 'God, guns and gays' and we say 'jobs and the war,'" says Chaney, western Missouri political coordinator for the Communications Workers of America. While her members are severely hurt by Bush policies, including recent restrictions on overtime pay, Chaney says some are still pulled away from the Democrats by local churches peddling the message that Kerry is not the "moral" candidate. "As long as they're beating them to death every Sunday telling them they're going to hell, we're in trouble," says Chaney. "It wouldn't be so bad if [churches] were just registering voters, but they're threatening folks with losing their soul if they don't vote for the President."
Many saw Missouri's vote on a state constitutional amendment that eliminated the possibility of gay marriage as a flexing of local churches' political muscle. But, while the amendment passed by a whopping 71 percent, the results may not be particularly relevant to the presidential race here, mostly because Democrats succeeded in putting the measure up for a vote during the primary instead of the general election, when increased turnout among religious conservatives would have helped Bush. (Unfortunately, in eleven other states, including embattled Oregon and Ohio, state constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage will be on the ballot in November.)
Missouri Democrats are even less eager to talk about gay marriage than abortion. Melba Curls, a Democratic State Representative and member of Freedom, Inc., an African-American political group based in Kansas City, says she felt the debate sidetracked her constituents. "I told folks, It doesn't matter who's in bed together. It matters that you got a bed," says Curls. Still, Freedom, Inc. remained silent on the issue, as did the local La Raza Political Club. For his part, Kerry said he would have voted for the gay-marriage ban. (To the glee of the flip-flop brigade and the confusion of everyone else, Kerry went on to say in a September interview with a gay newspaper that he wouldn't have voted for the amendment had it been a "simple prohibition" on gay marriage, though, in fact, that's what it was.) Meanwhile, in Crane, Deanna Hodges, who shrugged off e-mail responses to a prochoice radio ad calling her a demon, a communist and the Antichrist, feels she can't address same-sex marriage. "We just can't bring that up here," she says. "No one would talk to us."
It's hard to see the frightened look in Hodges's eyes without thinking that the culture war is a lost cause in Missouri. "We're not going to win at the ballot box at this point," concedes Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, though he argues that today's ballot initiatives are just skirmishes in a longer war. While their opponents have prevailed thus far by galvanizing the grassroots to protect the traditional family, gay advocates, Foreman insists, will eventually mount their own populist campaigns in places like Missouri, convincing people of the unfairness of denying legal rights to unmarried couples.
With the bitter battle over the same-sex-marriage referendum behind them, most people here seem happy to talk about the burning issues that don't ignite religious outrage. For Sara Lampe, the single mom who cares for her mother while she runs for office in Springfield, one of those issues is lowering healthcare costs. For Deanna Hodges, in Crane, where the public schools have recently suffered major cuts, restoring education funding tops the list. For Chere Chaney in Kansas City, who went to work in a factory after her divorce to raise her two young sons, the primary concern is that workers make a living wage. Melba Curls, who represents many African-American families who have children fighting in Iraq, is deeply concerned about the war.
Focusing on these goals--or values, if you prefer--might help Democrats win the desperately needed women's vote in Missouri and other swing states. Given the increased time and resources people would have to spend with their children if they were achieved, such policies could even help give single women what they tell pollsters they so desperately want: a better shot at having well-behaved and respectful children.