Candidates talk economy, employment at Temple Israel

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Employment and the economy took center stage as three Missouri incumbents and four hopefuls jockeyed for position during a candidates’ forum Tuesday evening sponsored by representatives of the Jewish community.

“My priorities in no particular order are jobs, jobs and jobs,” said Rep. Jake Zimmerman, (D-83rd).

Zimmerman was one among five local Democrats who, along with two Republicans, participated in the event at Temple Israel. All will vie for Missouri General Assembly seats in next month’s general election. Moderated by the St. Louis Post Dispatch’s Eddie Roth and coordinated by the Jewish Community Relations Council, the forum was cosponsored by the local branches of the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the National Council of Jewish Women and the American Jewish Congress.

Prescreened questions covered a wide range of topics during the forum. Queries were addressed to the group as a whole and each candidate chose if they wished to take the floor and answer.

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Zimmerman, who represents the Overland and Olivette area, suggested building infrastructure and transportation to encourage job growth. Fellow Democrat Barbara Fraser, the only candidate on hand running for a state senate seat, agreed, noting that the St. Louis area provides one-quarter of Missouri’s sales tax and one-third of its income tax revenue.

“We have a tremendous opportunity here with research on biotech and stem cells and emerging technologies to build up our universities,” said Fraser, who chairs the St. Louis County Council and hopes to represent the 24th District which runs from Rock Hill to St. Ann covering much of the county’s central corridor. “Every time we build a high-tech job, we are providing opportunities for many low-tech jobs and a chance for people to work in this region which will help our entire state.”

Democrat Susan Carlson, who is running for the 64th district statehouse seat centered on Forest Park, also singled out transportation as key.

“For lower income workers being able to have transportation so they can get home every night is just critical,” she said. “If you don’t have that, those folks can’t get to the jobs. If the transportation is there, we can keep those businesses in this area.”

Rep. Rick Stream, representing the 94th district centered on Kirkwood, agreed that supporting public transit was vital. However, he singled out ambiguities created by government regulation and taxes as being the main hindrances to job growth. Fellow Republican Dan O’Sullivan, who is running for the 73rd District House seat in the Clayton/Richmond Heights area, agreed.

The uncertainty is difficult,” O’Sullivan said. “Health care costs and new rules for health care are scaring a lot of people I know in small businesses. We’ve got to provide predictability so that small- and medium sized businesses that create jobs will know what their expenses will be.”

Issues related to revenue creation also prompted varied responses.

Carlson suggested raising Missouri’s cigarette tax while Stacey Newman, the Democratic incumbent whom O’Sullivan hopes to unseat, favored a “streamlined” sales tax that covers Internet purchases.

“If it’s easier for you to order a book online versus going down to your local bookstore, your community is losing out on that sales tax,” Newman said.

Stream said Newman’s sales tax was worth considering but was dubious about the cigarette levy.

“The people of Missouri voted overwhelmingly a few years ago against raising it and I’m not sure that there’d be enough strength to push it through the legislature,” he said.

Most united on Prop A, not so on abortion and health care

Most onstage condemned Proposition A, the Missouri ballot measure that would largely ban earnings taxes, a key source of funding for Kansas City and St. Louis. Both cities would be grandfathered in under the proposal but the tax would be put to a local vote every five years, being prohibited permanently if it ever fails. Stream said it was unfair to impose a statewide ballot on an issue affecting only a few areas. Zimmerman said he felt earnings taxes were bad public policy but still opposed Prop A.

“As a representative from St. Louis County, it is not my job to tell St. Louis City and its Board of Aldermen, which has its own ballot initiative process, how to govern their affairs,” he said.

O’Sullivan, however, favored the measure.

“I think it’s important to realize that this doesn’t eliminate the earnings tax,” he said. “It just says that people in St. Louis and Kansas City get to vote on keeping the earnings tax.”

Issues related to abortion and health care largely broke along party lines.

Carlson said that the strident tone of the national debate reminded her of Medicare’s stormy introduction, while Fraser said expanding coverage would improve public health.

“We know from data that prevention does make a difference,” Fraser said. “We can help people before they have serious problems.”

Zimmerman accused the Republican Party of needlessly stirring up anger over the topic when both sides needed to work together to implement the bill at the state level.

“Hundreds of thousands of Missourians stand to gain access to health coverage if we set these exchanges up right,” he said. “I hope and pray that the rhetoric subsides and we can get to work on the task of getting people covered.”

Democrat Deb Lavender, who is running against Stream, said that as a health care provider, she also wanted to move forward with the process and cover the uninsured.

“The longer we go not providing some form of care for them, the worse the situation gets,” she said.

O’Sullivan said the controversial health reform measure put too many unfunded mandates on the states. Stream also opposed it. “I think that there is a great deal of resistance in this country over what happened in Washington with this health care bill,” Stream said. “It’s been shown in poll after poll and certainly in our state.”

Supported by the other Democrats, Newman said she felt passionately about defending a woman’s reproductive freedom, noting that she’d sponsored bills that would force pharmacists to fill valid prescriptions. Increasingly, she said the debate was moving beyond abortion to issues such as birth control and that conservative philosophy was inconsistent on the issue.

“On one side we hear the argument that we want less government in our lives. Then we cross over and an hour later we’re talking about more government in our lives,” she said. “It makes a lot of us crazy. It makes me crazy as a woman that I have to stand here and talk about this.”

Stream, who is pro-life, said many Democrats had supported pro-life legislation in Jefferson City including bills to better inform women before they make a decision to terminate their pregnancy. O’Sullivan agreed.

“I believe it is a life and therefore I am going to do whatever I can to protect that life,” O’Sullivan said. “I believe that anybody who thought it was a life would do anything to protect it.”

The Democrats and Stream opposed school vouchers for religious educational institutions. Zimmerman said that Jewish day schools do well without government help. Lavender concurred.

“It seems to me that if the state of Missouri is having a challenging time providing public education to all of its citizens, to take any of those tax dollars and funnel them to private education, I think, goes against the nature of the responsibility to provide a great education for our children,” she said.

Views on prayers,

concealed weapons

In response to a question on religious inclusion, both Zimmerman and Newman talked of their experiences with the Missouri General Assembly’s prayer, which they said often seemed to fall short of the non-denominational standard. Carlson, who, along with Zimmerman and Newman, identifies as Jewish, said that although it would probably not happen in her lifetime, she hoped there would come a day when prayers would not be offered at all in the lawmaking body.

“In this country you have the right to believe nothing or believe whatever you want,” she said. “To open the legislative proceedings with that sends a message that seems to close out a lot of people.”

O’Sullivan said he supported concealed carry though he backed regulations against fully automatic weapons or assault rifles.

“We have not seen any of the negative impact that was forecast to occur when this law was put into place,” he said.

Lavender said the law shouldn’t be expanded further and should be curtailed if there are ways to protect police officers and women in violent situations.

Newman said she had a long history on the issue.

“As most of you know, I was one of the few advocates of fighting against concealed weapons starting ten years ago,” Newman said.

There were some areas of common ground. All seven candidates agreed that the state’s payday loan industry should be more heavily regulated and there was general agreement that passionate fights over policy should not deter legislators from collaborating with one another.

“It’s okay to engage in heated debate,” Zimmerman said. “It’s OK to have differences of opinion and to have strong words on subjects on which you disagree but it is not okay to translate that into personal animosity and be incapable of working with the other team.”

Carlson said it was important for legislators to express strong, divergent opinions and that didn’t necessarily lead to a toxic environment.

“That’s not toxic,” she said. “The undermining of the democratic process is what’s toxic. I think we have to hold everyone’s feet to the fire, make them talk about real issues and not all of the bogus white noise.”