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Missouri Democrats’ Support For Accused Colleague Draws Rebuke From Staffers

Earlier this month, the Missouri House voted to censure one of its members. State Rep. Wiley Price, a Democrat from St. Louis, is accused of having sex with an intern and threatening to fire the aide who reported it.

But now Price’s Democratic colleagues are the ones under fire.

Just one Democrat joined with Republicans in their effort to expel Price from the Legislature, leaving the effort short of the two-thirds majority needed.

And last week, legislative aides who work for Democratic lawmakers accused party leaders of doing more to protect their colleague than their employees. The staffers teamed up to submit an anonymous essay to the Missouri Independent, saying Democrats were wrong to oppose Price’s expulsion.

They wrote: “People who we admire actively let us down, and people for whom we have no warm feelings rushed to our defense. It is shameful that the Democratic Caucus, a group that consistently claims the mantle of championing dignity for working people, should be so complicit in worsening an already toxic environment for their own employees.”

On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, Missouri Independent Editor-in-Chief Jason Hancock discussed the backlash over the vote.

“It’s always been somewhat of a toxic environment for women in the Missouri Capitol,” he said, noting that House Speaker John Diehl resigned six years ago after sending explicit texts to an intern. “There was a bit of a reckoning that summer and into the fall with the culture of the Missouri Capitol, that it was a very predatory culture, that women didn’t feel safe, and it was bipartisan.”

That led to new policies and the process followed by the Ethics Committee in investigating Price. “I think most people would say that it has improved, but it clearly has not improved enough,” Hancock added. “You still hear from people who say they deal with harassment, and they deal with a toxic work environment, on a daily basis. Even if it’s not as blatant or severe, I don’t think you can dismiss that.”

Hancock said that as Republicans pushed for expulsion, Democrats took the position that the Ethics Committee had recommended censure instead. “It turned into a defense of the institution,” he said. “That it would undercut the Ethics Committee process if the committee deliberated, investigated and came to an unanimous conclusion, and then it was set aside because the majority party wanted to go further.”

House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Kansas City, declined to discuss the matter on St. Louis on the Air, saying: “I am currently in the process of holding individual meetings with any staff who would like one. Due to the personnel nature of this conversation, I regret that at this time I have to turn down the invitation.”

Price did not respond to requests for comment. He has been stripped of his committee assignments, staff and office. The Missouri Democratic Caucus also voted to expel him from its membership.

Hancock said he believes the fallout from the failed effort to expel Price has lawmakers again talking about workplace issues.

“I think legislative leaders — there’s a reckoning coming about this issue again, that they need to take seriously,” he said.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis. She won the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her work in Phoenix exposing corruption at the local housing authority. She also won numerous awards for column writing, including multiple first place wins from the Arizona Press Club, the Association of Women in Journalism (the Clarion Awards) and the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. From 2015 to July 2019, Sarah was editor in chief of St. Louis' alt-weekly, the Riverfront Times. She and her husband, John, are raising their two young daughters and ill-behaved border terrier in Lafayette Square.