An Ice Cream Social: Three Republicans and Me.

I’ve been receiving an abundance of mail for the upcoming Republican primary. I suspect there’s either a flaw in some system (because I’ve been a Democratic voter) – or somebody had a sense of humor and signed me up – the irony is sweet, though and the joke would be on them if so.

On June 22, I received a mailer for Mary Elizabeth Coleman, the Missouri District 97 Representative seeking a State Senate seat. Her mailer referenced an Ice Cream Social with local Republican candidates at Mastodon State Park.

I’m not afraid to engage candidates – or to seek answers to tough questions – so I went.

My approach was simple: I walked up, listened, and took notes “to address” with the candidates after their speeches. I listened to the people speaking around me too, and made mental notes related to the comments. Upon my arrival, Travis Partney (candidate for Division 3 Circuit Judge) was fielding questions.

One man from the audience asked: “Can you give us a definition of woman?”

The man’s intention behind the question was clear. Partney replied: “I’ve got two sons, I’ve got a pretty good idea…”

The man acknowledged the answer and Partney’s response was met with light, approving laughter. I made a note of this “for follow-up.”

After Mary Elizabeth concluded the presented portion of the event, I sought Mr. Partney. As I waited patiently for my turn to speak with him, I listened to the man who had his attention. The man discussed various topics – ranging from prison sentences for first-time offenders, to the “indoctrination” of children. He speculated that children were being taught “civil rights” and “women’s rights,” but not about the “founding fathers” or the “United States Constitution.” He called textbooks and teaching methods into question. I found it a tad ironic that the man assumed no responsibility for the education of his children or grandchildren, but that he was somehow qualified to critique the revisions of “his history.”

The man was clearly happy to ignore that from the time of “his history” to now, at least 50 more years of history had been written. To his credit, Mr. Partney was gracious and careful in his responses – not “biting” so to speak, which forced the man into other questions/topics.

Travis Partney

When the time came, I said: “Hi, Travis. I’m Bobby. I kept thinking you looked familiar – and it occurred to me: You were the prosecutor on that murder trial I was in the jury pool for.”

We chatted briefly before I pressed: “I wanted to follow up on something I’d heard. When a man asked you define ‘woman’ a few minutes ago, you gave him the answer that you had two sons and that gave you a pretty good idea.”

He nodded, saying he was doing it to be funny and to blow off the question. I replied, “Well, I think that’s bullshit.”

Mr. Partney seemed caught off guard and said he meant no offense. To which I argued that he had an obligation to use the moment to educate that man. I contended we both knew the intention of the question – it was designed to ridicule people who are transgender. I said: “That was an opportunity for you to establish the difference between sex and gender, which are oftentimes conflated in this very discussion.”

As is typical in this type of conversation, Mr. Partney waded into the topic of athletics, suggesting his response was designed to keep the conversation out of a space where he couldn’t offer an answer. He said he had an obligation to be impartial – and that the Missouri legislature was discussing transgender athletes in athletics presently, and he didn’t want to be pressed on that – or have to say, “I can’t speak on that” (because of the implications that could carry).

I understood his point, but reiterated he had an obligation to maximize his opportunity to educate – to establish the nuance and complexity, adding: “The question wasn’t about athletics. This was about me seeing you as a male – and then if you said to me that you identified as a woman, me recognizing you as a woman – and referring to you with she/her/hers pronouns if that’s what you desired.”

Mr. Partney conceded that nuance is oftentimes lost and that he could have handled the question differently. I agreed – pressing again that he had an obligation to offer complex (or difficult) answers – particularly in response to “loaded questions” – especially if he’s to be a judge.

At these types of events, there aren’t really set endings or “outs” – because a number of people have their own questions and want time. It’s a very fluid process. Mr. Partney and I concluded with some small-talk before another potential voter came up to him – and when Mary Elizabeth Coleman introduced herself to me.

Mary Elizabeth Coleman

She was the one I’d set out to meet. During her closing remarks, a supporter mentioned that he’d gravitated toward her campaign because she vowed to not speak poorly about her primary opponents. The man said he liked that she wouldn’t engage in personal political attacks or name-calling. That was curious to me, considering the back of some of her campaign signs I’ve seen read: “Let’s Go Brandon!”

I pressed her on this, saying: “Earlier, a man said he was supporting you because you don’t engage in personal attacks. Yet your campaign sign contains a euphemism for “Fuck Joe Biden.” Is that not a personal attack – and why do you feel that’s appropriate?”

She responded in three parts: (1) It’s a joke that she thinks is funny, (2) that a number of her constituents believe it’s funny, and (3) that she has an election to win. So much for integrity…

I moved into my main point, saying: “I noticed that you’re incredibly pro-life – and that you spoke to the possibility of Roe v. Wade being overturned and Missouri being positioned to become an anti-abortion state. With that – when abortions become illegal, what are the options?”

Mrs. Coleman suggested it was offensive that women without support only had the option of abortion – and that she would work to put safeguards in place that support women (ex. increasing funding to programs to help mothers, expanding Medicaid, etc.). She also supported exceptions for cases only when the mother’s life was in danger (but not for victims of incest or rape, I asked). She asked me: “How many times have you ever asked how you were conceived?”

I acknowledged, zero.

I then asked: “Are you open to the expansion of sex education and to universally accessible and free contraception for men and women?”

She nodded, but didn’t offer an answer to the expansion of sex education (which was its own answer). She said she didn’t support free contraception, suggesting there were enough problems in healthcare and that we didn’t need something else to be free (a connotative answer to a broader question I didn’t ask).

This took us into the topic of foster care, where I pressed that the solution can’t be to pump the system full of newborn or uncared for children. This irritated her. She contested that birthrates were stagnating or declining across the country. I countered that we have a system that’s broken and stressed – and that I could find her a social worker from anywhere who would tell her they’re overworked and underpaid.

I detailed past and current experiences with children in foster care and spoke to the process being slow and intrusive. Adoption is expensive and is established really to exclude single parents and same-sex couples. I expressed that my concern is that this movement will result in children being processed through the system until they age out into poverty, with no money or poor education – doomed to repeat a viscous cycle. Mary Elizabeth suggested that I was proposing a dangerous idea: that poor people didn’t have a right to life. She added that it was infuriating that this issue focused so intently on women – to which I countered that that was because “men’s bodies aren’t up for legislation.”

[By this time, we had attracted listeners – potential voters and the District 2 County Council member Renee Reuter.]

After that, I rebuked her notion and detailed my own experience with poverty after my parents divorced. I recalled my mom working multiple jobs, while we had to rely on the support of our extended family. I referenced that divorce being the result of domestic violence – and that cycle of poverty and domestic violence being the life my older sister, who a judge forced to stay, has since endured. I said: “I know what it’s like to have food stamps – to hold a voucher from the government for food – and to be judged for that – as a child. I’ll never forget the look. That look is what you’re proposing for children.”

It was clear Mary Elizabeth and I were not finding much common ground in our 15 minutes – and we agreed, a longer, less interrupted conversation might be in order. To end our interaction, she shared her own perspective and experiences (requesting what she shared to not become common knowledge, so I won’t got into further detail). She requested I review her Missouri House of Representatives Page for further questions or details of her positions in the meantime, thanked me for the conversation, and said she’d like my support should I choose to participate in the Republican primary.

As she moved into another conversation, I flowed into one with Renee Reuter.

Renee Reuter

This conversation began with her introducing herself and asking if I’d like a pen. It was a nice pen. I said: “Congratulations. You’re the only Republican I’ve ever voted for.”

She seemed genuinely excited by that – and I actually really enjoyed chatting with her. She and I seemed to find quite a bit of common ground in our conversation and shared several ideas. I guess that happens when a moderate Republican and a moderate Democrat get together. Or maybe it’s the result of two people listening to one another.

Renee seemed curious about the intrusiveness of foster care. I replied: “You have a questionnaire at the beginning to gauge your qualification as a potential placement. It asks for your name, medical history, criminal record, income – this same information for your parents. Then it goes deeper, into things about your sexuality, sexual activity, number of sexual partners, whether or not you consume pornography – and if so, how often and what kind – do you have guns, do you drink, etc….”

This seemed to surprise her and led to a discussion of the ways in which foster care is ineffective – how it fails some kids. These kids don’t get the treatment they deserve in a timely fashion – and sometimes, the treatment is insufficient. I doubled down suggesting that social programs and this system be overhauled and better funded. To this point I said this was the problem with the push to restrict abortion access. This was a pitfall of Mary Elizabeth’s plan. It’s one thing to not support abortion as birth control – it’s another to pretend these risks aren’t real.

I again pushed on the need to support efforts toward single parent and same-sex adoption and to support measures that helped people who wanted to adopt without it being such an insanely expensive undertaking. I found willing ears, I think.

Beyond the depth of this topic, we touched base on the Fox C-6 School District awarding the Superintendent, Dr. Paul Fregeau a pay raise of nearly $7,000 a year into his three year contract. We discussed the potential role of sexism in his salary, related to the most recent district superintendent, Dr. Nisha Patel – who earned an astounding $40,000 less than Fregeau (prior to his 2022 raise).

We discussed the role of Adjunct Professors in the community college system – and the lack of meaningful compensation and benefits. We talked about how that was truly a disservice, especially throughout COVID, when adjuncts assumed the same health risks as full-time faculty without the benefit of health insurance – and without the money to afford to be sick.

We talked about the decisions of colleges and schools to not be able to afford their staff and faculty – to cut full-time positions – but to launch campus-wide renovations or to lose $1.4 million on a bad land deal. Additionally, we discussed the needs of students – in education and mental health support. We talked about a lot and share perspectives that really solidified our common ground – and reinforced why Renee Reuter is the lone Republican I’ve voted for.

In closing

I’m glad I attended this event tonight. If nothing else, it exposed me to other perspectives – but also, it allowed me to share my perspective. It allowed my voice to advocate directly, face-to-face, for causes I believe in (be it personhood, same-sex adoption rights, adjunct faculty rights, taxpayer rights, etc.). Granted, I wasn’t changing any minds tonight. That wasn’t my intention.

My goal was to create a dialogue, begin developing relationships, and to “get into the trenches” so to speak – to actively engage. I went with the intention to challenge – to ask uncomfortable questions – to listen, and to observe.

I recognize I live in a state where Democrats, especially the present breed of them, are increasingly finding themselves in uncompetitive races. There seems to be an aura of avoidance with “progressives,” as if they’re “above it.” The reality is – the work is on the ground – it’s at the ice cream socials with Republican candidates in rural and semi-rural areas. It’s not in the outraged online forums or in the prevailing cancel culture. The real work is hard and the hard work doesn’t happen without talking to people.

So, I encourage you to do what I’ve done. Make the call, attend the event – engage these candidates. Make them uncomfortable – challenge them with your presence and your questions. Listen to understand and be open to new ideas or perspectives. This is the work now – and when you’re not part of the conversation, then where does that leave you?