In January, the two floated a bill to speed up a state takeover of the school district, which is already slated for June 2002 if the district doesn't regain accreditation. Though the bill shouldn't have come as a shock -- they'd been talking about the idea since November -- it landed like a bomb. The sharpest piece of shrapnel came from school board member Elma Warrick in a March 9 interview with KCUR 89.3's Frank Morris. The "community," she said, didn't need outsiders making decisions for it. "And that is what I'm hearing emanating from the statehouse from a bunch of rural, rednecked, racist individuals."
The comment was asinine not only for its own racism but also because Campbell and Van Zandt are two of the House's most progressive members. This session, Campbell proposed funding for low-income health centers and sought repeal of the death penalty. "There aren't many of our ilk in Jeff City," Van Zandt says. "We vote pro-choice, against concealed carry, for family planning."
Though Warrick's comment was despicably extreme and plain wrong (she later apologized), the idea that a black district was threatened by hostile white takeover echoed in Kansas City and Jeff City. The Legislative Black Caucus coerced the Democratic leadership into snubbing the bill by threatening to withhold crucial support from Speaker Jim Kreider -- a pro-gun farmer from Nixa. The bill's death in committee after all-out lobbying against it by unions compounded the insult.
Judy Morgan, president of the Kansas City Federation of Teachers, says state takeovers elsewhere haven't worked, people who live in the district should be allowed to elect their own school board representatives and a takeover would have negated teachers' contracts.
Van Zandt, she says, had been "supported by labor unions every time he ran for office. But we disagree on this issue. From the quotes I've seen in the paper, he made some pretty anti-union comments."
Van Zandt says he didn't know labor opposed the bill until "after the fact -- when I read in the Labor Beacon that I am an 'anti-union zealot.'" He remembers exactly one labor vote on the floor during his seven years in the statehouse -- a 1999 bill to allow public employees to unionize. He voted for it -- but leveraged his vote when he discovered that the Missouri AFL-CIO didn't ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. He amended the bill so that "in order for them to be considered as a bargaining agent, they'd have to disclose that they did not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation," says Van Zandt, who is gay.
Campbell and Van Zandt are about as far from being rednecks as Party Cove is from being the site of the state's next AA convention.
And even as the city enjoys a relatively quiet summer break from the school district -- hell, the only big news is Judge Dean Whipple's order for a patronage investigation -- Campbell and Van Zandt are still getting calls. "People are worried, disgusted, wondering what can be done," Campbell says. Much of the feedback is coming from African-Americans, telling them they're doing the right thing.
Which is more than they got from their black friends in the legislature. Throughout the session, Campbell and Van Zandt took turns driving Senator Mary Groves Bland to Jeff City. But Bland, who knows full well the two aren't racist, did little to counter that rhetoric when it began poisoning the city. "I can't explain what their intentions are," she says. "All I can say is it's not a solution. I've been very disappointed and surprised because Tim and Marsha have always been great allies to education and the community's interest."
If Campbell and Van Zandt have been right on so many things, why aren't their allies even considering the possibility that they might be right on this one too?
"Our motivation was, we see a bad problem getting worse," Van Zandt explains. When they introduced their bill, eighteen months remained before the scheduled takeover. "You're talking about a first grader who would be going into the third grade when the state would eventually step in. In the life of a first grader, that's a huge amount of time for nothing to be going on."
They had hoped such a drastic proposal would provoke counter proposals leading everyone to work together. Instead, the debate stripped away any civility that had camouflaged the city's warring factions.
"I'm a kid of the '60s, a hippie-dippie youth," Campbell says -- a statement whose mere utterance disqualifies her from the rural redneck club. "The Martin Luther Kings of the world said that color shouldn't matter. Now what we seem to be hearing from the black community is it does matter."
And the fallout has provided some unsettling political insights. "We had Democrats telling us, 'You don't know what you're doing -- you're giving the Republicans this issue and they're beating us over the heads with it,'" says Van Zandt. He's starting to believe his colleagues were right: By their lack of action, Democrats handed over the issue. "I'm beginning to think there's some truth that key constituency groups within the Democratic party have tied the party's hands on reforming education. We can't do anything because we're so deeply in bed with these interest groups. So the Republicans just waltz in, and they're becoming the champions of urban education." As a result, he's afraid that "more people, out of frustration, are going to start looking at really bad ideas, like vouchers."
"This whole thing is just so frustrating," Campbell adds. "It's frustrating that 30,000 little kids are getting a lousy education, it's frustrating that the Democrats are saying, 'Hey, we think that's okay,' the Black Caucus says, 'Hey, that's okay,' labor says, 'That's okay.' I mean, this is our party; these are our people. Why do they think this is okay and we don't?"
If you can figure out the answer to that one, you get out of summer school early.