Colonaarticle

Missouri State Rep. Mike Colona (D-80)

 

Eying his last campaign for the Missouri House before being term-limited out, Mike Colona is poised to be the sole member of the LGBT Caucus that just two years ago had four out members in the Missouri General Assembly.

 

While heavily favored to win against Republican Michael Huett in November, Colona is taking nothing for granted and campaigning hard throughout Missouri’s 80th House District talking about important progressive issues and what he calls meat and potato politics.

 

The former House Minority whip is a lawyer in private practice specializing in cases from first amendment issues and personal injury to worker’s compensation. He has also taught criminal justice for the University of Missouri – St. Louis.votebranding2

 

#Boom sat down with Colona to talk about the campaign, LGBT issues and more.

 

When you kicked off this reelection campaign, you quoted a political mentor and said that you are either “running unopposed or running scared.” Could you talk about that?

 

All you have to do is take a look at the Eric Cantor race where a day before he thought he was what – 20 or 30 points up and just got blown out of the water. Ironically, then, what a month or two later he gets hired at triple his salary to be a lobbyist on K Street.

 

In my opinion the key to getting reelected is just being in touch with your constituency and keeping in touch with your constituency. Too many times, I think, we as politicians become complacent. It’s not that some of us think that we’re entitled to this; I just think that sometimes we’ll take our constituencies for granted. For example, this might be an 80-85 percent Democrat district, but if the Democrat that’s representing the district doesn’t’ talk to folks in the district, doesn’t report back to folks in the district, doesn’t attend neighborhood meetings or just talk to their neighbors about what’s going on and what’s important it’s not really good representation. That person's ripe to be kicked to the curb and allow for somebody who has a better grasp on what the neighborhood thinks, is doing and wants to upset the incumbent.

 

Going back to my political mentor which, by the way, the person I was referring to was a man by the name of Matt O’Neill. Matt was a State Representative out of St. Louis Hills for years – a conservative Democrat, president of the IBW, but a good Democrat down deep. Discrimination, from his standpoint – we had this discussion in 1990 – any discrimination, including discrimination of gay people was wrong. The short of it is we were both kind of trained and by trained I mean – this is how you want to get into politics, this is how you do it. Politics is a hands-on thing. It’s not just hands-on in terms of raising money and slugging it out with your opponent, but hands-on as far as taking care of your constituencies, answering their questions, and making sure their point of view is well represented.

 

If reelected, this is your last term in the House. Obviously there’s a lot that you’d like to accomplish. Now that you’re looking at your last two years where is your mind at in looking at the legislature and what you’d like to do?

 

A couple things. One, from a legislative priority standpoint, from something that – gosh, I only have two more years to try and be more impactful than I’ve already been – the issues are really kind of threefold. One, of course, is the Missouri Nondiscrimination Act. It’s just been interesting to see the dynamics at play in the General Assembly. In the past, the conservative leadership of the House has kind of made sure it’s gone nowhere. But if you were to independently talk to folks on both sides of the aisle in the House I think you would have enough votes to pass it over to the Senate. But the complaint has always been that our leadership won’t let it out. But we have a more traditional, moderate Republican who’s going to be Speaker of the House next year who may not do anything to assist in getting the measure passed, but I think more importantly, he’s not going to stand in the way. I think Speaker-Elect Diehl is the type of person where if he doesn’t agree with you but there’s enough votes to get it passed that’s fine, but you also need to give something. And the question just becomes in order to enact MONA, what is it that we as progressive or liberal Democrats have to do to assist that along. For example, a non-starter that has been on the table for a few years has been to reduce the standard of proof for discrimination. Presently, Missouri law says if .001 percent of the reason you were fired was one of the prohibited discriminatory classes like your age, or your race, or because of your sex, then you’ve discriminated and you should be sued and you should be remunerated. Like I said, for the last couple years on the table has been raising the standard.

 

Colona1What would be an acceptable level in their view?

 

An acceptable level under the proposed compromise from the past couple years would be 50.1 percent. So I could fire you and 49 percent of the reason I fired you is because you’re black and I’m a racist and that’s ok – under the proposed compromise.

 

You introduced a bill to overturn the same-sex marriage ban in Missouri. Obviously, most of us knew it didn’t stand a good chance of going anywhere in the legislature. Was that more of a stick to MONA’s carrot where by introducing that you might have some Republicans say: ‘well, I’m not with you on marriage but I’ll give you my vote on MONA?’

 

I introduced that resolution which, if passed, the legislature would have put it back on the ballot for a couple of reasons. One, I think the national debate is being amped up because of all of the court cases that are occurring. We had some high profile legal decisions here in Missouri with the dismissal of one case and the kind of confusing decision on another case. I thought the time was right to once again begin the conversation legislatively on whether or not Missouri has changed since 2004 when we enacted the constitutional ballot. Polling says that we’re almost there if we’re not there already. I thought if we didn’t start the conversation now, we’re going to be one or two years behind the curve. Part of it is continuing to educate the people in the legislature that yes, this discrimination does exist. There are a lot of people who would like to get married and remember what we’re talking about here is a relationship sanctioned by the state not something sanctioned by your religion.

 

My hope was that by reigniting that debate it would, by default, cause a few people to take a look at the other options and whether or not those other options were more palatable. So point one, this is inevitable. Wouldn’t you as a legislative body rather sit down and have a hand in crafting what a marriage equality policy looks like instead of having an interest group write a ballot initiative and put it to the people or have a court tell you what to do? It got mixed reception. Again, rank and file members on both sides of the aisle thought it was a good idea but leadership kind of bottled it up – meaning Republican leadership.

 

It speaks right to their argument of “activist judges” – well, now here’s your opportunity to deal with it legislatively.

 

One of my favorite things to do in the General Assembly is remind my Republican friends that what they do is not very Republican-like. A real Republican, a good Republican would do things like take an issue ways from “activist judges” and put it forward from a legislative perspective to craft it in a way that they could live with it.

 

I guess their worry is it would pass if they even entertained the idea of letting it go forward for a vote?

 

Again, unfortunately, I think that’s a worry among a minority of people in the Missouri General Assembly. It’s just, in my opinion; the vocal leadership is the one that bottles it up.

 

We’ll likely be seeing a decision in one of the three court cases challenging the same-sex marriage ban in Missouri soon. What does your gut say about this – are we going to get a positive decision legalizing marriage equality and will that happen before MONA?

 

My opinion might be biased because I’m also a lawyer, but I think the judges on the Missouri Supreme Court – the last thing they want to do is rule on that case. They don’t have a timeline. They can take that up whenever they want to. True, we’ve got to work through the Circuit Courts now and the Appeals Court and eventually get it to the Supreme Court. But I think in any situation like this any judge that has to go before an electorate to either be retained or be reelected would much rather the General Assembly come in and do something or judges at a higher level like the United Sates Supreme Court do something. I speculate of our seven Supreme Court Justices every single one of them is worried that – if I actually come out and remind people that discrimination exists, that this is a constitutionally protected right, I might not get retained the next time I’m up for election. Believe you me; I know I’m preaching to the choir – when it does happen that’s exactly what the right’s going to do.

 

Getting back to will it happen before 2017, I think it will, but I’m not sure it’s going to come from the Missouri Supreme Court. It may be the U.S. Court. I don’t think we’ll handle it legislatively before then. I think we’ll continue the conversation, maybe move it along, but until we have a dramatic turnover in the proportion of Republicans and Democrats in the General Assembly a resolution to put this on the ballot just isn’t going to gain any traction.

 

With Republicans having a super-majority in both chambers, how do you view your role as a Democrat? Colona2

 

It’s like a viewed my role in this veto session. Forget about all the budget overrides. We overrode 10 meat and potato bills – things that aren’t budget related. The only Democrat bill that was overridden in the General Assembly this veto session was a bill that was sponsored by Sen. Nasheed and me. I had 53 Democrats. It takes 109 votes to override something in the House which means I had to find a heck of a lot of Republicans to vote with me and I even lost some Democrats on the bill. What I’ve done over the past six years – I don’t want to say it’s my strategy, but part of my belief is this is how you do a good job for your people is to build a good relationship with the folks on the other side of the aisle. I don’t care if you’re an extreme conservative like Speaker Jones, if you’re a tea party conservative like Kurt Bahr, or you’re a moderate conservative like Anne Zerr. You can find something in common with every one of those folks. And it’s been my experience if you just engage them, begin the conversation, there’s a possibility that you can find something you have in common, that you agree with and move forward on it. And again, that was exemplified by the veto session when our neighborhood nuisance bill was overridden.

 

So getting back to how do you deal with a super majority… Continuing to build on those relationships and remind them that there are some Democrats that they trust when it comes to their opinion on things and how it affects folks. Because of that relationship and trust that built over the past six years you have to be effective in doing that.

 

If reelected, you’ll be the last of the LGBT Caucus – how do we get more out individuals to run for office?

 

I think it’s a couple of things. Again, I’m termed out two years down the road and there’s a whole new class coming in this January and then in 2016, when I’m turned out , at least the House – 45-50 percent of us are leaving. I think you might be surprised that sometimes we have LGBT folks right next to us and we just don’t know. It might take something that brings them to the point where they’re comfortable to come out. So who knows? It might be somebody who’s knocking on doors now and I’ll just pick a spot – in Fenton – going door to door, gets elected, he’s not telling people or she’s not telling people they’re LGBT. But then they get down here and say, ‘thanks for electing a gay person’ – that’s always a possibility, that’s really nice. Recruitment- it’s so hard to recruit really anyone to run for the General Assembly because the pay is so low.

 

But there is a recruitment effort?

 

We’re looking and by we – you guys know who the activists are, the folks that are politically inclined. Unfortunately, most of the people who are engaged in that are in employment situations where they couldn’t do it themselves. So the focus has to shift to – unfortunately, in my opinion – the younger generation or the retired generation, folks that can afford to go down to the General Assembly.

 

Do you think bringing back Victory Fund training to the area would help?


I will agree and disagree. But I will also tell you that if I picked up the phone tomorrow and said I needed help they’d be here.

 

There’s just x-amount of districts that have shown that they can elect an out individual.

 

MikeColonaFloorThat’s actually the other angle. I literally had a discussion yesterday with a 24-year-old who just got his graduate degree who’s from a suburban area. We were talking about politics. He’s an LGBT fella and he’s like, ‘I can’t run for office, I couldn’t get elected.’ And my response was, ‘well, where did you grow up?’ He said he grew up in Fenton and he was like, ‘oh, they’ll never elect a gay guy in Fenton.’ My opinion is, you know what, you grew up in that neighborhood, you go back home and you run for office. You’re not the gay guy running for office. You’re Tommy that we all grew up with who just happens to be gay. But that’s ok because you’re Tommy. We grew up with you. I think that huge preconceived perception of what an LGBT individual is or stands for is already overcome in an area where you grew up and people already know you. So I think over the next two years that should be part of the message. Trust people that you grew up with and trust in the neighborhood that you grew up with and if you want to get involved don’t let your sexual orientation get in the way.

 

Can you share a story when being an out gay man in Jefferson City changed a mind across the aisle?

 

This is actually a yearly occurrence. The first time it happened nearly blew me out of the water. It was my freshmen term, so I guess this would have been 2010. It was a Republican committeeman from a really conservative district who’s termed out. We’re riding the elevator the second to last day. He pulls me to the side and says, ‘hey, I want to thank you.’ I was like, ‘for what?’ He said, ‘I’ve never met a gay person – you’re the only one that I know. But I can tell you that after working with you over the past two years I’m not sure if I ran for office for the first time in my district that I could get elected because I would tell them It’s not right to fire people because they’re gay? Why are we discriminating on this marriage issue?’ And I’m sorry, this was his comment – ‘gay people aren’t child molesters, they’re in long-term relationships so why should we discriminate.’ But you have to take it where you can get it. But it’s been a similar experience over the years. Someone across the aisle or even a conservative Democrat who’s never met an LGBT person pulls me aside and say, ‘thanks for being here, you’ve really helped change my perspective.’

 

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