National, partisan, identity politics creep into city council elections in Neosho, MO

It’s Morning Edition on KRPS; I’m Fred Fletcher-Fierro. Municipal elections will take place tomorrow in Missouri. That includes races for city council in Neosho. These elections are typically nonpartisan and free of political party affiliation. It’s so essential to the city that it’s enshrined into the city’s charter. Although recently some conservative candidates and groups are blurring the lines between what’s partisan and what isn’t. I’ve prepared this report to take a closer look.

Downtown Neosho, Missouri

Section 9.03 of the Neosho City Charter states, “The names of candidates for the Council shall be printed on ballots without party designation, and all election campaigns shall be conducted on a nonpartisan basis.”

In a Facebook post dated March 19, 2021, Republican Women of Newton County posted that they would host an in-person forum on March 23 at The Weston Place in Neosho. A section of the post reads, “We will be hearing from the Republicans running for the open city council seats, as well as incumbents on the Newton County Health Board.” The post also listed all of the Republican candidates. One of the candidates listed to speak was Charles Collingsworth.

The video from this event, streamed on Facebook Live, clearly shows six candidates speaking. The audio is extremely poor. Collingsworth sits in the middle of the candidates, wearing a long, sleeve, dark blue shirt. He begins, “Good evening, I’m Charles Collingsworth. I’m an at-large candidate for the Neosho City Council. That means I’ll be on every ballot.”

Collingsworth goes on to say that he’s won three state elections, highlighting that he was Neosho’s mayor in 2016 and 2017. He continues to speak for several minutes before passing the microphone to Kathy Pellegrin, another Republican candidate for an at-large seat on the city council. This appearance, not only by Collingsworth but also for the other candidates in attendance, seems to violate the Neosho City Charter.

I reached out to Mr. Collingsworth recently for an interview. He politely declined. He did tell me over Facebook chat that, “I’m running on traditional American values and conservative principles with no party affiliation, because no party has that market completely cornered”.

In our conversation, Collingsworth brought up one of his opponents for an at-large seat on the Neosho City Council. I “My name is Mitch Jarvis. I am the pastor at the Neosho United Methodist Church. I’ve been here about five years.” Jarvis is proud of his Southwest Missouri heritage and fondly remembers visiting his Uncle and Grandfather who both lived in Neosho.

Mitch and his family formerly lived in Kansas City before relocating back to Southwest Missouri, where he grew up. This is the first time he’s run for office. Jarvis says the heated national elections have trickled down to local races. “I think it’s too bad. It does not surprise me. Neosho is deeply conservative. Overwhelmingly Republican, although that is changing somewhat. We’re moving to a little more obviously a two-party county, city.” What’s also concerning to Jarvis is that he’s been publicly assigned a political party and that gives possible voters the wrong impression. “Throughout this process, I have been assigned a party, which in fact I don’t belong to. I have been assigned an agenda which in fact, is not mine. It’s false.”

Jarvis says that he sees a possible dangerous precedent being set in local races like Neosho. If elected, he would like to see more bike trails in the city because he thinks it would provide a higher quality of life and benefit the area economically. He sees local, non-partisan elections mirroring fiery national races. “What folks, or what these individuals are saying is, or creating is, an us versus them kind of system. Clearly, I am an independent candidate. I’m not registered with any party. I have voted for candidates, nationally and locally from both parties over the years.”

Julie Humphrey could tell you how unusual this election is in Neosho. Her family has lived in the city for generations. She’s running for a city council seat in Ward 3, the oldest part of Neosho. A primary concern for her campaign is ensuring that water pipes in her ward remain functional. She says this is the first time she can recall candidates for city council revealing which party they belong to. Like Jarvis, Humphrey has been targeted in Facebook posts by the Republican Women of Newton County as a Democrat, although she has not publicly identified herself with any party. “I guess I kind of feel like their kinda, overstepping, by trying to say who their opponent is, what party their opponent belongs to.”

There’s nothing partisan, according to Humphrey, with offices like city council, which commonly oversee plans for city’s infrastructure, parks, pools, budget, and lately Covid-19. “First of all, national politics don’t have a place in local city council elections. Most of those ideologies are not coming into play when you’re looking at replacing water pipes, fixing streets, improving things in the town.” According to the Neosho Charter, city council members receive $10 for attending city council meetings. Not to exceed $25 per month. Recent city council meetings have lasted between 3 and 4 hours. Julie highlights serving on a city council, whether in Neosho or anywhere else is essentially a community service. “The city charter is very clear. This is a non-partisan election. This is a service to your community of giving back to the community, and of helping to improve the community and helping to leave things better than they were before you in that role.”

How will this election play out? I reached out to a political science professor at Missouri Southern State University, Dr. William Delehanty. He responded in an email saying, “If candidates run informally as partisans, they are acting contrary to ‘spirit of the rules’. If non-partisanship is important to voters, then they need to consider how candidates running informally as partisans can act with good conscience in a system designed to avoid precisely this type of behavior.”. Delehanty also said that the officials would likely take office so long as the candidates are elected with non-partisan ballots. For KRPS, I’m Fred Fletcher-Fierro in Webb City

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