Riverfront Times founder steps into race for Congress in Missouri

By Don Corrigan

Ray Hartmann often jested that he fought his way off his native “mean streets of Ladue” to become an alternative newspaper tycoon. He dropped that line after selling the Riverfront Times in 1988 to New Times Media.   

Even after he sold the popular weekly after a quarter century of column writing and muckraking, Hartmann has remained a St. Louis media staple. His opinion-making found a periodic presence in the RFT, St. Louis Magazine and on TV’s Donnybrook show on the Nine Network.

Perhaps it was fitting that Hartmann announced his candidacy for the 2nd Congressional District on a March edition of the often noisy KETC-TV program. He has been a regular on the political roundtable, known as Donnybrook, for 37 years.

Hartmann filed for the August Democratic primary with the intention of taking on incumbent Republican Ann Wagner in the fall. Both candidates are likely to get past their party primaries on Aug. 6.

Wagner presents a formidable challenge for Hartmann in the conservative district. U.S. Rep. Wagner, R-Ballwin, first won the seat in 2012 and easily won re-election in 2014 and 2016. Wagner’s share of the vote fell to 51.2% in 2018 and 51.9% in 2020, before rebounding to 54.9% in 2022.

Redistricting – some critics say “gerrymandering” – added the staunch conservative counties of Franklin and Warren to the reliably Republican district. Even so, Wagner represents the only district in heavily red Missouri decided by a margin of less than 12 percentage points in 2022.

Does that margin present an opening? Missouri political observers say: “There’s no way!” Journalist friends say, off the record, that only cognitive dysfunction can explain what Hartmann is doing.

They ask: Why would Hartmann give up his distinction as the William Randolph Hearst of alternative newspapers, only to become just another sacrificial lamb for Democrats in a proven right-wing Republican district?   

These same journalist friends ask why Hartmann wants to move to the dark and seamy world of politics after a notable career in journalism? During his tenure at the RFT, Hartmann’s paper won dozens of awards from the Missouri Press Association, along with the coveted Gold Cup.

The Dark Side?

“The Dark Side?” asked Hartmann in disbelief. “I really don’t see politics as any more the ‘dark side’ than journalism. “I think journalists and politicians are all looked upon as bottom feeders.”

“In fact, I used to think that telemarketers were in the worst profession,” added Hartmann. “But after thinking about it, journalists, politicians and telemarketers all kind of doing the same things at one time or another.”

Hartmann is proud of his journalism credentials and his non-partisan bona fides early in his career. After high school, he signed on as an undergrad with the University of Missouri and its prestigious J-School, making his mark there in the early 1970s.

“I was at Mizzou eight semesters and six of those semesters I was managing a newspaper,” said Hartmann.

Those semesters included reporting and editing stints with The Maneater and the Campus Courier. Right after graduation, Hartmann said he visited 20 newsrooms in 15 days to ask for a job.

“I just went into newsrooms with my story clips and didn’t even make an appointment,” recalled Hartmann. “It took me a while to realize that it doesn’t really work this way, but I finally got a job covering stories for a newspaper in Albany, New York.”

Hartmann worked in the New York state capital for 14 months, before coming back to Missouri in 1975 to audition as a speech writer for Republican Christopher “Kit” Bond, who was running for governor against Democrat Joe Teasdale.

“Bond gave me three topics to write speeches on and I pulled an all-nighter and handed him three speeches the next morning,” said Hartmann. “I don’t know how good they were, but he hired me.”

Hartmann said he worked for Bond for 18 months, rode in a parade for Republican Bob Dole and later voted for Republican Gerald Ford in 1976. He said those past experiences show he can be bi-partisan, even if it was a somewhat distant past.

Hartmann added that his would-be Republican opponent in 2024, Ann Wager, is “a nice lady” and he hopes that any political contest between the two of them will be courteous and civil.

Courteous And Civil?

Wagner may be “a nice lady,” according to Hartmann, but once he begins to talk about campaign issues, the gloves quickly come off. Hartmann, now in his early 70s, began the RFT in 1977. The spirit of the old muckraker is hard to suppress.

“Wagner’s flip-flopped on so many issues – and she flip-flopped on supporting Trump,” said Hartmann. “When the Access Hollywood tape came out with Trump bragging about grabbing women’s privates, she called him a ‘reprehensible predator’ that she could absolutely not support.

“Three weeks later she flip-flopped and announced her support for him for president in 2016. What happened in three weeks?” asked Hartmann. “It’s not easy to reconcile for someone crusading against sex trafficking.”

Hartmann also goes off on Wagner for “flip-flopping” on her support of Republican House Speakers this past term. He noted that U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio has been discredited with accusations that he failed to protect athletes on the Ohio State University wrestling team when he was the team’s assistant coach in the 1980s and ’90s.

Former OSU wrestler Mike Schyck is one of the hundreds of former athletes who say they were sexually abused by school doctor, but their complaints to Jordan went nowhere. Schyck has said Jordan has no business as a U.S. House Speaker or a congressman.

“When Republicans were having their war over who was going to be House Speaker, Wagner was supporting Steve Scalese,” recalled Hartmann. “And when she was asked whether she could support Jim Jordan for Speaker, she said: ‘Oh, hell no!’

“There are a lot of good reasons to say ‘hell no,’ given Jim Jordan’s past and his record at Ohio State,” said Hartmann. “But then she flipped and supported him. The woman is absurd.”

At Home: Constituent Issues

Closer to home, Hartmann goes after Wagner for failure to support the bipartisan infrastructure bill that is bringing jobs to Missouri, and for her opposition to compensation for victims of radioactive contamination in St. Louis North County.

Hartmann shows only brief hesitation before likening Wagner to the infamous Queen Mary Antoinette. The French monarch is known for her response upon being told that her starving peasant subjects had no bread.

She sneered that the peasants could “eat cake.” The famous anecdote has been cited as an example of Marie Antoinette’s uncaring obliviousness to the conditions and daily lives of her subjects.

“Wagner wouldn’t vote for infrastructure legislation that helps Missouri citizens, because she says she lives by principles of: ‘How are we going to pay for it?’ Everything has to be paid for,” Hartmann said.

“She says she is all about fiscal responsibility,” added Hartmann. “Well, she didn’t worry about the deficit – and how we’re going to pay for it – when she voted for Trump’s trillion-dollar tax cuts for billionaires.”

Hartmann also notes how Wagner initially opposed compensation for victims of radioactive contamination in North County. Her Republican colleague in the Senate, Josh Hawley, supports the families with illnesses blamed on local companies who helped construct atomic bombs.

“I’m not a fan of Josh Hawley, but he was right to blast her for not supporting the people suffering in the Coldwater Creek area,” said Hartmann. “This is a terrible problem that’s been known about for a long time. I published stories about it in the RFT in the early 1980s.

“Wagner turned her back on North County, and then backed off and flip-flopped when Hawley blasted her for not supporting them,” said Hartmann. “She doesn’t get to just back off on her comments not supporting our citizens in North County.”

Hartmann said Wagner once again “proved to be the Mary Antoinette of Missouri,” and he will call her out on it. He said she has a reputation as a newsletter politician, who won’t debate and won’t have townhall meetings.

Hartmann said he is unwilling to reveal his political strategy for the House race, but a campaign slogan may be developing here. He insisted that Wagner is the Mary Antoinette of women’s health issues in the state.

Women’s Reproductive Health

Reproductive choice has been illegal in Missouri since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that recognized a constitutional right to abortion. Hartmann said Wagner enabled that decision by supporting a “Trump Court.”

“I’ll be out in front of people on the issue of women’s health with no ambiguity,” said Hartmann. “I’ve been pro-choice for Missouri much longer than Ann Wagner has been pro-life.

“The biggest speech in my career was when I spoke on reproductive freedom alongside Mel Carnahan at the State Capital in Jefferson City,” said Hartmann. “I spoke to 10,000 people on Republicans going too far in interfering with women’s health choices.”

Democratic gains in midterm elections in 2022 have been attributed to anger over the June 2022 court decision in Dobbs overturning the Roe. Every state with a pro-abortion issue on the ballot since Dobbs has seen reproductive rights affirmed, even in red Kansas and Ohio.

Hartmann said he expects intense interest in the abortion issue this year in Missouri, especially if activists are able to collect enough signature to get a constitutional amendment legalizing the procedure on the August or November ballot.

“This is the first general election since the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade, and I would most definitely vote, if given the opportunity in Congress, to restore nationally Roe v. Wade protections for women.”

Hartmann had only praise for previous Democrats who have challenged Wagner and gone down to defeat. He said it’s tough to win with one-party rule in state government and with majority of the Missouri Congressional Delegation being hard right.

The first-time candidate said he hopes name recognition from his decades on TV’s Donnybrook will give him a leg up in the 2024 race. He said he has had his say on television, and he wants to hear what district residents have to say.

“I plan on going door-to-door in places like Eureka, Pacific and Washington and asking people what they think – what their views are” he said. “I am going to listen to what they have to say,” Hartmann explained.

“I’m an optimist. I think I can win,” added Hartmann. “I listened to a lot of people say that I couldn’t start a St. Louis newspaper when I was 24. I did okay with the RFT. Running for Congress is the closest I can get to that feeling I had when I was 24 – and being told it can’t be done.”


Pollster has eyes “wide open” on Hartmann candidacy

by Don Corrigan

Incumbency is almost insurmountable. That’s a truism in America and Missouri, according to Ken Warren, a political science professor at St. Louis University with decades of expertise on polling, democracy and politics.

He’s not optimistic about Ray Hartmann’s chances in his quest to unseat U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin. Pollster Warren has been a frequent guest on Hartmann’s KTRS radio show and counts him as a friend.

“Beating an incumbent is very difficult,” said Warren. “On average, 93% of incumbents win reelection. Sometimes that percentage is even higher. I think Hartmann thinks he has a shot because she has been “a silent, missing representative.”

Warren said Wagner has been a risk-adverse politician in her six terms in office. He said her “rose garden” strategy has worked so far. She has avoided controversy and visibility.

“Wagner will frustrate Hartmann by ignoring him, just as she has done to other challengers,” noted Warren. “It demeans a challenger to ignore them.  It implies the challenger is not worthy of their attention.

“Incumbents most often ignore their challengers because they do not want to raise their name recognition and give them credibility as a serious candidate,” Warren explained.

Hartmann also faces an uphill battle because Wagner’s district is justifiably rated as a safe district. Not as safe as some are, but pretty safe with many more Republicans than Democrats.

“However, you cannot predict with absolute certainty election results,” said Warren. “You do not know what may develop. Wagner’s district is the most vulnerable one in the state. All other districts are safer for the incumbent.”

Warren said Hartmann does have two advantages previous Democrats have not had in their failed campaigns against Wagner. He has name recognition and is a familiar face on television. He also has plenty of experience talking politics.

“Hartmann has name recognition, but maybe not as much as he thinks,” said Warren. “He has been on Public TV a long time, but this venue has a limited following.

“As a pollster, I can tell you that if I asked: ‘Do you know who Ray Hartmann is?’ – a significant percentage would say, ‘No.’ Wagner probably has better name recognition, but polls show about a third of voters can’t name their own U.S. Representative.”

Warren objects to those who say Hartmann is “going to the dark side,” or sullying his credentials as a journalist in getting into the muck and mire of political jousting.

“I don’t see any significant transition from his journalistic past with his political future,” said Warren. “How can he lose any objective credentials when he’s been much more of an opinion columnist than a reporter? His pieces for RFT, Raw Story and more are opinion pieces.”

“But I would add that he will not become the newest member of ‘the squad’ in Congress if he gets elected. He is not that liberal. In fact, some of his positions are very moderate on many issues, as he has expressed on TV’s Donnybrook.”

If Hartmann suffers the same fate as other Democratic challengers on Nov. 5, 2024, in his attempt to unseat Wagner, Warren said he believes he will likely return to journalism in some fashion.

“Journalism is in his blood. He writes good columns, devoting a lot of research to them. But print journalism is like the horse and buggy,” said Warren. “Good-paying jobs are evaporating and AI poses threats to all journalists.

Ray is getting old. I’m not sure he would reenter journalism as a career,” observed Warren. “Some of the media outlets he’s written for have gone belly up. But he will likely dabble in journalism for the rest of his life.”

Of course, if Hartmann manages the “impossible” in defeating incumbent Wagner, the past publisher of the RFT will join one of the most represented careers in the U.S. Congress after lawyers: that would be journalists.

Don Corrigan is former editor of the Webster-Kirkwood Times and emeritus professor at Webster College.

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