Campaign Trail: Noranda's reach looms large in 5th District contest
When state Rep. Jamilah Nasheed ratcheted up criticism this week of state Rep. Jeanette Mott Oxford for taking a donation from Noranda Aluminum, it was meant to showcase hypocrisy of one of her rivals in the 5th senatorial district contest.
There’s just one quirk with Nasheed’s line of attack: She also took a campaign contribution from Noranda, a company that in recent years has become particularly generous in providing campaign donations.
It may be a lesson on how seemingly straightforward criticism thrown around in the heat of a campaign arrives often with more than a hint of nuance.
This episode started when Nasheed’s campaign unveiled a "microsite" on Thursday attacking Oxford, D-St. Louis, for accepting a $5,000 contribution from Noranda. The website – “JMO’s Dirty Money” – showcases instances when the company ran afoul of environmental regulations, which in turn aims to contradict Oxford’s eco-friendly rhetoric.
Besides the $5,000 donation, the Beacon reported earlier this week that a political action committee known as Missourians Against Higher Utility Rates is sending out mailers in support of Oxford. Noranda funded the committee in the past, although a recently formed nonprofit entity known as Missourians for Low Energy Costs gave the committee $275,000 earlier this month.
But Missouri Ethics Commission records show that Nasheed received a $1,000 donation from Noranda in November 2011. That prompts an obvious query: How could Nasheed attack Oxford for accepting so-called “dirty money” when her campaign took a contribution from the same company?
When asked in a telephone interview by the Beacon, Nasheed replied, “That’s a good question.”
“What happens is lobbyists who I am affiliated with, they go out and ask their contributors to give money to the candidates,” Nasheed said. “And so probably what happened was that one of my supporters went to one of their supporters – or whoever their clients were – to ask for a donation. I myself have no relationship with Noranda whatsoever. I don’t support Noranda getting any money to lower their utility rates on the backs of constituents increasing their rates.”
Nasheed said a key difference is that Oxford is making environmental protection a major element of her campaign. And while she’s not necessarily antagonistic toward environmental issues, Nasheed said there are other pressing concerns the district, including eradicating crime, rebuilding neighborhoods and lifting up an unaccredited school district.
“She comes off as she’s an environmentalist,” Nasheed said. “But she is taking monies from those individuals that have been cited on several occasions for polluting the air. And so, I’m not saying that Jeanette is a bad person. But what I’m saying is if you’re going to say that you’re an environmentalist, then hold to that.”
Oxford, perhaps unsurprisingly, sees things differently. She said in a telephone interview that Noranda “must have learned enough about my record of standing up for low-income people that somehow is maybe compatible with whatever their desires are through rates or utilities.”
“I’m somewhat flattered that she hasn’t found anything against me to attack exactly other than something about a group that gave me money – and only one group that gave me money,” said Oxford, adding that many of the charges within the website are "really, really old" and would have to be addressed by Noranda. “I’ve received over 400 donations now. And for her to find one to quibble about proves just how hard it is to tar and feather me.”
In addition to pointing to how Nasheed’s taken contributions from a PAC aligned with House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, Oxford’s campaign released an e-mail blast on Thursday reiterating her endorsement from the Sierra Club.
Nasheed has argued that her good relationships with Republicans will make her more effective in the GOP-dominated Missouri Senate.
Both Nasheed and Oxford say they take Noranda’s side when it comes to its well-known crusade: killing legislation making it easier for utility companies to raise rates to fund construction of a nuclear power plant in Mid-Missouri.
Noranda fought against efforts in 2009 and 2011 to change the state’s construction work in progress law, which bars utility companies from passing on construction costs to consumers during construction. The most recent – and unsuccessful – effort in 2011 attempted to amend CWIP to pay for a site permit for a new nuclear reactor in Callaway County.
AmerenUE – whose headquarters is located within the 5th District – had pushed for legislation to change the state’s CWIP laws, contending the move would pave the way for a massive construction project that could create thousands of jobs and provide abundant power. Both Oxford and Nasheed said they are against such a plan, arguing that it would harm low-income consumers.
Nasheed, for instance, noted there was “no way in hell” she would support increasing utility rates, especially on seniors with fixed incomes. She claim she hasn't had a good relationship with the utility company.
Added Oxford: “The people voted that in by a very strong vote of 75 percent. And we shouldn’t repeal the construction work in progress. And is my main concern about major employers? You know what my record is. I’ve worked for low-wage and moderate-wage people all the time.”
[Worth noting: Sen. Robin Wright-Jones, a St. Louis Democrat who Nasheed and Oxford are seeking to unseat, was a major supporter of the 2011 effort to reconfigure CWIP. One of her bills was used in 2011 as a vehicle to make headway on the issue, an effort that ultimately proved unsuccessful.]
So why would Noranda choose Oxford over Nasheed? Both candidates have their theories.
“They have put out approximately five mailers,” Nasheed said. “So truly, they’re looking for her to carry their water. Not Jamilah Nasheed.”
Oxford countered that plenty of businesses are “investing” in her campaign because people “are figuring out I’m predictable.”
“When I give people my word, they know that’s how I’m going to stand and that I investigate carefully,” Oxford said. “I won’t vilify or demonize other people in the Senate. But I’ll try to promote a very positive working environment.”
Campaign Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.