Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft is a man on a mission, fully committed to doing the job for which he was elected, which is keeping the Republican Party in power in Missouri.
Ashcroft ran for office on an unmistakable platform of doing everything possible to hold down the turnout of black voters, the disabled and others likely to cast unacceptably Democratic votes. That’s not quite how the goal was articulated, but that’s certainly what it was and is.
This was no small assignment for a man who had never held a public office, nor run anything, nor possessed any visible qualifications before getting elected secretary of state. Ashcroft is, of course, the son of John Ashcroft, the former state auditor, attorney general and governor, and U.S. senator and attorney general, all jobs in which he established a solid reputation as a staunch conservative and whatever you call the opposite of a civil rights leader.
Normally, one would leave the father out of this. Jay Ashcroft is his own right-wing zealot, so what does his right-wing zealot dad have to do with this? Trouble is, no one can name an actual reason that young Ashcroft became secretary of state other than his last name and the fact that his Democratic foe, St. Louis TV personality Robin Smith, lacked the statewide profile, political experience and money to survive the gusting winds of Hurricane Hillary.
Jay Ashcroft is the Eric Trump of Missouri, just not as erudite and polished.
In normal times, having a blockhead secretary of state would seem relatively OK. The Republicans were going to elect someone to the post who could master the dark arts of voter suppression, so why not have it be Heinz Doofenshmirtz?
Here’s why: There’s a pandemic in town, and though large numbers of Missouri Republicans regard it as an overrated cold, it is infecting and killing people throughout our state, in tragically rising numbers. Yet, despite Missouri Gov. Mike Parson’s dubious distinction as one of America’s feeblest gubernatorial responders to COVID-19, many knuckle-draggers here still regard him as too soft to tame their inner militias.
Enter our half-wit secretary of state. This past Friday, Jay Ashcroft made the stupefying announcement that he’d require more than one-third of his employees to return to the office today. That would be April 13, known on your calendar as the date that occurs eleven days before the end of Parson’s too-little-too-late quasi-shutdown of the state.
Yes, you read that correctly. With the curve of the arc still rising in Missouri, with growing numbers of our citizens contracting and dying from the coronavirus daily — and national and local health officials pleading for Americans to stay home — Jay Ashcroft has planted his flag as the only statewide official to order employees back to work.
Parson probably doesn’t give a flip, since he had to be dragged kicking and screaming into what was basically a shutdown suggestion April 3, and it’s almost impossible for Ashcroft or anyone else to run afoul of its generous exceptions. Far more importantly, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal government's top infectious disease expert, said Sunday that even if there were a gradual rollout of a return to normalcy, it would not begin anywhere until May or June at the earliest. Nice going, Dr. Ashcroft.
The story was first reported on Friday in St. Louis that about 40 of Ashcroft’s 185 employees would be called into work, but the Jefferson City News Tribune had a bit more detail — and more importantly — a clearer statement of its rationale.
It turns out that the 40 employees called into work by Ashcroft were in addition to 20 to 25 who had already been there for business services and election filing. That’s news in itself, and there was nothing said as to why those functions couldn’t have been handled remotely — as so many other state agencies are doing. But more important is the fact that 60 employees apparently will be at work this week in the secretary of state’s office.
And here’s the real news item, apparently exclusive to the safe confines of the right-leaning Jefferson City newspaper:
"We need to open this country up, but we need to do it in a safe manner,” Ashcroft told the paper, promising to follow safety measures. "We're cracking open the door to start that process."
Why, pray tell, is Missouri’s secretary of state going national, parroting Donald Trump’s political base messaging — which the president continually spews to the horror of his health advisers — about “opening up” the nation? And how did Jefferson City’s piddling little secretary of state’s office become the place where America decides to “crack open the door”?
That’s not all. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, Ashcroft said masks are purely optional for his employees, since he won’t be giving any to them. These people probably face more restrictions going to the grocery store.
Hopefully, Ashcroft will catch a break and none of his 60 employees will be carrying the virus, asymptomatically or otherwise, and spread it. Ashcroft did bring himself to tell employees who are sick to stay home, but there’s no evidence the office plans to take their temperatures or the like.
Maybe the 60 employees will practice proper social distancing, but these people do work for Jay Ashcroft. If they think like the boss, they might regard such precautions as snowflake stuff. The thought of depending on their good behavior is more than discomforting, and if Ashcroft’s recklessness should result in the virus spreading in Jefferson City and beyond, it would affect countless more people than just the culpable parties.
For his political purposes, mostly long-range, our secretary of state gets to be the bad boy who’s not going to let some exaggerated case of the sniffles keep his somewhat-essential employees from risking disease and death just so the fake-news media can spread their hoax like it was some virus. The essential work of disenfranchising voters cannot be stifled.
Speaking of that, conservative Republicans can take heart that Ashcroft’s essential work of voter suppression will carry on unabated. He was among the first in his position to proclaim that he’ll have no part of mail-in voting or any other such democracy nonsense. He was already feuding publicly over voting rights with Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas — who just happens to be a black man — right out of dear old Dad’s racial playbook.
Like his father, Ashcroft is a champion of voter photo ID laws that address a “voter impersonation” problem that literally has occurred zero times in Missouri history. It’s widely understood that requiring photo IDs has only one critical function nationally: to dampen Democratic votes. It’s a partisan issue everywhere, just like mail-in voting, which Trump cravenly admits he opposes because it’s bad for Republicans, but Ashcroft stood out from the crowd with this whopper before Congress in 2018:
"The evidence indicates that voter fraud is an exponentially greater threat than hacking of our election equipment."
What an eloquently Putin-esque expression for a hayseed from Missouri. At the time, it sounded like a really idiotic thing to say. But now, we have confirmation: These were the words of a real idiot.
And more ominously, a chip off the old block.
Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or catch him on St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).