COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — A faction of Republican lawmakers forced a bill through the Senate early Thursday morning that would give the Missouri attorney general power to prosecute St. Louis homicides, a move widely seen as a rebuke of Kim Gardner, the city’s first Black prosecutor.
Senators voted 22-8 to pass the bill, which would allow the attorney general, currently Eric Schmitt, a Republican, to prosecute St. Louis homicides if the office of St. Louis Circuit Attorney Gardner, a Democrat, doesn’t act on those cases in 90 days and if police ask for an intervention.
In Missouri, the attorney general has limited power to prosecute most crimes, a task typically left to local prosecutors. Prosecutors now can request help from the attorney general if needed. The measure would expire in 2023, a year before Gardner and Schmitt are up for reelection.
The measure still needs approval from the House, which hasn’t yet referred a similar bill to committee. That’s a strong signal of lack of support in that chamber.
Republican critics of Gardner blame her in part for a recent surge in homicides in the city and say she needs the attorney general’s help.
“The murder rate is definitely skyrocketing this year,” Sen. Andrew Koenig, who represents District 15 in St. Louis County, said Wednesday during debate on the bill. “I think the reason why is that criminals think they can get away with stuff.”
Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, asked lawmakers to pass the measure in a special session on crime after Gardner in July charged a white St. Louis couple with felony unlawful use of a weapon for displaying guns during a racial injustice protest outside their mansion in the Central West End.
The charges against the couple, Mark and Patricia McCloskey, also angered President Donald Trump. Parson has said he spoke with Trump about Gardner’s decision and told the president that it was difficult to remove an elected official from office in Missouri, though he didn’t say if Trump had asked whether Gardner could be removed.
Parson said Thursday that the policy had become “another political issue.”
“There’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘Hey, I need a little to help to take murderers off the street,'” he said.
That wasn’t the first time Gardner has clashed with top Republicans.
In 2018, she charged then-Gov. Eric Greitens, a Republican, with felony invasion of privacy. The charge accused Greitens of taking a compromising photo of a woman during an extramarital affair and threatening to post it if she spoke of their relationship.
Greitens admitted to the affair but denied that he committed a crime. The charge was later dropped. But Greitens, who also was facing unrelated ethics complaints, resigned in June 2018.
Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, said that Gardner had faced particularly harsh criticism as a Black woman and that some Republicans unhappy with her decisions were trying to take power away from her.
“This is about a young African American female who dared to challenge a Republican governor of a wrongdoing and bad behavior,” Nasheed said.
But Sen. Bob Onder, R-St. Charles, said in a debate on the bill that Gardner was wasting time on “political prosecutions.” He has called her incompetent and soft on crime.
“She is not doing her job,” said Onder, who led the push for the bill. “She’s too busy prosecuting the McCloskeys and the former governor while children are dying.”
Despite criticism, voters picked Gardner over the city’s former lead homicide prosecutor in an August primary. She is heavily favored to win the November general election in the overwhelmingly Democratic city.
Democrats argue that Republicans now are trying to undermine Gardner and the vote of St. Louis residents in support of her.
“It’s an attack and affront on Democracy and the voters in St. Louis and across Missouri,” Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City, said.
Leaders of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys issued a statement Thursday describing the bill as a “miscarriage of justice.”
“The arguments used to prop up this bill apply equally to any jurisdiction and any political office,” according to the statement, signed by the association’s board members. “What happens when some statewide politician does not like the decisions made by a rural sheriff? Will the Missouri State Highway Patrol be substituted for local law enforcement?”
Passing the measure in the Senate was an ordeal.
Work in the Senate stalled for hours as supporters of the bill brought back another Republican lawmaker who had already left Jefferson City in order to get the numbers to advance the legislation. A vote to use a combative procedural maneuver to force a vote on the bill divided Republicans.