Ted House was the last Democrat standing in St. Charles County.
Until Dec. 31, House had been in elected office for 32 years, a county circuit judge since 2003. Before that he was a state senator and representative. At the time of his retirement, he was the only elected Democrat from St. Charles County in county or state government.
That’s something he’d like to change. And it is one reason, amid the most divided political times of his lifetime, that he’s stepping down now, and breaking from the shackles that, as a judge, kept him quiet about his politics for almost all of the early 21st century.
“I was the last one,” House says of his party. “That’s going to change. I don’t think the people of St. Charles County want to go off the cliff with where the Republican Party is going.”
He’s speaking, of course, of the new party of Trump. The party of QAnon. The party where state executive committees are passing censuring resolutions against the seven Republican members of the U.S. Senate who dared to vote in favor of convicting Donald Trump at his impeachment trial, the most bipartisan such vote in history.
House is well aware that many of the elected officials in his area have embraced these conspiracy theories and divisive politics. State Rep. Justin Hill, R-Lake Saint Louis, attended the “Stop the Steal” rally that preceded the insurrection Jan. 6 at the nation’s Capitol. State Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis, serves in the seat House once held, and he presses forward with virtually every Trump conspiracy theory out there.
This is not the St. Charles County where House spent much of his adult life serving the public. At least not the one he knows. “St. Charles County is full of people who ought to be voting Democrat,” he says. The county, once a Democratic stronghold, gradually grew more Republican as its population grew in the 1980s and 1990s. “The Republicans have figured out how to get people to vote against their economic interests,” House says.
It is those interests — well-paying union jobs, quality public schools, good roads, access to health care — that drove people like House to live in St. Charles County, he says.
So what happened? Well, to some degree, Trump happened.
I first met House during a different political era. It was March 2011, and it seems like a lifetime ago. House and his good friend, St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann, a Republican, had started hosting a series of speeches meant to bring members of their two parties together. Called the Bates-Krekel Society, the program was named after two elected officials in St. Charles County, Barton Bates and Arnold Krekel, who put aside their political differences during the Civil War to support the Union.
The first speech was by Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, then Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, a Republican. Both men carried St. Charles County in their respective statewide elections in 2008. There were other speakers in coming years, but the idea faded away.
House wants to bring it back, if not formally, at least the idea that it’s OK to be a Democrat, or Republican, or independent or whatever, in deep-red St. Charles County. That used to be the driving theme in politics in Missouri, House says, both during the time he was in the majority in the Legislature, and at the end of his service when Republicans took over. The Missouri Senate flipped in 2001; House, after being term-limited out of his seat, was elected as a judge in 2002.
“We used to all know that we could only do big things when we worked together,” House says. “That’s gone.”
America’s new president, Joe Biden, won on a platform of bringing back such bipartisan cooperation. He’s already running into headwinds from a Republican Party that seems more interested in fighting among themselves. House stepped down from being a judge because at the local level he wants to engage in such high-minded, rational conversations.
In a county built on the backs of union labor, with plenty of Democrats, who, like him, don’t like seeing their Christian faith used as a political wedge, there should be more than one elected Democrat, let alone zero, he says. Now free from his judicial restraints, he hopes to make it so. First on the agenda: Getting more people to the polls.
“I’m glad to be a member of the political party that wants more people to vote,” House says. “If people will vote, Democrats will win.”
For 32 years, the 61-year-old found enough Democratic votes to win various elections. Based on recent election results in St. Charles County, though, House is fighting an uphill battle. In the most recent countywide elections, few Democratic candidates topped 40% of the vote. Those voters deserve representation, too, House says. He’s glad to be back in the political trenches to see that their voices are heard.