The Democratic candidates for congressional and state seats for Audrain and Callaway counties salvaged a canceled dual-party debate Thursday, reorganizing the event into a forum at KACO Kitchen in Fulton.

The previously scheduled debate was canceled after all but one of the Republican candidates decided not to participate.

The candidates who participated in the forum included Katy Geppert for the 3rd congressional district; Ayanna Shivers for Audrain County’s 10th state senatorial district; Jamie Blair for the state’s 43rd representative district, which includes Audrain and part of Callaway County; and Lisa Buhr for the state’s 49th representative district, which covers southern Callaway County.

Kent Hayden, candidate for the 43rd House district, said he did not receive debate materials until Monday, Oct. 1. He did not find it fair to participate when other candidates had received material in the previous week, he said. State Rep. Travis Fitzwater, who represents Missouri’s 49th state district, was attending a funeral out of state.

It is not known if Blaine Luetkemeyer, for Missouri’s third congressional district, ever confirmed participation in the debate. The only Republican candidate who still wanted to participate in the debate was State Sen. Jeanie Riddle, representing the 10th senatorial district, a representative of her office said.

The format for the forum was similar to the debate format. Each candidate gave a three-minute introduction, followed by two minutes on various campaign topics and a final two-minute conclusion. While each candidate had unique topics to discuss, the most common threads involved education, unions and minimum wage.

Katy Geppert

Geppert’s mother is a retired school teacher and is highly invested in making public schools the best they can be, she said.

“Public education is one of the greatest equalizers in this nation, because even if your parents are a minimum wage earner, or they earn a CEO salary, everyone should have the opportunity of a quality, free public education all the way from pre-k all the way through college,” she said.

Geppert said she comes from a union home. Her mother worked as a teacher and her father worked for AT&T for 22 years as a Communication Workers of America member.

“It’s really important for me to remember, growing up a lot of the benefits I was able to take advantage of was because my parents were in unions,” she said. “I know how much the middle class can benefit from unions being strong. … (Unions) really help keep workers’ rights in tact, and so I am definitely for unions.”

While Geppert is in favor of raising minimum wage, she said deciding how enact the policy is a more difficult question to answer, but she believes an across-the-board $15 minimum wage is not feasible for small businesses, especially in rural areas.

“One of the ideas I have heard floating around from many different sources is the government would still mandate a minimum wage, but it would be more contingent upon the cost of living in the area that you’re living in. That would certainly help the smaller businesses. … It also would benefit the community, because most likely, the minimum wage would go up, and therefore the people of the community … could put that back into the community,” Geppert said.

Ayanna Shivers

Public education, for Shivers, is the heartbeat of society, and she supports a well-funded education system from early elementary to graduate studies.

“If we’re looking to expand businesses and corporations and bringing more businesses and people to Missouri, we have to have an educated workforce,” she said.

Shivers said unions give workers a voice and set the bar for skill requirements and safety standards.

“I have lived in Right-to-Work states and you don’t have that voice,” she said.

Shivers also is in favor of increasing minimum wage in a way that doesn’t adversely affect small businesses and rural areas.

“I think if we’re going to raise minimum wage, then we have to make sure there also are things in place to prevent places like Walmart … hiring people for part time and not giving them benefits. (An employee) might have a good salary, but then they have nothing else,” she said.

Jamie Blair

Missouri has great public schools because it has great teachers, Blair said. However, those teachers are doing their job for very little money and schools are trying to maintain aging buildings with far too little capital, she said.

“We have to invest in the youth of this nation. We have to invest in the youth of the state of Missouri. We can’t grow business here, we can’t provide jobs if we can’t provide a skilled workforce,” Blair said.

For Blair, unions are the backbone of the middle class. She connected the decline of unions with the decline of the middle class

“(Unions) have been under an onslaught of continued attacks for years upon years, and that’s for a reason,” Blair said. “Not everybody wants to pay a living wage. Not everybody wants to pay for benefits. Not everybody wants to pay for a safe workplace. So, as long as we don’t have unions, (companies) don’t have anybody to fight them on that.”

Like the other candidates before her, Blair supported raising the minimum wage, but questioned whether the Fight for 15 movement was right for small town Missouri.

“A lot of people want to talk about the Fight for 15. I think $15 an hour is an excellent place to get to. Now whether or not that is going to be realistic in smaller rural communities or for smaller business right away, that’s a different thing,” she said.

Blair said increases in minimum wage should be linked to the cost of living, along with being incremental so small businesses have an opportunity to catch up. 

Lisa Buhr

Buhr is a state employee who works within the capitol, so she is able to see what is going on with education funding and legislation, she said.

“Last year, they said they fully funded our education formula, but that is only because they dropped the amount,” Buhr said. “They moved the goalpost. The only people that hurts are our children.”

Buhr said she asked her son’s teachers when a lawmaker last came to speak with the teachers about what they needed.

“Her answer was never,” Buhr said. “In 10 years, there had been no legislator who reached out to my children’s teachers to ask them what they needed or what they might want.”

Buhr's family has four generations of union membership.

“The unions gave my family a living wage. … We have a legislator right now who has constantly voted against labor. … If you have a legislator who is not listening to the constituency, you need … to vote them out if they’re not going to represent you,” she said.

Buhr also agrees that minimum wage should increase, because a raised tide lifts all boats.

“If you raise minimum wage, that brings everyone else up too,” she said. “I can’t imagine trying to raise a family on $7.85 an hour, and the faster we can take care of people who need to take care of their families, the better.”