- - Thursday, July 27, 2017

After Jim Lembke’s days serving in the Missouri House had ended, he reminisced with one of his old colleagues. Mr. Lembke wondered if anything had actually gotten accomplished for the people of the state during his time in office. It wasn’t for a want of trying to enact a greater level of public accountability and stewardship of tax dollars. But what came about because of his efforts?

Mr. Lembke’s friend leaned in and said “Jim, we considered you to be the conscience of the caucus.” 

“That was probably the high for me,” Mr. Lembke told me in a recent conversation I had with my old friend from St. Louis. “I had a lot of lows because so many of the reforms you try to get through — don’t happen. So for him to tell me that when I stood up in a caucus and waved my Constitution in the air and challenged my colleagues by asking them, ‘Is this truly the Republican thing to do?’ — I made my mark. It had an effect.”

Mr. Lembke began serving in the Missouri House in 2001, but that wasn’t his first time running for office. He ran in 1994 against a 14-year incumbent — losing in a tight race. Two years later, he ran and lost again. Running for office takes a toll on the entire family, so when the next time came around, he asked his wife if he could give it one more try.

“Over my dead body,” she said — and he says that he “took that as a sign from the Lord that I probably ought to put this political thing on the back burner.”

Instead, he turned to serving in various ways with a local school — Providence Christian Academy — (that’s when I met Jim, as I taught humanities and rhetoric for a few years).

But then, two things happened to move Mr. Lembke back into another campaign. First, Missouri had put term limits into law in the 1990s, and by 2002 legislators were coming to the end of their service — including the man serving Mr. Lembke’s district in St. Louis County.

Second, his district received new geographical boundaries after the 2000 census, making it more competitive: from 37 percent Republican up to 44 percent. This put the district into play — a genuine possibility for a Republican win.

“I asked my wife if I could give it one more try,” Mr. Lembke recalled. “We prayed and about it and agreed the time was right. We won that 2002 race with about 51 percent of the vote — about 400 votes was our margin of victory.”

He served two more terms in the House and then stepped up to the next level by running for and winning a seat in the Missouri Senate. And that race was close, too. How close?

“I won by 70 votes out of 90,000 cast,” Mr. Lembke said with a laugh. “It came down to one vote per polling place.”

It was during his first election in 2002 that he met Dave Hageman, who at the time worked for the House Campaign Committee. Mr. Hageman helped Mr. Lembke in that campaign, and they’ve worked together on other political projects together since then. Mr. Lembke now operates a little political consulting company, and he considers Mr. Hageman and his colleague Steve Michael to be two of the most principled people in politics — people that he trusts.

When he ran for re-election, the Senate district had redistricted and 60 percent of the new territory was new to Mr. Lembke. Given the importance of name recognition, his campaign faced an uphill battle from the start.

“I had a good team, and we worked hard,” Mr. Lembke said. “We were diligent in making sure we tried to reach as many voters as possible — but we lost. And yes, that was a tough loss for me. I didn’t know why the Lord handed me that defeat. But once again, in hindsight, I see there is a reason for everything. I soon went to work as the chief of staff for one of my former colleagues in the Senate — and am enjoying it very much.”

Mr. Lembke understands the importance that faith-voters played in his elections. He was very active in his Lutheran church and saw a lot of Democrats cross over and vote for him because they knew him from the church.

“I also think that the way I ran my campaigns made a big difference,” Mr. Lembke said. “I made it a point to knock on as many doors in the district and to talk to people one-on-one. I did that every election cycle, and it really made me a fixture in the area. This is the retail brand of campaigning, and it makes up for being outspent in campaigns — and I was always outspent every time — by pretty good margins.”

Mr. Lembke says that the personal touch is the key to a good campaign: “When you get out there and let people know why you want to serve them — and let them know where you stand on the issues — they may not agree with you, but they will see that you’re running for the right reasons. I always made it a point that I wanted better government — a more fiscally accountable government. My goal was to go down to the capital and work on their behalf, to make sure we were being good stewards of their tax dollars.”

When asked how people of faith can be more engaged in the public square, Mr. Lembke said that it starts with Christians being vigilant and holding their legislators accountable.

“But this takes a lot of work. I have constituents who are engaged like this, and it means that they go online, they read, they understand new bills — it involves effort.”

And due diligence also means not blindly voting for a party. “You can’t just vote for the person because they’re a Democrat or Republican,” Mr. Lembke said. “As a Christian, I believe that we are called to be engaged in the process — to use our minds. The Lord has blessed us with a Republic and that means it’s our job to hold on to it — as one of our Founders stated.”

He encourages Christians to get involved in local campaigns by “finding a worthy candidate and then go and knock on some doors. Hold a coffee on their behalf. Help them get yard sign locations. Help them get elected.”

However, there’s one big caveat that Mr. Lembke offers to that suggestion:

“Make sure to ask them, ‘What do you believe the role and function of government is?’ If they say anything beyond, ‘To be good fiscal stewards of the people’s money and to protect your freedom and liberty,’ — then you need to question whether this is truly the person you want representing you in your state capitol or Washington. Because, even though they may have good intentions, they’re just going to get swept away by the tide. If they don’t know why they’re there, it’s just so seductive and overpowering — even the best of men and women end up becoming part of the problem instead of the solution.”

It other words — keep your convictions, serve the best interests of your fellow citizens (and the next generation), and be the conscience of your party. That’s the way to make an impact.

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