A bill sponsored by State Rep. Dave Hinson, R-St. Clair, to allow first responders to seek elected office and engage in other political activities has been signed by Gov. Jay Nixon.
Hinson told The Missourian on Tuesday that this bill protects the First Amendment right of emergency responders to express their political beliefs.
“I appreciate the governor’s support of the First Amendment,” Hinson said.
The bill states that first responders, such as firefighters, police officers and paramedics, can engage in political activities if they are not in uniform or on duty at the time.
Franklin County Sheriff Gary Toelke said law enforcement officers must remain neutral. Therefore, he said he does not know if it is a good idea for deputies to get politically involved. But at the same time, Toelke said he supports law enforcement officers’ First Amendment rights as long as their views do not interfere with their duties.
The legislation also removed previous language that prohibited police officers from making political contributions or being an official in a political party.
The fact that emergency responders must be out of uniform before they solicit votes is a “safeguard,” Hinson said. This way there will be no fear of intimidation, he added.
By requiring officers to be out of uniform and off duty, there should not be a conflict between job duties and seeking office, Hinson said.
“It’s not good to intermingle the two,” he said.
He said he does not want police officers and firefighters going door-to-door seeking votes in full uniform. They should simply be “John Q Citizen” when they are engaging in such activity, he said.
Some city councils and other government bodies have passed ordinances disallowing employees to run for political office, such as school board, he said. But now they will be able to because the bill prohibits political subdivisions of the state from upholding such policies.
Not all first responders have been barred from seeking public office in the past. For instance, Hinson noted that a Franklin County sheriff’s deputy is the mayor of Sullivan.
But he said he has heard from some Franklin County deputies that they have been prohibited from displaying yard signs in support of candidates.
Hinson is a volunteer firefighter in St. Clair and is also a paid paramedic for the private Christian Hospital in north St. Louis County.
The fire department in St. Clair does not have a policy barring its members from seeking political office, but they can’t campaign in uniform, he said.
Hinson said he currently serves in the Legislature with a representative from the West Plains area who had to step down as a police officer to run for office.
Likewise, Hinson said he has a friend who works for the fire department in Springfield who was not allowed to run for the school board because of the city’s policy.
First responders are some of the most community-minded people, and it does not make sense to keep them out of public office, he said.
Hinson added that some community boards can’t even fill all of their seats due to lack of interest. Now that first responders can run for the positions, hopefully there will be less vacancies on local government boards, he said.
Hinson is also a board member with the St. Clair School District.