St. Louis Oracle

St. Louis-based political forecasting plus commentary on politics and events from a grassroots veteran with a mature, progressive anti-establishment perspective.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Marshall’s AIDS stance embarrasses Greens

Green Party mayoral candidate Willie Marshall’s quest to unite progressive St. Louisans against its conservative, pro-business mayor in the April general election has encountered a new, unexpected obstacle: Marshall himself.

The trouble started at a February 7 candidate forum, when Marshall reputedly told the audience that he would protect the public against the spread of AIDS by requiring AIDS patients to wear identifying bracelets. This statement became great fodder for morning radio programs.

Two days later, Marshall appeared live on KWMU’s “St. Louis on the Air” hosted by St. Louis American editor Alvin Reid. A sympathetic caller gave Marshall the opportunity to deny, disclaim or explain his statement, but Marshall’s rambling and insensitive response only made things worse. He admitted making the statement, but suggested he wouldn’t have said it to that audience if he had known they would have reacted negatively. He suggested that the reaction would have been different if the “broader community” had made the same recommendation (Marshall is African American). He didn’t reject the position until prompted by a follow-up question, and then said he did so because people told him it wasn’t a good idea and that he shouldn’t have said it.

Many Greens are embarrassed. In addition to being just plain wrong, Marshall’s statements are also directly at odds with the Green Party’s key values of social justice and respect for diversity. His “ungreen” statements and apparent underlying attitudes detract from the genuinely progressive platform anticipated from Marshall on matters on which Greens are in agreement, such as ending the abuse of eminent domain to benefit special business interests; the need for a civilian oversight board; betterment of St. Louis Public Schools; and environmental issues like dealing with the lead poisoning crisis and ending the city’s indiscriminate spraying of toxic pesticides. It would be a shame if Marshall’s gaffe provided the necessary excuse for the mayor to avoid discussion of those vital issues.

Just in case the Oracle misunderstood Marshall, here is a verbatim transcript of that portion of Marshall’s appearance on KWMU. (You can hear the live audio for yourself on Windows Media Player (required) by clicking here, then clicking “Listen” and fast-forwarding to the 14:21 mark):

Caller: I'd like to give Mr. Marshall a chance to respond to a radio report I heard yesterday on one of the commercial stations. It was reporting on a candidate forum, and it quoted Mr. Marshall as saying that AIDS patients should be required to wear identifying bracelets. I'd like to give Mr. Marshall a chance to clarify his views on that subject.

Marshall: I certainly will. Well, I was on the spot, and I didn't know this was going to be an AIDS-sponsored forum, and so I was on the spot when the question came up, and I just thought to myself, well, there are people who have to wear medic alert bracelets, that is, people who have diabetes and hemophilia, and I'm thinkin' well, if that's not a problem with them wearing their bracelets and they have an illness, what would be the problem, and so after I thought about it for a second I responded that they should wear -- people should be made to wear bracelets, as an identifier, maybe an ankle bracelet, because right now you don't know who you're gamblin' with, and if you don't use protection you're subject to get AIDS. And what happens is, white people define Africans in America's social, economic, health, religion and everything else that has to do with the construction of our reality, and so a few years from now if you find that the broader community would say, yes, we're going to have to stop this, and so we're going to have to make people wear bracelets, some kind of an alert bracelet, then don't be surprised, because right now I'm concerned about my children, and I'm concerned about the closing of clinics and hos--if Homer G. Phillips was open, that would have helped hold down this ravishing effect that this AIDS epidemic is having in north St. Louis, and black people all over the country. St. Louis is a microcosm of the other urban centers, all over the city. So that is why I responded in that respect, because I know that people do wear medic alert bracelets, and I hope that that would take care of that. I'm not saying to add a stigma to people who are already stigmatized in the first place, but just as a precaution for preventing the spread of AIDS, and I've talked to other people since then, and they understand my response to that question.

Caller: But you would require them to do that?

Marshall: No, no, no. I said, I said that off the top of my head in response to the question, and I've spoken with other people since that time who heard the same report that you did, and I would reject that, because I've talked to people who are directly affected with AIDS, and they said it wasn't a good idea and that I shouldn't have said it.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

St. Louis mayoral primary will be closer than expected

The Oracle’s crystal ball has been refurbished since its malfunction in the November election, so it will now try to regain its earlier success (in the 3rd District Congressional primary). Those wary because of the November meltdown should decide for themselves whether the factors analyzed below make sense.

Even though St. Louis has not reelected a mayor since 1989, most observers heavily favor Mayor Francis Slay to win renomination in the March 8 Democratic Primary over challengers 1st Ward Alderman Irene Smith and School Board Member Bill Haas. Slay won 54% of the vote in 2001 when he defeated former Mayor Freeman Bosley, Jr,. incumbent Mayor Clarence Harmon and Haas. This year, with one opponent best known for an impromptu bathroom break in the aldermanic chambers and the other recently publishing thoughts of suicide, many believe Slay will roll to even greater heights. The Oracle doesn’t see it that way.

Haas is the consensus third-place finisher, largely because of his gadfly-like antics and the fact that he garnered less than 1% of the primary vote in the last mayoral election. The Harvard-educated Haas should be given greater credibility than he gets, considering he has won his citywide school board seat twice (without organizational support) and his record on the dysfunctional school board is among the best.

Haas’ political problem is his lack of an identifiable support base in a contest in which both of his opponents have them. Slay’s identifiable base is conservative white voters and the business establishment, while Smith’s is African-American voters. This leaves Haas exactly where he was four years ago, perceived as a spoiler in an essentially two-candidate race. Lesser-evilism in the electorate always draws most voters to whichever of the top two perceived frontrunners comes closest to their interests, regardless of what other candidate they believe is really the best. This tendency has buried more prominent candidates than Haas; the perceived strength of Slay’s 2001 campaign relegated incumbent Harmon to the same fate, as he got only 5% for reelection in spite of a scandal-free administration.

That brings us to the Slay-Smith duel. A good starting point for analysis are the last two contests for circuit attorney, both pitting Jennifer Joyce, a Slay ally, against African American challenger Jerryl T. Christmas. Slay’s base of support is similar to Joyce’s, and Smith is expected to tap the same base of support as Christmas. Last August, running as the incumbent, Joyce won, 58% to 42%. Fours years earlier, with no incumbent, the margin was only 54%-46%. Slay’s incumbency and the greater relevance of more recent data probably make the 2004 contest (and its larger spread) the better starting point.

From there, how might each candidate take votes out of the other camp in that election? The factors that I’ve identified below tend to favor the movement of 2004 Joyce voters over to Smith:

School board politics. Mayor Slay’s recruitment and support of former Mayor Vince Schoemehl and three others to form a new school board majority in 2003 has resulted in a political disaster. City schools needed a drastic change, but “change” does not necessarily mean “improvement.” The changes that the new Slay-Schoemehl board majority have wrought have made things even worse, at least in the short run. Many union teachers and other school employees, and many parents as well, want Slay’s head on a platter. While most voters who support the school changes were probably already in the Slay camp and many of the voters alienated by the school matters were already in the anti-Slay camp, a significant number of those alienated are white southsiders who voted for Slay in 2001 (and for Joyce last August). Using the Joyce-Christmas race as a base, those voters represent a meaningful shift of 2004 Joyce voters over to Smith.

Women. A phenomenon in most elections for the past generation is the tendency of some women (regardless of race) to vote for women in contests against men. (In contrast, the same period has seen no discernable tendency of men to vote for men in similar situations.) This pro-woman shift is most pronounced in nonpartisan and primary elections, where party identification is neutralized. (It wasn’t relevant in the all-male 2001 mayoral primary.) It probably represents about 1% of the vote, and that could be significant in this contest. That 1% helped Joyce last year, but may shift to Smith this year.

Turnout: Conventional wisdom would suggest that fewer voters will participate in next month’s municipal primary than in the August gubernatiorial primary, when voter interest was fanned by the Holden-McCaskill race and other high-profile contests. But the 2001 Democratic mayoral primary attracted 86,000 voters, 36% more than Holden-McCaskill and 48% more than Joyce-Christmas. While population losses (which the mayor would have us believe have not occurred) will likely prevent a return to 2001 levels, the Oracle believes that the 2005 primary will attract more voters than last August. Furthermore, the voters who will be most inspired to vote will probably be the anti-Slay voters, because Slay’s actions, real and perceived, in connection with the school board, ward redistricting, police relations and other issues have generated passionate opposition. Voters who approve of Slay’s actions are merely content. Hatred is an excellent motivator to get out and vote (large urban turnouts last November were inspired by hatred of President George W. Bush, not devotion to the wooden, elitist John Kerry), while contentment is a poor motivator unless voters perceive a genuine threat to its continuation. Slay’s well-financed media campaign, already on the airwaves, may actually backfire by creating a false sense of security among his supporters. The Oracle believes that the marginal non-voters most likely to sit out this municipal election are complacent supporters of the mayor. In terms of our Joyce-Christmas model, it means some Joyce voters staying home, while lots of voters who sat out the August primary come in and vote for Smith.

The influx of Smith voters will be partially offset by Republican crossovers. While the diminishing GOP presence in the city make this factor much less important than in earlier years, there were still over a thousand primary voters who took Republican ballots in 2001, in spite of the spirited Democratic contest. This year there are no Republican candidates on the ballot for any office. Most Republicans who choose to participate in the Democratic primary will be attracted to Slay’s conservative policies (including his “Pro-Life” stand).

The key to the election may be the progressive young voters known as “bobos” (short for “bohemian bourgeois”), for whom race is not central to voting decisions. (See “Democrats Divided” by Umar Ben-Ivan Lee on the front page of the October 27, 2004 Arch City Chronicle.) These predominantly Democratic voters bucked party regulars last year by powering Jeff Smith’s near-miss run for Congress and (mostly) backing the unsuccessful home-rule charter amendments. Many were not city voters yet in 2001, and it is not known how this geographically dispersed bloc voted in the Joyce-Christmas contest. While some may have been attracted to the city by perceived improvements associated with Slay, they may also feel betrayed by phony city crime statistics. The bobos’ own Arch City Chronicle has been cautiously supportive of Slay, but has called for Police Chief Joe Mokwa’s resignation over the crime reporting scandals. Many bobos are also among those alienated by Slay’s school board politics.

The election may also come down to how many votes go to Haas. One school of thought is that, in a racially divisive election, Haas’ votes will come at the expense of fellow Caucasian Slay. On the other hand, Haas might also attract anti-Slay voters who admire Haas’ school board service, notably his resistance to policies of the Slay-Schoemehl board majority.

Bottom line: Five weeks out, the Oracle sees Slay prevailing, but by much less than conventional wisdom expects. He probably won’t match the 54% he won four years ago.