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.

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Questionable campaign financing for Slay’s school state

The campaigns of Joe Keaveny, Flint Fowler and Joe Moramarco for three seats on the St. Louis Board of Education have the unified support of the city’s corporate establishment and Mayor Francis Slay, its puppet-in-chief. Four-color glossy brochures promoting their candidacies smugly promise a “fresh start.” No mention is made of the clandestine decision-making, multi-million dollar consultant contracts, educational cutbacks or other problems of the dysfunctional board majority with whom these candidates were specifically recruited to work hand-in-hand.

Recent campaign finance reports disclose further continuity with the current board majority. The same questionable campaign financing techniques that bankrolled former Mayor Vince Schoemehl and three colleagues two years ago are back this year. The Missouri Ethics Commission wouldn’t hold the slate’s powerful backers accountable then, and they will probably take another powder this year.

But that doesn’t prevent the public from knowing about it or considering the behavior in deciding to whom to entrust the city’s educational system. Let me help shed some light where none is desired.

The campaign finance law that is being flouted limits individuals, corporations and most committees to no more than $1,200 per candidate per election. The committee raising and spending the big bucks calls itself People Working for Excellence in Public Education (“PeWEPE”), whose Statement of Organization with the Missouri Ethics Commission was filed nearly three weeks late. Its listed address is the office of Vigilant Communications, whose clients include the mayor himself. PeWEPE is legally entitled to contribute only $1,200 to each candidate it supports, and that includes “in kind” contributions. It can also spend as much as it wants on “direct expenditures” (better known by its federal equivalent, “independent expenditures”), and that’s what PeWEPE and its important supporters pretend that its expenditures are.

What’s the difference? Direct payment of a candidate’s campaign expenses are considered “in kind” contributions (and subject to the $1,200 per candidate limit) if they are made with the candidate’s “consent, cooperation, influence or control.” Expenditures are considered independent “direct” expenditures (not subject to the limits) only if none of those factors are present.

That’s where big-shot power brokers play it fast and loose with the facts. In a report filed this week (two days late), PeWEPE listed nearly $34,000 in expenditures, but didn’t disclose a penny as either a contribution to a candidate (in-kind or otherwise) or as a direct expenditure (for which a separate schedule identifying the blessed candidates is required). The expenditures included over $1,000 for photography and photo sessions and over $20,000 for design, printing, postage and mailing of campaign literature.

PeWEPE’s brochures include individual posed photographs of all three candidates. One of the brochures also includes another posed photograph of all three candidates together, posing with nine well-groomed, nicely dressed children. How did PeWEPE get these photographs for the brochure without the consent, cooperation or coordination of the candidates? The photos were an integral part of well designed full-color four-page brochures stating that they were paid for by PeWEPE that were mailed to thousands of city voters. Are we really supposed to believe that these candidates adjusted their personal schedules to pose together for the photos along with the nine kids (the report lists exactly nine separate $100 payments to named individuals for “photo sessions”), apparently for committee-paid professional photographer Wiley Price, without knowing that the photo shoot was for the campaign? No consent, cooperation or coordination? Really?


One of the establishment slate candidates may have some additional campaign finance problems. Keaveny, the Democratic committeeman in Vince Schoemehl’s home ward, is treasurer of the Democratic City Central Committee (officially named the Democratic Campaign Committee of St. Louis City). Thirty-one Democratic candidates filed for ballot access in the March 8 primary, paying filing fees (ranging from $322 to $1,161.42 each) between November 16 and January 7. Filing fees for these offices are all considered contributions to that Democratic committee, and Keaveny is personally responsible for filing its campaign reports. Filing fees received before November 28 (about half of them) should have been reported on a report due December 2, and the others would have been reportable on reports due either February 24 or February 28. Keaveny’s December 2 report didn’t report any filing fees, and he didn’t file his next report until March 28. To make it look like the contributions were reported on time, he listed them as not having been received until January 24. That was more than two weeks after the filing deadline, and just happened to be the first business day after the close of the reporting period for the primary election’s 40-day report. And if that date truly represented when he actually received the funds, one should question why he left committee funds undeposited with the Election Board for up to two months.

In addition, filing fees for mayoral candidate Irene Smith and eight aldermanic candidates weren’t listed at all. Of course it is entirely possible that the unreported fees could have been deposited in the committee’s federal account instead of its state account if the donors were eligible to make federal contributions, in which case they would appear instead in reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. However, no filing fees were reported in the committee’s federal reports covering periods ending before year-end. The report covering sums received after January 1 isn’t due until July.

One of Keaveny’s defenders suggested last week in the Arch City Chronicle blog that only election-related expenditures, not contributions, triggered the report filing requirement. Even if that strained statutory interpretation were adopted, the latest state report demonstrated its own lateness by reporting February disbursements to Slay’s 23rd Ward organization (why else but for the primary contests of Slay and challenged aldermanic ally Kathy Hanrahan?) as well as over $1,000 in printing costs.

Even if the Missouri Ethics Commission turns its usual blind eye to infractions by powerful people, city voters should ask themselves whether they really want to entrust the management of their schools to (or set up as role models) candidates who cheat in the conduct of their elections, dutifully follow orders from their puppetmasters’ PR people, bully their way around legal requirements in the same “Might Makes Right” mode that has eroded public confidence in the current board majority, and in one case, demonstrates inability to account for funds in his trust. The size of the campaign war chest suggests that once again, Might will once again substitute itself for what is Right.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Greens’ Marshall appears on community access TV

I tuned in to City Cable Channel 21 last night and saw “Green Time,” which showcased Green Party mayoral candidate Willie Marshall discussing his background and a number of important issues. With Marshall unable to generate much publicity in a contest dominated by incumbent Mayor Francis Slay’s multi-million dollar war chest, the program offered a rare detailed view of Marshall and his proposals. The program gives voters a chance to assess not only Marshall’s stands on the issues, but also his articulation of those issues and his demeanor in fielding the questions. Voters have assessed Slay the same way in his numerous televised interviews over the years.

Six of the ten scheduled airings of this program on City Cable Channel 21 remain before the election: Tonight (Monday, March 28) at 8:30 p.m., Wednesday, March 30 at 7:00 p.m., Friday, April 1 (no foolin’!) at 2:30 p.m., Saturday, April 2 at 12:30 p.m., Sunday, April 3 at 6:00 p.m., and Monday, April 4 at 8:30 p.m.

In the taped half-hour program, Marshall stated that the contest’s three most important issues are health, education and welfare. He accused city government of using children as “lead detectors,” acting against lead contamination only in response to specific lead poisoning cases. He advocated systematic testing for lead and proposed that the city provide lead-free housing for lead-poisoned children. He cited Milwaukee’s lead abatement program as being more effective than St. Louis.’

With regard to pesticide spraying in St. Louis (the Green Party’s signature issue in St. Louis), Marshall stated, “I’m against spraying, period.” The best solution, he said, was reliance on natural predators like dragonflies. Whenever spraying took place, he proposed having police cars travel city streets to warn people a half hour in advance. He also accused the mayor and aldermen of not acting to stop medical waste incineration in the city until after people protested.

Marshall’s harshest criticism was not for Slay, but for former Mayor Vince Schoemehl, and it had nothing to do with Schoemehl’s controversial actions on the city school board. He charged that Schoemehl’s administration (1981-93) shut down neighborhood recreation centers and health clinics, which Marshall blamed for the current obesity problem and the AIDS epidemic.

Marshall did not propose any new revenue sources to pay for his proposals. He said he would “find the money” by getting together with Comptroller Darlene Green, City Treasurer Larry Williams, and the city tax collector.

It should be noted in fairness that this interview of Marshall, while informative, was hardly unbiased. “Green Time” is sponsored by the Green Party of St. Louis/Gateway Green Alliance. Though repeatedly billed as a program to which both candidates were invited, only Marshall appeared. Program host Don Fitz, the long-time defacto leader of the local Green Party organization, led Marshall through his presentation with a series of friendly leading questions. Often Fitz stated the substance of an issue in lengthy questions to which Marshall only needed to respond “Right,” “Exactly” or the oft-repeated “Absolutely.” When Marshall proposed reopening closed schools as recreational centers, Fitz volunteered the reasoning for the proposal (that a ”multi-purpose” school could remain open using just a few of the classrooms for classes if other parts of the building were used for community recreation or other purposes).

The cable station contracts with GPSL/GaGA to produce environmental programming, which it airs five times a week for two weeks each. This particular program was entitled “Environmental Issues in the Mayor’s Race.” While Marshall’s discussion of issues like lead poisoning, pesticide spraying and medical waste incineration was legitimately environmental, the environmental relevancy of the war in Iraq, AIDS, school closings, city recreational centers, and the funding of Marshall’s proposals may have been a bit of a stretch. The first 20% of the program dealt strictly with Marshall’s biographical information.

The use of community access cable television to air political programs like this adds greatly to public’s awareness of important issues and the choices available to them when they vote. This is especially true when there is a disparity of resources available for publicizing candidates’ proposals. Of course, access to such programming should be equal to all parties and points of view, and I trust that is presently the case.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Slay may break dubious record in April election

Mayor Francis Slay will win re-election April 5 with a sizeable margin. (Stop the presses!) The only question is by how much. This column may only be of interest to numbers wonks, because it examines the question “how much.”

After Slay’s convincing primary win, many signs point to a general election win approaching unanimity:
● Slay's electoral history is good: Four years ago, on the heels of a divisive primary, he won 87.5% of the vote against Michael Chance, a very credible Republican.
● Slay won this year's primary by a solid margin. Not much opposition turned out to vote.
● Very little of what opposition did surface in the primary is likely to carry over to the general election. The biggest source of primary votes for Slay’s opponents was African American voters, who hardly ever vote against the Democratic Party nominee in a general election, regardless of circumstances.
● No Republican or Libertarian candidate filed. This year’s sole opponent is from the Green Party, whose best-ever citywide performance is 15.26%. And now, the party is bitterly split following a power struggle over a year ago.
● Slay’s general election opponent this year, Willie Marshall, is a very weak candidate. Last November, he became the first Green Party candidate ever running citywide one-on-one against a Democrat to get less than 10% of the vote. Last August, he lost re-election as his ward’s party committeeman running unopposed, because he got no votes, not even his own. (The Green Party Central Committee appointed him to fill his own vacancy this year after he filed for mayor.) He campaigns in this union town with non-union printed campaign literature. Last month Marshall made (and later retracted) a controversial proposal to require AIDS patients to wear identifying bracelets, a stand in direct conflict with Green Party principles. (Neither Marshall nor the local Green Party is affiliated with the Green Party of the United States.) Marshall also supports a controversial local proposal that could eliminate the right to vote in party primaries by allowing political parties to opt to nominate candidates by convention or caucus instead of a primary.
● The open-publication Newswire of the St. Louis Independent Media Center, a major communication link for those most likely to oppose Slay, has been down since January 22 and may remain down until after the election.
● “Bandwagon” voters who feel good about themselves if they vote for the winner have a sure bet in Slay.

With all of that, how could Slay not surpass his 2001 performance against Chance? Well, there are several other things working against Slay:

Protest votes: People who are unhappy with Slay, the Democratic Party or things in general may see Marshall’s candidacy as an avenue for a protest vote. Their perception that Marshall has no chance of winning actually helps get their votes, because voters can be confident that their protest vote won’t actually make Marshall the mayor.

No Republican stigma: Many city voters really despise anything Republican. Many even support unappealing Democrats over better independent or third-party candidates out of fear of “throwing the election” to a Republican. Marshall isn’t a Republican and doesn’t bear that stigma. With no Republican in the contest at all, anti-Republican “lesser evilist” voters will feel freer to choose someone more progressive than a conservative Democrat like Slay. Many consider Greens to be “industrial strength” Democrats.

No Democrat stigma: Though city Republican voters continue to dwindle in number, some of those remaining despise anything Democrat the same way some Democrats despise anything Republican. Marshall isn’t a Democrat. Some Republicans will vote for Marshall just because he isn’t the Democrat, perhaps not realizing that Marshall’s stands are diametrically opposed to their own. Some may even assume that Marshall is a Republican, since he’s the second choice in a two-candidate race.

School board election: Although first on the ballot, the mayoral contest is really just the opening act for the election that will draw most voters to the polls, the contest for three seats on the Board of Education. The focus of that contest is support or opposition to the current Slay-backed board majority (even though they’re not on the ballot), and voters backing opponents of the mayor’s slate may be tempted to vote against Slay while they are at it. Resentment to Slay’s involvement in school board politics didn’t hurt him as much as expected in the primary, but the dynamics may be different when school board candidates appear on the same ballot.

Inattention from Slay: While the Slay campaign will probably continue its expensive media blitz, personal campaigning by the mayor will be lacking. Two days after the primary, the Post Dispatch reported that Slay’s April election focus was on the school board contest, not his own.

Race: Marshall is African American, which may help his candidacy among voters who support African American candidacies whenever possible. This factor, though, is less important than it could be, because those voters need to know that there is an African American candidate in the contest, and Marshall's campaign lacks the financial resources necessary to make his candidacy (and his race) known to voters. Also, as noted earlier, African American voters are historically very resistant to supporting candidates who aren’t Democrats.

The leverage of small numbers: Marshall and the Greens will claim a moral victory and party-building momentum if Marshall merely tops the 12.5% that Republican Chance got four years ago. In such a battle against low expectations, every vote for Marshall effectively offsets seven votes for Slay. It wouldn’t take many protest votes to drag Slay to a new record low for a city Democrat running one-on-one against a Green. (The current low of 84.74% was set by License Collector Greg Daly in 2002, after bad publicity from Daly’s unsuccessful litigation to eliminate his Green opponent from the ballot.)

While most observers probably expect Slay to improve upon his 2001 performance and set a new city general election record for percentage of the vote in a contested election, the Oracle thinks he will more likely set a different, more dubious record. While Slay will still win comfortably (probably by about 4 to 1), he is more likely to break Daly’s record for the lowest Democratic percentage in a one-on-one citywide contest against a Green.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Slay must fight complacency as things go his way

The Oracle’s February 1 forecast, while cautious about Slay’s lead, nevertheless picked the Mayor to win renomination in the March 8 primary with close to 54% of the vote. Developments since then (or more telling, the absence of developments hurting the Mayor’s candidacy) now point to a more comfortable victory than then.

The “bobo” vote: My earlier forecast stated that the “bobo” vote might well determine the election’s outcome. “Bobos” (short for “bohemian bourgeois”) are the young, progressive, predominantly white-collar voters who are new to the city, for whom race is not central to voting decisions, many of whom powered Jeff Smith’s near-miss run for Congress last year. These geographically dispersed voters are difficult to gauge, and the bobo-run Arch City Chronicle made no endorsement for mayor. The Oracle’s best assessment is that most favor Slay. “Teflon Fran” seems not to be harmed in this group by fallout from two issues that might have meant trouble: school board politics and the phony crime statistics that may have lured some bobos to move into the city.

Republican crossovers: This isn’t really a new development, just one that the earlier analysis understated. Slay’s relative conservatism should win him nearly unanimous support from those Republicans who choose to vote in the Democratic Primary. Slay’s campaign literature touts his endorsement by Alderman Fred Heitert, the city’s only Republican officeholder, and Slay lawn signs now adorn several of the city homes that sported Bush-Cheney signs last October. Even though Republicans are now so weak in the city that they no longer field local candidates, their numbers are still large enough to have an impact in this election. As mentioned in the earlier analysis, the absence of any Republican candidate for any office frees Republicans to vote in the Democratic Primary this election. However, noting merely the thousand or so voters who cast ballots in the GOP primary in the last mayoral election understated their impact. If the relevant benchmark is the 2004 Democratic Primary between Jennifer Joyce and Jerryl Christmas, it is more noteworthy that the number of voters who participated in that Republican Primary (and who are now free to take a Democratic ballot) was over 5,500. They could add 4-8 percentage points to Slay’s margin.

Turnout: One of the factors mentioned in the earlier analysis, though, could still turn out to be Slay’s Achilles heel. Forecasts of Slay’s invincibility could impair the turnout among Slay voters. Absentee ballot requests, usually a good predictor of turnout, are running at about the same pace as the August, 2004 primary at which the Joyce-Christmas contest took place. (An Election Board official said today that about 2,600 requests had been received so far; a total of 2,876 absentee ballots were cast and counted in the August, 2004 primary.) To its credit, Slay’s campaign is taking nothing for granted, but turning out a complacent electorate that doesn’t feel threatened is now its biggest challenge.

The only people who count are the ones that actually vote.