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.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Early handicapping in the 4th District

Speculation is running rampant on the upcoming Democratic Primary in the 4th senate district in St. Louis, as candidates line up to replace term-limited Sen. Patrick Dougherty. The district is prohibitively Democratic (80.3% Kerry), so victory in the primary is tantamount to election.

Filing doesn’t open for another three months, but four major candidates have formally announced: former congressional candidate Jeff Smith, State Rep. Amber Boykins, State Rep. Yaphett El-Amin, and former Election Board Chair (and former State Rep.) Derio Gambaro. I shared some of my thoughts about this contest last week in the Post Dispatch’s Political Fix blog, so I ought to refine them and post them here.

The district’s most important demographic is race. Smith and Gambaro are white, and Boykins and El-Amin are African Americans. Although the recent migration of many less race-conscious urban professionals into south St. Louis has reduced the significance of racial politics, most of those voters live to the east of this district, leaving the racial politics of the past generation alive and well in the 4th district. The district’s population was 53.5% black according to the 2000 census, but election data suggest that its electorate is about 60% white.

Mathematically, this means that winning half the white vote wins 30% of the entire district vote. A candidate with no white votes would need 75% of the black vote to match that 30%. A candidate who wins more than two thirds of the white vote can win the district without any black votes. My early analysis will therefore address (1) competition among the district’s white voters and (2) the candidates’ relative ability to attract voters of the other race.

My starting point for analyzing the district’s white vote is the 2004 Democratic congressional primary in which Smith was a candidate. The portion of the congressional district that is in this senate district comprises most of the district’s white voters (except for the corridor between Delmar and Lindell). While Smith finished second to Russ Carnahan in the congressional district, he won the precincts in the 4th district. Here are those results:

Jeff Smith 28.10%
Mariano Favazza 22.67
Russ Carnahan 19.28
Joan Barry 16.22
Mark Smith 7.73
Steve Stoll 3.71
Jo Ann Karll 1.18
3 others combined 1.13

There are hundreds of cross-currents that erode the following speculation, but I believe Smith should keep his own voters and is also most likely to appeal to most of Carnahan’s and Karll’s. Gambaro will probably appeal to Favazza’s and Stoll’s supporters and many of Barry’s (although Joan herself might persuade some to vote for Jeff). I’d say Smith would outpoll Gambaro in this part of the district by 8-10 percentage points, and run even stronger among white voters in the Lindell-Delmar corridor. That would give Smith about 32% of the district’s vote before factoring in cross-race voters. A plurality is all it takes to win.

Boykins appears to have the advantage in the battle for the north side. Her early fundraising has been impressive, though behind Smith. I initially thought El-Amin was the stronger black candidate, based on the strong “ground game” she demonstrated when winning her state rep seat in 2002. But she was late getting started, and her campaign reports from her state rep campaign demonstrate a lack of grasp over that important aspect of the campaign. She is also engaged in a bitter feud in her own ward, where she needs to be strong to be competitive in this contest. I expect black support to coalesce around the African American frontrunner when one emerges, and that currently looks like Boykins.

How are the candidates likely to fare among voters not of their race? At this point I don’t see either Gambaro or El-Amin winning significant votes among the opposite race, but both Smith and Boykins have potential to do so.

Smith worked hard to establish rapport with the black community in 2004 even though there were very few African American voters in the congressional district. He promises to take a personal door-to-door campaign to the north side, and Smith generally follows through on promises like that.

On the other hand, Boykins benefits from the political contacts of her father, Luther Boykins. Dad’s contacts have produced the support of Kim Tucci and former State Rep. Tony Ribaudo, and Tucci recently announced the endorsement of Sheriff (and 12th Ward Committeeman) Jim Murphy. I believe that Tucci’s help will be more financial than directly influential with voters, but his financial clout will help Boykins afford media and direct mail. The Murphy endorsement is less meaningful, because Murphy is probably the city’s least respected citywide official, and his ward includes only one small precinct in the district. Gender politics generally gives women candidates in a Democratic primary an extra 2% across racial lines, but Boykins must split that advantage with El-Amin.

Overall, it looks to me like Smith and Boykins will draw comparably from voters of the other race, with Smith’s work ethic and personal one-on-one appeal tipping the scales in his favor. He won in the 4th District in 2004 without a single ward endorsement.

Eight months out with the field not yet set, the advantage is to Smith, narrowly over Boykins, with Gambaro and El-Amin trailing. But things can change.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Computerized censorship on the ACC blog

I have contributed my thoughts on the blog of the Arch City Chronicle for a couple years now. It has always been a fine forum for the exchange of ideas and political observations.

But tonight I encountered a new wrinkle: computerized censorship.

Editor Dave Drebes' item about recall signatures being submitted against Alderman Jeffrey Boyd attracted an interesting thread about the causes of the recent recall trend and the absence of party competition. I then attempted to chime in with the following comment:

"Hmmm, this thread may have stumbled on something here. In the two locales where recalls are most rampant (the City of St Louis and St. Chas County) we have essentially a one-party system, but with different parties dominating each. The real action in both locales is in the primary. Yet, the Democratic Party prides itself in substituting back-room brokered deals for an actual contested primary election (see the praise heaped on such a deal in the current ACC issue).

"If there's no meaningful election in either the general or the primary, maybe recall elections are the only place where democracy has a forum!"

When I tried to submit that comment, I immediately got a screen that read, "Your comment could not be submitted due to the following questionable content: deals."

So I substituted "agreements" and "arrangements" for "deals" and the computer bought it and I made my point.

While I am a bit of a First Amendment purist, I can understand the value of some screening. The comment section of this very blog is regretably diminished by computerized spammers who use it to their own ends, unrelated to content, and I wish I could figure out how to delete their messages. It's also probably smart for the ACC to screen for the n-word or the f-word, but "deals"? It's "questionable content" to discuss political deals? My comment referenced the ACC's own front page article in which Drebes himself referred to the potential 5th District Council primary as "[a] deal looking for a broker."

If the ACC censorship screen isn't loosened, the value of the ACC's blog will be seriously diminished, and the valuable exchange of ideas will suffer.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Quake coverage harder to get (and keep)

As I watch news coverage about the high cost of rebuilding caused by hurricanes and other recurring catastrophes, I often wonder why property owners continue to rebuild in high-risk areas. From my detached perspective, I also wonder why we taxpayers must subsidize what seems to be poor judgment, very consciously applied. If the homeowner wishes to reap the benefits of the amenities associated with living in that particular part of the earth, why must the rest of us bear the very high risk of its destruction?

This week, I received a wake-up call that suggests than I too may be living in a high-risk part of the earth. I got a letter from Safeco, my homeowners insurance carrier, advising me that it would no longer provide earthquake coverage for my home when my policy renews next month. This new policy applies to all homes and condos which are either solid masonry construction or built prior to 1950. In metropolitan St. Louis, that probably includes a majority of homes inside I-270, and almost everybody in the City.

I’m surprised I hadn’t heard about this before. My agent told me that Safeco came up with this new policy back in February, and has been notifying policyholders piecemeal as the renewal date of the policy approaches. My agent notes that many other companies have been conditioning their earthquake coverage in similar ways for some time. Most companies condition their coverage on one of the two conditions identified by Safeco: year of construction (with the cutoff varying between 1940 and 1960) or construction materials. The company my agent will seek to use for me will provide earthquake coverage for masonry dwellings on poured concrete foundations but not stone or concrete block foundations. My poured concrete foundation is the exception in my neighborhood, where it appears that about 90% of the foundations are stone.

This is a very unfortunate development for the St. Louis area. The region is known positively for its abundance of solid brick homes. But the area is also vulnerable to earthquake activity from several area faults, most notably the New Madrid fault. Brick and other masonry construction is more vulnerable to quake damage than frame construction. If the insurance industry abandons the area with respect to earthquake coverage (as it has for storm damage in many hurricane-prone areas), we will all risk almost total uninsured loss when (not if) the overdue major quake strikes. That’s a very unattractive prospect not only for homeowners, but also for many of the businesses who provide the jobs on which our community relies.

I like living in St. Louis. But now I may need to reassess the risk of doing so.