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, April 06, 2006

Campaign law breaches, racial politics mar school contest

Challengers Peter Downs and Donna Jones surprised most political observers with their clean sweep of Tuesday’s school board elections in the City of St. Louis, unseating incumbents backed by Mayor Francis Slay and the business establishment. The Oracle correctly predicted Downs’ top finish (see April 3 post below), but even I didn’t foresee Jones joining him in the winners circle.

The campaign was encouraging, regardless of which side you supported, because it was a classic contest between a well-financed media campaign and a volunteer-rich grassroots campaign that was won by the grassroots campaign. In our hearts, that’s the generic result most of us prefer, independent of the candidates and issues.

But the campaign also had its discouraging elements. Perhaps worst were the violations by both sides of fundamental campaign laws. Both sides conducted campaigns primarily with (wink-wink) “independent expenditures” that everyone knows were fully coordinated with the candidates. At least this year was an improvement over prior years, with fewer choreographed photo sessions involving both candidates posing together with model kids (really, paid models) financed with “independent expenditures.” (Compare last year’s farce.) This year was less blatant, but still improper.

Incumbents Darnetta Clinkscale and James Buford published joint newspaper ads and expensive joint lawn signs which recited they were paid for by their individual candidate committees. The Missouri Ethics Commission regards such expenditures as being partially in-kind contributions to each other. The size of these expenditures clearly exceeded the $1,275 ceiling that each could legally contribute to the other.

The campaign for Downs and Jones had its own campaign disclosure problems. The legal disclaimer on its sample ballots merely stated, “Labor donated by the St. Louis Teachers and BRP Union Local 420 COPE Committee.” This confuses two separate concepts. The legal disclaimer required by law requires the use of the words “Paid for by” and that the treasurer of the committee be identified. Neither those words nor the treasurer’s name appeared anywhere on the flyers. Even if a volunteer ran them off a copy machine, somebody paid for the paper and toner. “Labor donated” is the wording commonly used to explain not using a union printer (which ought to be embarrassing for a UNION). Now maybe that sounds picky, but Local 420 can’t really pretend to be political neophytes who are too inexperienced to know better. And not being able to use the right words is pretty sad for TEACHERS!

Both sides also made subtle appeals to Democratic Party loyalty in this nonpartisan contest by printing their election day flyers on the standard green paper stock used for Democrat sample ballots. The Democratic Party didn’t object, so apparently any candidate can use that paper for her/his flyers. (Cautionary note: Candidate photos look really creepy on that green background!)

Both sides can also be faulted for playing racial politics, with different messages for the predominantly black north side and the predominantly white south side. Educate St. Louis distributed two mailings specifically attacking Peter Downs, whose apparent selective distribution was widely questioned on major blogs. It was also interesting that the only white candidate in the seven-candidate field was the one singled out for the attacks.

Local 420 played the race card by publishing two separate sample ballots: one for the north side itemizing endorsements of primarily black politicians and organizations, and one for the south side listing endorsements of primarily white politicians and organizations. They spent extra money for separate printings, apparently to conceal the endorsements of Organization for Black Struggle, the Black Women’s Political Action Coalition and numerous African American politicians from south side voters. The union’s sample ballot also took a stand against the anti-recall proposition on the north side ballots, but didn’t mention it on those sent to the south side.

These tactics were especially regrettable in a school board contest. The board members and union teachers set very poor examples for their students. Why should students play by the rules, they might ask, if their own teachers and the school district’s governing board don’t?

The bad blood didn’t stop when the polls closed. Clinkscale’s heretofore classy facade broke down the day after the election with this hyperbolic sour grapes comment to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "The teachers union won and the children lost."


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