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 28, 2007

Role reversal in board presidency race

The St. Louis aldermanic presidency contest is a classic bout between a white incumbent and a black challenger, pitting a business-oriented insider against a progressive, independent advocate who’s willing to rock the boat. The twist is that the progressive boat-rocker is the white incumbent.

What distinguishes the candidates more than their race is the constituencies their records represent. In spite of his background representing the relatively wealthy and influential 16th Ward in southwest St. Louis, incumbent Aldermanic President Jim Shrewsbury has a solid record of looking out for the proverbial “little guy” (and, no, I’m not referring to Shrewsbury’s (or my) height). On the other hand, supporters of African American challenger Lewis Reed, the 6th Ward alderman, tout his record of supporting development. Much of the regentrification of the city that the administration of Mayor Francis G. Slay has subtly pushed has taken place with Reed’s backing in his ward, which has eroded the African American majority that the ward was given in the 2001 redistricting. Campaign finance reports show that developers and power brokers from the city’s wealthiest wards have provided Reed with the financial resources necessary to mount a credible challenge.

Three particular issues illustrate the contrasts between the candidates. First was the bill to exempt stock options from city earnings tax in 2000, when both Shrewsbury and Reed were aldermen. (Slay was then the board president, and the mayor was Clarence Harmon.) The exemption was a purer “tax cut for the rich” than anything ever proposed by Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush. Most stock options go to wealthy executives, and poor people never get them, so exempting them from tax would benefit only the rich. The issue was not about jobs leaving town, because no employer would bolt and leave capital assets behind over whether a mere 1% tax applied to one portion of compensation. The bill was sponsored by Lyda Krewson, alderman of the 28th Ward, home to more corporate executives than any other ward. Corporate political action committees and executives made generous campaign contributions to supportive aldermen. The ostensible 28-1 Democrat majority passed this “tax cut for the rich” easily, with only four dissenting votes. Reed backed the bill, and Shrewsbury was one of the four who voted no. A majority of the bill’s Democrat backers who remain on the board, including Krewson herself, have lined up behind Reed in this election, compared to just one of the dissenters.

The second issue was medical waste incineration, a practice that produces cancer-causing dioxin, releases toxic gases that exacerbate asthma and other respiratory diseases (especially among children), and transforms metals like mercury and lead into gaseous forms that are more easily absorbed by the body. The Stericycle plant in the 2nd Ward in north St. Louis disposed of medical waste in that manner. St. Louis County had illegalized the practice, but environmentalists’ efforts to get a similar ban in the city had gotten nowhere for several years. The bill couldn’t even get a hearing in committee. Lack of support by 2nd Ward Alderman Dionne Flowers was a key obstacle. The young doctor who led the environmental effort even went to Flowers’ barber shop and got a haircut from her just to talk to her, but to no avail (except for the haircut). But Shrewsbury got behind the proposal shortly after succeeding Slay as board president, and was key in impressing Flowers with the bill’s importance and getting her on board. Shrewsbury also assigned the bill to a more receptive committee than the one previously assigned by Slay. I was one of the environmentalists who had supported the bill, and I attended the committee hearing when the bill finally got one. It was entertaining to see aldermen who had been so disinterested for so long and who weren’t even members of the committee show up and ask to be added then as co-sponsors, so they could claim credit for it. More pretenders did the same (in front of city cable TV cameras) when the bill went to the floor. It eventually passed by unanimous voice vote, and Stericycle converted its plant to use the safer autoclave procedure. Even though the final record shows the entire board in favor of the bill, the fact is that, without Shrewsbury’s hard work, it would have never passed. The entire city, and especially north St. Louis, owe Shrewsbury a great debt of gratitude.

The final and most recent issue is the proposed lease of a part of Forest Park to BJC Health Center. Reed voted to authorize the lease, siding with Slay, while Shrewsbury opposes it, siding with neighborhood activists in the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood who want the park’s green space preserved. Neighborhood leaders conducted a successful petition drive to put voter approval of such transactions on the April ballot, and Slay and BJC hurried the process along to get the lease done before voter approval is required. Supporters of Reed and the BJC deal claim that the deal would create jobs in exchange for the park land, by enabling expansion of the city’s largest employer and from the planned construction on the leased land. Can you say “trickle-down economics”? After initially joining Shrewsbury in opposition, Comptroller Darlene Green, an African American, agreed to switch and join Slay in backing the lease if half of its revenue were reserved for the 42 parks north of Delmar, leaving the 62 parks on the south side and central corridor to share the other half. Shrewsbury stood his ground, standing up for the neighborhood most at risk, and for the principle of preservation of scarce urban green space. Reed stood with Slay, Big Business and “trickle-down” economics.

Even some Republicans are impressed with Reed’s support of developers, executive tax cuts and “trickle-down” economics. Former West County state rep Brent Evans and former Republican election board member, Talent-booster and Slay-appointed school board member James Buford have donated to Reed’s campaign.

Shrewsbury and Slay represented neighboring wards before advancing to their current offices, but they haven’t exactly been a “team”on the powerful 3-person Board of Estimate and Apportionment. Shrewsbury’s independence has made him the crucial swing vote on matters on which Slay has differed with Green, the board’s third member. Unsubstantiated rumors persist that Slay recruited Reed to oppose Shrewsbury (or at least tacitly supports his candidacy) to try to get a more reliable supporter than Shrewsbury on the E&A board. Slay has remained formally neutral in the contest; his father,23rd Ward Committeeman Francis R. Slay, backs Shrewsbury, while his alderman, Kathleen Hanrahan, backs Reed.

So, in this classic match up, the slick black dude is the proponent of Big Business, tax cuts for the rich, and “trickle-down” economics, while the little nerdy white guy is the true representative of ordinary people. Go figure.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Reed's early mailers miss the mark

Lewis Reed appears to be first out of the box with direct mail for the March 6 Democratic primary for aldermanic president in the City of St. Louis. I received a couple mailings from his campaign this past week. I thought it interesting (and unconventional for an African American politician) that both pieces were printed by a white union shop in southwest city instead of a black-owned business. Perhaps Lew wanted to make a statement by shopping in the back yard of his opponent, incumbent Democrat Jim Shrewsbury. Or perhaps Reed wanted to emphasize that he is a south-sider, whose home is south of I-44.

But enough of the fluff. Let’s get to the content.

The first piece was purely a negative attack piece. It used the “Contact Jim Shrewsbury and tell him . . .” approach commonly used in independent expenditures by special interests that aren’t permitted to advocate directly the election or defeat of a candidate. In fact, the only place Reed’s name appeared was in the legally required “paid for by” disclaimer, and it was a white-on-yellow reverse that seemed to be difficult to read by design. The piece attempted to paint Shrewsbury as “soft on crime,” apparently based on a single budgetary decision by Shrewsbury concerning the circuit attorney’s office, but the mailer doesn’t specify exactly what it refers to.

The lack of specifics may have been because the charge isn’t really true. Shrewsbury’s first television commercial notes than he even turned over his city car to the circuit attorney’s office, but the issue is more complex than that. Budgetary decisions on the E&A Board involve splitting up a revenue pie that isn’t big enough to meet the city’s needs. Shrewsbury backed significant increases for the circuit attorney’s office at the very time that most other city agencies were forced to take cuts. Reed’s piece didn’t bother to mention what part of the city budget he would have cut to make room for even more funding for the circuit attorney.

Not that other opponents haven’t tried before to tag Shrewsbury as “soft on crime.” In Shrewsbury's first re-election campaign in the 16th Ward in 1987 his Republican opponent tried it, but it didn’t work. (Shrewsbury won 62% of the vote in what was then a Republican ward.) Perhaps Reed was trying to copy Darlene Green, who used the tactic more successfully when defeating Shrewsbury for comptroller in 1999.

The second piece was a positive piece, and it was better (except for not mentioning he is running as a Democrat, and a few embarrassing typos that slipped through). It was strong on Reed’s background, but it didn’t offer much about what he would do if elected or how he would do a better job than the guy he wants to replace. It touted the fact that a majority of the board’s members have endorsed him. However, given the general level of mediocrity of the board, that may be faint praise.

This is not an open seat, so Reed needs to convince voters that they ought to fire Shrewsbury. The biggest challenge for Reed’s campaign is that Shrewsbury’s record is actually quite strong. There’s still time to try to make that case, but he hasn’t made it yet.