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.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

What happens when the 'outsider' is the incumbent?

In an anti-incumbent atmosphere such as today’s, what happens in a classic contest between insider and outsider when the outsider is already the incumbent? That’s the choice in the only contested city-wide contest in the City of St. Louis in next week’s Democratic Primary.

Mariano Favazza is the maverick incumbent Circuit Clerk. He unseated former clerk Mavis Thompson in the 1998 primary in an election in which no ward organization endorsed him. He organized a successful grassroots campaign that focused on the wards with a history of highest voter turnout. He used (and still uses) homemade flyers that scream “amateur,” and the voting public ate it up. No high-priced consultants, just Mariano.

Favazza’s animosity with party Powers That Be begins at home. He embarrassed his own 16th ward leadership in 2004 when he ran for Dick Gephardt’s open congressional seat and, though coming in 5th overall, carried his own ward and several others which had endorsed former state rep. Joan Barry. In 2006 he endorsed Derio Gambaro for the open 4th district senate seat, for which the ward organization had backed eventual winner Jeff Smith, and Gambaro carried the ward. In 2008 Favazza family surrogates challenged the incumbent ward committee members and State Rep. Michele Kratky and lost (but not overwhelmingly). So this year was time for payback, and Favazza’s challenger comes from his own ward’s organization in the person of Jane Schweitzer.

Schweitzer is following Favazza’s own 1998 playbook (except that her flyers are professionally made), conducting an intensive door-to-door campaign in the high turnout wards that have historically favored Favazza.

Favazza has also feuded openly with the circuit judges on the court his office serves. That feud provides the primary issues for Schweitzer’s campaign. While her positive campaign flyer merely notes “the Clerk’s failure to cooperate with our courts,” her “attack” flyer makes seven specific charges of mismanagement by Favazza, including his handling of a “Special Interest Fund”and unclaimed property, no-bid contracts, his lawsuit (currently pending on appeal) challenging a court-imposed transfer of power from his office to the judges, and most colorfully, a $10,000 “private toilet for his second office.”

Favazza responded with a flyer answering the charges, which he called “misleading half truths.” He claims that the interest fund holds approximately $250,000 instead of the $7.6 million claimed by Schweitzer, and that earlier interest holdings had in fact been turned over to the city, not withheld. He admitted but justified his handling of unclaimed funds, stating that his actions had facilitated the return of 40% of those funds to their rightful owners, and that his books balanced. He admitted but justified his no-bid contracts with single-source providers for one-of-a-kind products. And while $10,000 doesn’t seem out of line for a toilet, Favazza responded flatly, “There is no toilet.”Schweitzer told me that the toilet had been the subject of a televised news report at the time of the conversion of the former federal courthouse into the Mel Carnahan state court building.

Favazza justifies his lawsuit as challenging judicial action that would nullify an earlier vote of the people to keep the office elective, noting that both sides of the litigation (not just Favazza) were appealing the trial court decision. He told me that protecting the public’s right to vote for his office was his sole motivation for filing the suit. He notes that he lobbied to kill legislation that would have overridden the people’s 2004 vote, even after legislators inserted a provision that would have“grandfathered” him into his position for 10 additional years.

The establishment Democratic ward organizations are split, with a slight majority endorsing Favazza, but 11 back Schweitzer, including most of the wards with a record of high primary turnout. It is unusual for an incumbent city-wide officeholder not be the consensus endorsee of ward organizations unless a race-based challenge is involved. (Both Favazza and Schweitzer are white and live in the same neighborhood.)

The city’s establishment press, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (the voice of the white city establishment) and the St. Louis American (the voice of the black city establishment), have endorsed Schweitzer, albeit not without reluctant praise for Favazza. The Post’s endorsement editorial noted that “Favazza has served a useful role in checking judicial over-stepping,”while the American conceded, “Favazza has shown an admirable spirit of independence as a white politician.” But both papers concluded that Schweitzer would be the better choice. The very non-establishment Evening Whirl also endorsed Schweitzer.

One issue that surprisingly hasn’t surfaced is Schweitzer’s connection to her late father-in-law, former Sheriff Gordon Schweitzer, Sr. The ward where Gordon Schweitzer formerly served as committeeman is one of the wards endorsing Jane Schweitzer. The elder Schweitzer was elected sheriff in a racially charged special election in 1979. In 1991, he ran for the school board as part of the “anti-busing” slate that had been organized by members of the Metro South Citizens Council. Many Democrats hold association with that school board faction in low regard. When asked, Jane Schweitzer said she had attended some of the elder Schweitzer’s ward meetings, but could not recall whether she supported his school board candidacy, noting that the issues in that campaign were complicated and that her four children were then aged 1 to 7.

Another interesting aspect of the contest is how it plays into the national campaign narrative of an apparent trend against incumbents. The defeat of any incumbent, especially in a Democratic primary, arguably adds to the momentum of Republican and Tea Party “outsiders,”as was the case when Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA) and Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-WV) lost their primaries. Of course, this primary can be distinguished from those, because the outsider already holds the office, while the challenger is backed by more establishment-oriented forces. But momentum often builds or changes based on impressions that aren’t influenced by fine distinctions.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The hidden driving issue in the 4th

There is an unusual contest in Missouri's 4th senate district in this year's Democratic primary. Its driving issue isn't discussed in either candidate's campaign literature.

Four years ago, a spirited primary contest took place in this district between three African Americans from the predominantly black north end and two whites from the predominantly white south end. Abortion was a key issue, with a white anti-abortion candidate seeking a "niche" win against four pro-choice opponents. In spite of the formal neutrality of Mayor Francis Slay, perceived loyalty or opposition to his policies was also a driving force. Jeff Smith, a white, pro-choice Slay loyalist, won with 36% of the vote.

After Smith resigned and pleaded guilty to federal charges in connection with an earlier unsuccessful congressional run (covering up an election law violation reported by his victorious opponent, Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-MO)), Joe Keaveny won the Democratic nomination for the special election to fill the vacancy in a closed-door nominating process, and was elected without opposition in the safely Democratic district. So this is the first time Keaveny faces the voters with an opponent on the ballot.

The expected racial contest between white and black candidates did not materialize, as both Keaveny and challenger James Long are white. The base of support for Long, a retired police sergeant, is the St. Louis Police Officers Association. Unions representing other public employees (firefighters, teachers and state, county and municipal employees) are also backing Long's challenge. The campaign committee of State Rep. Rachel Storch (D-64), who also sought the nomination for this seat after Smith resigned, donated to Long. Neither candidate has raised a lot of money, although the incumbent holds a 2-1 advantage as of the July reports.

The campaign's biggest issue isn't evident in the candidates' campaign literature. Long's flyers take an almost conservative bent, projecting a "law and order" image. His promises to fight government waste, fraud and abuse, oppose "job-killing" new taxes, and keep taxes low seem at odds with the interests of the unions that endorse him. Keaveny touts historic tax credits for job creation and gratuitously whips the unpopular payday loan industry. The 2006 lynchpin issues are not discussed, except for one Slay-related issue. The mayor promoted the state takeover of the city school system, but Long promises to "retain local control of our [city] schools." Keaveny, who blandly recites that he wants to "reform our failing public schools," is tied to Slay's position because he ran unsuccessfully for the school board on a slate that Slay backed.

While the school issue is an apparently successful ploy to expand Long's appeal outside his police base to tap teachers union discontent, that's not the reason for the Long candidacy or the motivation of his supporters. The issue on the surface is local vs. state control of the city police department, which Keaveny favors (and mentions in his flyer) and Long opposes (but doesn't mention). But that wonkish issue masks the real concern of Long's supporters and the reason for his candidacy, and neither candidate's flyers address it. That issue is civilian oversight of police. Black city politicians have long sought a civilian oversight board to act on complaints against police officers, and for that board to be elected by the people and have the power to subpoena witnesses and compel testimony. They lack confidence in oversight by either the civilian Board of Police Commissioners, which is appointed by the governor, or by department's own review by fellow officers in Internal Affairs, and suspect that atrocities regularly get swept under the rug. Police, on the other hand, fear that they would be subjected to abusive second-guessing by the politics of an elected board. Elected civilian oversight boards with subpoena power are not currently legal for jurisdictions like St. Louis and St. Louis County that are under state control. Local control is the gateway to civilian oversight, and police want none of it. Police and their families know all about this issue, and they don't need campaign literature to remind them.

While the challenger's campaign faces long odds (sorry about the pun), Long is putting up an active and visible fight, at least in the south part of the district where I live. Long's lawn signs, many of them huge banners, are prevalent. I have already received two personal visits at my door from his volunteers, and several phone calls, both in person and robocalls, and the election is still two weeks off. In an otherwise dull election season, these folks are dedicated and running full out.

Conventional wisdom dictates that Keaveny should win easily. The civilian oversight issue should play well for him in black wards, but that only works if that electorate is informed. If Keaveny is using the same flyers in north St. Louis as I received, he probably isn't doing what he needs to do to inform and motivate them. North-side voters could find Long's "law and order" campaign and his opposition to the state school takeover appealing. In a low-turnout election in a year where an anti-incumbent trend even infects Democratic primaries, a strong grassroots effort by the Long campaign has a chance of success.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Mid-year analysis of 2010 congressional races

With the November mid-term elections now less than four months off, conditions for Democrats have deteriorated since my analysis in January, but the majority party still remains in position to ride out the storm and maintain its control of Congress.


Since World War II, the party in the White House has lost an average of 16 seats in a new President's first off-year election. Congressional Quarterly currently projects Republicans leading in 178 districts, which is exactly the number of seats they hold right now. They lead in three open seats vacated by Democrats, but trail in three of their own. Moreover, they lead in just two more seats than they did at the start of the year. That’s not much Democrat deterioration, considering the President’s plummeting popularity in the wake of inaction on the Gulf oil spill and the weakening economy.

More troubling for Democrats is the number of other seats that now seem competitive. CQ now rates 28 seats as tossups (up from just 13 in January), all but two of which are Democrat-held seats. But Democrats could maintain control of the House just by winning the seats where they are ahead now, even if Republicans swept every tossup contest.

Potential trouble looms for Democrats on the next level. CQ rates another 32 seats (up from 23 in January) as merely “leaning” Democrat, all but one which is currently in Democrat hands. If Republicans kept all of their current leads and swept every tossup contest, they could take control by seizing a dozen of those “Lean Democrat” contests. Realistically, that is a tall order for Republicans, but an improvement over January, when even a sweep of the leaners would have left them five seats short.

To illustrate just how challenging a “Leans Democrat” contest is for Republicans, consider Missouri 4th District represented by 34-year veteran Ike Skelton. This is one of the Democrat seats that CQ downgraded to “Leans Democrat” since my January analysis. Although the district backed John McCain solidly over President Obama, 60%-38%, and President Bush by even more over both Al Gore and John Kerry, Skelton has regularly won reelection with margins of 2-to-1 or better. His smallest margin was 10 points, and that was back in 1982, when Missouri lost a seat in reapportionment and his Republican opponent was also an incumbent congressman. This past election Skelton ran 28 points ahead of President Obama. He will be tough for Republicans to beat.

A realistic scenario at this point in time is for the parties to split the tossups and for each party to win 75% of the contests “leaning” their way. That would give Democrats their 197 seats that CQ rates either Safe or Likely Democrat, 24 of the other seats now “leaning” Democrat, 14 tossup seats, and 3 that are “leaning” Republican. That would be a 17-seat loss, in line with historical averages, and would leave Democrats with 238 seats and control with a 20-seat cushion.

A Republican “wave” might eliminate Democrat wins in Republican leaning districts, give the GOP a 2-1 advantage in tossup contests and reduce Democrat retention of their “lean” contests to 60/40, but even that scenario only costs them 15 more seats, leaving them in control with five to spare. The latest predictions by Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball (32 seat net change) and the Rothenberg Political Report (25-30 seats) don’t go that far.


Prospects for Democrats are brighter in the Senate, in spite of their surprise loss earlier this year in the Massachusetts special election. Only 36 seats (including special elections) are on the ballot, half of which are already held by Republicans. While Democrat chances of gaining one net seat to regain their 60-vote working majority are alive but hurting, the chances of losing a net 10 seats for numerical control of the chamber remain remote.

Since January, Democratic Senators Byron Dorgan (ND), Evan Bayh (IN) and Christopher Dodd (CT) announced their retirements and Robert Byrd (WV) died, but collectively they amount to a net 2010 change (since my January report) of just one seat, because the retirement of scandal-plagued Dodd rescued a Democrat seat formerly at risk. The timing of Byrd’s death will not put that red-state seat at risk until 2012.

CQ projects Republicans leading in 17 contests, up two since January, but still one fewer than they currently hold. Two of those seats are rated as just “leaning” Republican. Nine other seats are rated as tossups (up three since January), and three Democrat seats are merely “leaning” that way. A 1994 redux would require Republicans to sweep every one of those contests. Republicans have fielded weak nominees for four of the key seats (Connecticut, Indiana, Kentucky, and Nevada), and the independent candidacy of Florida Gov. Charlie Crist puts that state’s Republican-held seat in jeopardy. And a poll announced today by Public Policy Polling (a Democrat polling firm) shows the Democrat challenger now tied with Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) in a contest CQ rates “Likely Republican.” Blunders by both major party nominees in Illinois have actually put LeAlan Jones, the Green Party candidate, into double digits in a recent PPP poll, in which Jones is polling higher among conservatives than liberals.

Democrats’ senate chances are better because there are more Republican seats seriously in play. Four of the tossup seats (including Missouri’s) are open seats already held by Republicans. A Democratic takeover of any one of them digs a deeper hole for Republicans and realistically kills any chance to change control.

Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball currently predicts a net Democrat loss of seven senate seats, while the Rothenberg Political Report pegs the expected senate loss at 5-7 seats. That’s well short of change of control, and I think Democrats will do better than that. I see Republicans losing their current seats in Ohio, Florida (to an independent likely to caucus with Democrats) and possibly Kentucky. A still uninspiring campaign by Democrat Robin Carnahan seems to be squandering a chance to seize Missouri’s Republican-held open seat, but Missouri won’t realistically be the reason Democrats fail to reclaim the magic 60th vote. The likely losses of Democrat seats in North Dakota, Arkansas, Colorado and probably Indiana and Delaware will keep Missouri from being pivotal.