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.

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.


Anonymous David Stokes said...

Enjoyed the post, but the St. Louis County Police Department is not under state control.

July 27, 2010 at 4:05 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home