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.


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