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, March 04, 2013

Slay must overcome voter complacency to stop Reed

Most of the political smart money thinks St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay will cruise to renomination to an unprecedented fourth term next Tuesday. His administration has been free of major scandal, civic optimism is high, and he enjoys a huge fundraising advantage, which he is using to blanket the airwaves and fill mailboxes with large expensive glossy cards. He also enjoys important endorsements, including Rep. Lacy Clay, his father and legendary predecessor William L. Clay, Sr., civil rights icon Frankie Muse Freeman, Gov. Jay Nixon, Sen. Claire McCaskill, and the city's fading daily, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. But the Oracle's crystal ball remains cloudy. Slay must overcome two major challenges to make history.

The first major challenge is Aldermanic President Lewis Reed, whose quest to wrest City Hall away from the mayor has history on its side. Since the city began electing mayors to four-year terms, no one has ever been elected four times. The only other one who tried, Raymond R. Tucker (after whom the downtown stretch of 12th Street is named), was defeated by Alfonso J. Cervantes, who, like Reed, was then the Aldermanic President. That, in fact, was the office Slay himself held when he unseated former Mayor Clarence Harmon twelve years ago.

But Reed has more than just history in his corner. While racial consciousness has settled down to irrelevancy among the city's increasingly progressive white voters, it seems to be on the upswing among African-American voters. Last August, when it appeared that newly drawn districts and well-known white candidates might eviscerate city black representation in the Missouri legislature and the Post Dispatch endorsed exactly zero black candidates (see link to my post about that situation), black voters turned out in unusually high numbers for a summer primary and won all of the contests in question. President Barack Obama's tough but successful reelection campaign added to black racial consciousness and accelerated the momentum. The Reed campaign is well positioned to ride any continuing wave. The Clay endorsement looks good for Slay on paper, but it is paper thin. The worst kept secret in town is that Clays' endorsements are payback for Slay's active support of the younger Clay last election when he beat back a challenge from displaced white Democratic Rep. Russ Carnahan. Black voters recognize that Clay is doing what he has to, but few of them will follow his lead this time. Even the elder Clay's former chief of staff, Pearlie Evans, is backing Reed. While Slay has faced at least one significant black challenger in every mayoral election, he will get his lowest share of the black vote this time around.

Reed complements his solid black support with some significant pockets of support from whites. He made the right promises to get the support of the firefighters union, whose members are suing the city over pension issues. The teachers union backs Reed due to old resentment over Slay's past intervention in school board elections and support for charter schools. The St. Louis Police Officers Association is officially neutral, but many officers resent Slay's backing of local control. Of less importance is Reed's endorsement by former 24th Ward (Dogtown) Alderman Tom Bauer, one of only two aldermen to be recalled by voters midterm.

Reed used a similar pattern of solid black support and spotty inroads of the white vote to unseat Aldermanic President Jim Shrewsbury six years ago. However, consistent street talk at the time said that some of Reed's white support was from Slay backers who were upset with Shrewsbury's independence on the Board of Estimate and Apportionment. Those folks are back with Slay in this contest.

A second challenger, former 27th Ward Alderman Jimmie Matthews, is also running, but he is not Slay's second major challenge. If anything, a black candidate like Matthews could help Slay by splintering his black opposition. But that's not likely to happen here, even though Matthews is gamely attending candidate forums on both sides of town. As the other alderman (besides Bauer) to be recalled by voters of his own ward, the Matthews candidacy will have a miniscule impact.

Slay's second major challenge is the possible complacency of his own supporters. His south side base sees an overwhelming majority of Slay signs on lawns and nothing but Slay ads on television, and they don't think Reed has much of a chance. The mayor and his campaign do not suffer from such complacency and are working very hard. But motivating complacent supporters to get out and vote, especially in the bad weather that is predicted for Tuesday, will be a challenge. Reed's supporters are more motivated and more likely to vote.

These factors make this contest hard to call. Slay will win big in his base in southwestern St. Louis (Wards 12 (his current home), 16 and 23 (where he grew up and served as alderman), and he will win other south side wards by smaller margins with lower turnouts. Reed will win big on the north side, and the size of the turnout will be important. The election will be decided in the central corridor. Reed should do well in Ward 6 (his home ward), but not as well as on the north side. The election will be decided in Wards 8, 17 and especially the high-turnout 28th.

A big Slay win is possible, but a close election that could go either way is more likely.