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Keaveny wins in spirited Democratic contest to succeed Smith

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 12, 2009 - Joe Keaveny, the 28th Ward Democratic committeeman, was selected Saturday as St. Louis Democrats' choice to become the new state senator in the 4th District -- besting two other rivals: state Rep. Rachel Storch and lawyer Jerryl Christmas.

Keaveny will compete in the Nov. 3 special election called to replace fellow Democrat Jeff Smith, who resigned last month when he pleaded guilty to two felony charges stemming from his unsuccessful 2004 bid for Congress. But since the 4th District is overwhelmingly Democratic, Keaveny is seen as the odds-on favorite to win the seat in November.

Saturday's balloting, by the Democratic committeemen and committeewomen in the 18 wards that make up the 4th District, was generally viewed as the real contest.

Keaveny's success in winning his party's nomination is interpreted as a victory, of sorts, for St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay -- who had publicly endorsed Keaveny about 10 days ago.

Keaveny said in an interview that he's now focused on getting organized for the November election. "I've got to talk with people and see what the next steps are,'' he said. "Right now, it's about open communication. I need to know what's on people's minds."

One issue that's on Keaveny's mind: Giving City Hall more clout when it comes to the creation of charter schools -- one of Slay's objectives.

Keaveny, 52, is a former banker with a law degree. He resides with his wife and four children in the city's West End.

Arguably the biggest surprise occurred before the session got underway, when state Rep. Jamila Nasheed dropped out. Allies said she simply communicated -- via text message-- that she was going to a movie Saturday, instead of showing up. Nasheed had been waging a very public campaign for weeks to succeed Smith.

Nasheed's disappearance shocked former state Sen. Maida Coleman, among a number of Democratic activists who showed up at Carpenters Hall to observe the proceedings -- which were open to the public until the committeepeople were ready to vote.

Keaveny won his party's nod after an old Slay opponent -- 1st Ward committeewoman Sharon Tyus -- threw her bloc of votes to him after her preferred choice, Christmas, lost in the first round of balloting.

State Rep. Chris Carter, also the 27th Ward committeeman, had campaigned hard for Storch in the final stage of voting. He also Tweeted some observations and concerns during the proceedings.

Afterwards, Carter said the final vote between Keaveny and Storch was close.  "I'm looking forward to working with Joe in Jefferson City,'' Carter added. "I hope he's up to the challenge."

Representatives from all but one of the wards in the 4th District -- the 19th -- showed up to take part in Saturday's voting. (The 19th's committeeman, city License Collector Mike McMillan was out of town. The committeewoman, Cecelia Grant, is ill.)

City Recorder of Deeds Sharon Quigley Carpenter, who's also the 23rd Ward committeewoman, chaired the meeting. She said afterwards, "Rachel is brilliant, but people are comfortable with Joe."

As the only one of the three contenders with legislative experience, Storch had offered the most details in her speech and answers Saturday delivered during the public portion of the session. She also is a lawyer.

(One minus, according to some Democrats privately: Storch has publicly said she's interested in being appointed secretary of state by Gov. Jay Nixon, should incumbent Democrat Robin Carnahan win her bid for U.S. Senate next year. Several city activists said they'd prefer a state senator who would stick with the job for a few years, even if he has less experience. Storch sought to dispel those concerns several weeks ago, but she did not mention the issue Saturday.)

Keaveny, who addressed the group first, acknowledged his shortcomings as a legislator and a speaker. "I'm no Barack Obama,'' he quipped before touting his strengths working with people and in understanding complicated issues.

Keaveny also mentioned one of Slay's pet concerns -- protecting the state historic tax credits that now are fueling some of the city's redevelopment surge.

Christmas, a former city prosecutor, had cited his experience in Washington as a lawyer for U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

All three candidates told the group they would work toward persuading the Legislature to approve local control of the city police department, that they supported the city's public schools and wanted to improve its graduation rate, and that they were pro-union. Storch cited her previous labor endorsements.

"The process worked its way out,'' said city Democratic Party chairman Brian Wahby, who was present during the proceedings but did not have a vote. The committeepeople, he said, "picked the candidate who can best run in this district."

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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