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Reed hopes numbers are on his side with his challenge of Slay

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 4, 2013 - Lewis Reed wasn’t always a math guy. That may be surprising tidbit for those who know Reed, the president of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, who gets excited talking about abstract algebra. But things changed when one his teachers back in Joliet, Ill., gave him an assignment doing multiplication tables.

What were the consequences for getting the answers wrong? Well, they weren’t exactly pleasant.

“He said, 'Look -- you have to do all your multiplications and you have to pass this test on Monday',” said Reed in a wide-ranging interview at his south St. Louis campaign office. “And if you miss one, you’re going to get paddled. So I started studying, and it turns out I missed two or three. I remember I missed 12 times 12. 144."

“And you got paddled,” he added. “And I was like ‘that was it.’ After that I was a math guy.”

Taking in the numbers has been an integral part of Reed’s political career, whether it was challenging a sitting president of the Board of Aldermen or his current challenge of unseating St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay.

At the same time, Reed is hoping to counteract the figures that appear to be in the incumbent mayor’s favor. Running for an unprecedented fourth four-year term, Slay has more money, more high-level endorsements and a highly skilled organization.

But between his nitty-gritty exposition of how he would fix the city’s ailments is a simpler message: The city has major problems, and the city's political leaders need to come to consensus to solve them.

“When I look at some of the challenges in front of the city of St. Louis on a daily basis and I see the decisions we’re making downtown, I know we can do better,” Reed said. “I know with some change in the way we’re approaching the residents of this city and how we’re spending the money that’s coming into the city, we can begin to drastically change the circumstances that the people of the city find themselves under.”

From Joliet to St. Louis

Reed is a native of Joliet, Ill., a fast-growing enclave southwest of the Chicago metropolitan area. He grew up, he said, in “kind of a tough area.”

“It was an integrated area,” Reed said. “Although a lot of us within the area didn’t have a lot of money, it was kind of a close-knit neighborhood still. And now that I’m older, I really appreciate how integrated the neighborhood was.”

In the 1980s, Reed headed south to study at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. He majored in mathematics and computer science and said he spent some time tutoring others on both subjects.

But after his first wife became pregnant with his daughter, he decided to leave school before graduating to find work – and insurance – in St. Louis.

“The other day at this neighborhood meeting was the first day I ever had to talk about it,” Reed said. “But when I think back on how difficult of a decision that was, now say, ‘Man, that was literally the only decision I could have made.’ But back then, we had to sit and think about it – what were we going to do? And now I see my daughter and think ‘Man, how could you ever have made any other decision?’"

(Reed said he would like to finish his coursework after his political career comes to an end, with a longer-term goal of earning a Ph.D.)

Reed eventually settled in Compton Heights in the city's central corridor. He has four children: two with his first wife and two with his current wife, attorney Mary Entrup.

Before he jumped into the political arena, Reed worked for construction companies and in the telecommunications industry. Among other things, he worked as manager of data networks for SSM Health Businesses.

Before he decided to run for office, he said he was involved in the 6th Ward Democratic organization.His role for that group, he said, was to be “the guy at 4 in the morning who put those signs up” for candidates the organization endorsed.

When the 6th Ward seat became open in 1999, Reed won in what he described as a “contentious” three-way primary. After the election was over, he said he tried his best to make sure that he brought “everybody back together under one umbrella.”

“Because you represent everybody,” Reed said. “I don’t care if you voted for me or you can’t stand the sound of my feet hitting the ground. I’m representing you. I want to know your ideas. And I want to make sure that your views and everything are factored into what I’m doing because I’m a public servant for the entire city.

“So it’s going to be the same thing in this race,” he added. “We will begin to bring our city together by approaching it in a much different way.”

One particular achievement Reed cited at both his kickoff event and in his interview was instituting tax increment financing for the Lafayette Square neighborhood.

The outcome, he said, is a more aesthetically pleasing neighborhood free of junkyards and liquor stores.

“When I became the alderman of the 6th Ward, Lafayette Square was well on its way to development,” Reed said. “But one of the things I saw when you took a look at it from a developer’s point of view was we needed to create an environment where businesses could thrive and survive. And where homeowners could feel better. And when residents and homeowners came to visit the city through convention or whatever, it could be one of the major attractions for the city.”

Upward trajectory

That project – and other bills he passed during his eight years on the board – were a selling point in Reed’s bid in 2007 in his race against Aldermanic President Jim Shrewsbury.With an edge in experience and endorsements, Shrewsbury was thought to have a decisive edge.

Alderman Antonio French – the 21st Ward alderman and a Reed supporter – worked as a consultant during that campaign. French said that for “80 percent of that campaign, people just assumed he was going to lose.”

“And it was really in the last 21 to 30 days of that campaign that there was just a momentum shift,” French said. “And you saw people starting to get involved. You saw voters really starting to pay attention.”

Reed attributes his 2007 win to “a very analytical approach.” That included, he said, “a significant amount of time modeling and taking a look at the data,” as well as a Thursday-to-Tuesday get-out-the-vote effort.

“Once we had that model in place, we began to follow that model point-for-point,” Reed said. “And we were able to get our messaging out to the city of St. Louis. We were able to appeal to people all across this city. And we took our message everywhere. And we had one message for the entire city. Just like now, we have one message for the entire city.”

As president of the 28-member board, Reed sets up the legislative body’s various committees and referred legislation. He also gets a vote on the Board of Estimate and Apportionment, which makes most of the city’s financial decisions.

One notable attribute about Reed’s tenure, French said, was how he was able to help bring "consensus" on previously divisive issues. He pointed to how redistricting for the Board of Aldermen went smoothly in 2011, a stark contrast from the extremely contentious process in 2001.

“Lewis’ managerial style is a lot different; he looks for consensus,” French said. “And some people even say to a flaw. He spends a lot of time trying to get consensus among people.

“We had every alderman co-sign and co-sponsor this bill,” he added. “So that was a 100 percent consensus, which is a remarkable feat for a redistricting fight, which is usually very, very nasty.”

Alderman Chris Carter, D-27th Ward, said he worked often with Reed in cultivating the Neighborhood Ownership Model, a program aimed at reducing crime in specific neighborhoods.

Carter – who was in the Missouri House before winning a special election to the Board of Aldermen – also said he worked with Reed closely when he came to the legislature. He defined Reed's leadership style as trustworthy.

"He's a man of his word," Carter said. "If he says he's going to do something, he's going to get it done."

Reed was re-elected to his post in 2011 without serious opposition. Slay even sent his re-election campaign a $500 donation in December 2010, a sign of temporary tranquility between the two.

But relations between the two soured throughout 2012, when it became evident that Reed would challenge Slay. Perhaps most notably, the two had markedly different views of firefighter pensions.

By October of last year, Reed had announced his mayoral candidacy at Sqwire’s Restaurant in Lafayette Square – the heart of the neighborhood he often touts as one of his successes.

"When we look at the data, we know what he’s doing isn’t working," Reed said. "(He's) had 12 years to do it. It’s not working because we’re not getting better."

Two of a kind? Or one in the same?

The two candidates have sparred over campaign personnel, campaign donations and endorsements.

But when Reed announced his candidacy in October, Slay put out a statement stating that Reed “supported me throughout most of my term – until he recently decided to run for higher office.”

Indeed, the two do share some commonalities. Both were at a 2011 press conference boosting a legislative effort to establish an international trading hub at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. Both support a foreclosure mediation ordinance in the city. Both supported local control of the St. Louis Police Department. And Reed voted to place a sales tax increase for improvements around the Gateway Arch on the ballot – which Slay also supports.

But Reed said while Slay and himself may share similar goals, they have different strategies for accomplishing them.

“Both you and I can agree that Tony’s is the best place to have steak,” said Reed, referring to the legendary St. Louis eatery. “The question becomes: What route will we take leaving from here to get there to get to the steak? Does Francis Slay want the city to not have the crime problem and everything that we have in the city? No. So the question becomes what route is he taking to fix it and has that route been effective?”

If he’s elected mayor, Reed said he would ensure better coordination between the police department and the city's courts. He also would push for the city’s prosecutors to make a “fair wage,” a move he says will prevent potential prosecutors from gravitating to St. Louis County.

And Reed also wants to make sure there’s a “real commitment” to “programs and services” to keep younger residents out of trouble.

"A lot of the people who are committing the crimes on the streets aren’t 40- or 50-year-old men; these are 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds," said Reed. "What that tells us is we need to implement all the programs and services working in other cities. And we’re not doing that today.”

On education, Reed said he would push for “mandatory” pre-school and advocate for after-school programs. He also said one of his goals would be to connect the city’s needier families with social service organizations.

“Years ago we said ‘parent involvement, parent involvement, parent involvement.’ There’s a whole plethora of reasons parents may or cannot be involved,” Reed said. “Some of the parents can’t because they’re the product of a poor education. They don’t know math and algebra. They cannot write complete sentences. So they cannot help or assist that child. Some parents have to make a decision of whether to keep the lights on or help the child with their homework. All these things. But we know when we begin to plan around all of that, learning indeed can take root within the child.

“Some of the things that I just mention include the wraparound services where you do of assessment of all the nonprofits, social organizations that are operating within the city,” he added. “And begin to connect the people with the resources and get those resources wrapped around education.”

And before discussing any chance of the city entering St. Louis County, Reed said city and county departments need to enter into cooperation agreements “in a very public forum and very public way.” That strategy, he said, will convince “the public to be accepting of it and tell them that the world isn’t going to end.”

He also said the city needs to work to try and build relationships with the state legislature, especially with lawmakers who aren’t part of the “St. Louis caucus.” Reed also said the city needs to get "creative"on issues that the legislature likely won't act on, such as giving the city more power to enact gun control.

"It’s not just enough to say ‘the state needs to give us some control over guns.’ I would like to have a pot of gold fall through the ceiling and land here. It’s not going to happen just by saying it," Reed said. "What we need to do right now is begin to put the building blocks in place so that we have the power to change those things at the state level that impact us on a daily basis here."

More than any singular issue, Carter said Reed has the potential to bring a decidedly different leadership style to the table.

“He is the change that our city needs,” Carter said. “He will give everybody a fair chance. No matter the race, color, shape or size – he’s involved with what’s right. And that’s why I support him. He’s basically for what’s right. He cares about what the people think – what all people think. Not just one side of the town. Not just one beat. He cares about everybody.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.