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St. Louis mayoral contest features old and new issues, as Slay seeks to make history

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 4, 2013 - So far, the Democratic contest for St. Louis mayor arguably has focused less on policy and more on the personal.

It’s true that St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and his chief rival in the March 5 Democratic primary – Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed – disagree on whether the city has done enough to curb crime, the importance of any sort of city-county merger, and whether Slay’s administration has properly managed the city’s health and water departments, among others.

But most of the headlines have centered on other matters, such as: Reed’s assertion that the mayor is too tied to major Republicans, and the decision of Reed’s wife to step down as city judge because, she contends, the Slay administration unfairly cut her hours.

Meanwhile, Slay’s campaign has needled Reed on such things as his choices of campaign managers with controversial backgrounds and Reed’s agreement with the mayor on some major issues, such as gun control.

Both sides also have tossed out some accusations of race-baiting, a common complaint in St. Louis elections for at least 50 years.

Issues aside, the contest has an added historic backdrop. Slay is seeking a fourth four-year term, which would make him the longest-serving mayor in St. Louis history. He’s facing Reed and former Alderman Jimmie Matthews.

Slay has been endorsed by most of the top Democrats in the region and state, including U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, Gov. Jay Nixon, Secretary of State Jason Kander, state Treasurer Clint Zweifel, Attorney General Chris Koster, St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis.

The Greater St. Louis Labor Council has endorsed Slay, while Local 73 of the International Association of Firefighters has backed Reed. Most of the city’s 28 ward organizations are still deliberating, but Slay and Reed have each collected some early nods, with the mayor snagging a majority.

Reed’s other supporters include the Organization for Black Struggle, Alderman Antonio French, D-21st Ward, and former state Sen. Robin Wright-Jones, who has been assisting his campaign.

Current state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, backs Slay.

Reed and French predict that the mayoral contest could mirror the 2007 race for aldermanic president, when Reed defied conventional wisdom and defeated incumbent Aldermanic President Jim Shrewsbury.

But Reed's allies in that contest were widely believed to include Slay as well.

Money and Republicans

Slay has amassed a huge advantage in campaign fundraising and spending. The most recent campaign reports show that Slay has raised $2.955 million and spent $2.55 million, including almost $1 million in advance purchases of TV and radio ads and mailers. As of Jan. 24, the mayor still had $615,321 in the bank and no debt.

Since then, Slay has raised at least $100,000 more, including $50,000 donated Saturday from a political action committee, Missourians for Excellence in Government, with ties to wealthy financier Rex Sinquefield. The group had given Slay another $50,000 earlier.

The mayor has gone up on the air with his first TV spot, which focuses on the city’s success under his watch in reducing lead poisoning among children, a longstanding problem in older homes and apartments because of lead paint.

Reed, meanwhile, reported raising $534,863 and spending $396,011. He had $94,345 left in the bank and a debt of $26,741. Since then, he has collected an additional $45,000, most of it from businessmen in Louisiana.

Reed has criticized Slay for taking so-called “Republican money” from such major GOP donors as Sinquefield and prominent Clayton businessman Sam Fox.

Slay’s campaign has taken note that Reed previously has received money from Sinquefield, who was the aldermanic president’s largest single donor for Reed’s 2009 re-election bid. Sinquefield gave Reed $60,000 between 2009-2011.

The focus on GOP money could foretell the role that Republicans could play in the March 5 primary. Because Missouri has “open” primaries, anyone can vote in the Democratic primary, unless a campaign observer challenges the partisan credentials of a would-be voter in the polling place.

Republican-leaning city voters often have wielded a powerful influence in St. Louis primaries for citywide officials – especially mayor. Republicans were believed to have played a pivotal role in the 1997 Democratic mayoral contest – choosing Clarence Harmon over then-Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr.

Voting patterns suggest that Republicans also were key in the 2001 Democratic mayoral primary in which Slay defeated then-Mayor Harmon and Bosley.  That time, Republicans unofficially backed Slay.

This year, no Republican candidate is running for St. Louis mayor in the April 2 general election. That may prompt Republican voters to take Democratic ballots on March 5.

Complicated role of race

African-Americans are the city's largest ethnic or racial group with about half of the city's overall population, but whites constitute a majority of registered voters.

Reed, who is African-American, initially had accused Slay of being behind the candidacy of Matthews, who also is African-American, in an effort to split the black vote. Matthews and Slay say that is definitely not the case.

At last week’s forum moderated by the League of Women Voters, Reed said he would represent all city voters and pointed out to the audience that his wife was white.

Meanwhile, Slay has highlighted his endorsements from Clay, Nasheed, Dooley and famed local civil rights lawyer Frankie Freeman. Clay attended last week's forum and had a prominent seat near the front of the audience.

Reed has said that Clay’s support for Slay may be tied to Reed’s longstanding friendship with now-former U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, who challenged Clay during a nasty primary last summer for the 1st congressional district.

A spokeswoman for the Organization for Black Struggle criticized such pro-Slay support from African-American officials, especially from Clay and Nasheed.  Slay's campaign manager Richard Callow contended that Reed’s camp has threatened such Slay supporters, which Reed’s campaign denies.

Reed plays down the importance of endorsements and points to last summer’s victory by then-state Rep. Tishaura Jones in a four-way contest for St. Louis city treasurer. Most of the endorsements, including Slay’s, went to various rivals.

However, some tie Jones’ victory to the huge African-American turnout generated by Clay’s battle with Carnahan. Since Reed did not back Clay, some of the congressman’s allies say that Clay will campaign hard for Slay, and against Reed, in the March 5 primary.

Clay said in an interview that he expects to be featured in TV and radio ads, and that he will do whatever is needed to help Slay.

The other major African-American Democrat in the city – Comptroller Darlene Green – says she is remaining neutral in the Slay/Reed contest.

Green noted that she also is seeking re-election this spring, although she has no opponent in the March 5 primary.

“I’m ‘swimming’ in my own lane,’’ Green said, observing that she would need to work with whoever wins in the mayoral contest.

For all the verbal fireworks, most would-be city voters have yet to engage. Although absentee balloting began more than two weeks ago, city Republican elections director Gary Stoff said Friday that only 13 people had showed up at the Election Board so far to cast an early ballot. Another 1,000 people have made requests by mail for an absentee ballot.

As of last November, St. Louis had over 195,000 registered voters -- and most are believed to be Democrats.

Beacon reporter Jason Rosenbaum contributed information for this article.

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.