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Campaigns for - and against - Proposition P target voters with door-to-door strategies

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 18, 2013 - Supporters of Proposition P, or the "Arch tax," are preparing for a targeted — and largely low-profile — campaign blitz leading up to an expected low-turnout April 2 election.

A big question, though, is whether opponents may be gearing up with a more public counter-campaign.

Last week, for example, the St. Louis County Republican Central Committee voted to oppose the ballot proposal, a stance already taken by many area tea party groups. The county GOP also has joined with some of those groups in setting up an anti-Prop P website.

County GOP chairman Bruce Buwalda said that party leaders are producing anti-Prop P circulars that will be distributed door-to-door by Republican township committeepeople.

The St. Louis Area Libertarian Party also has announced its opposition to Proposition P, as have some members of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen.

Meanwhile, the proposal’s backers include an array of the region’s environmental and civic groups, as well the major business groups (made up largely of pro-Republican members), including Civic Progress, the St. Louis Regional Chamber and the Regional Business Council.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley also support Proposition P,  with majorities on the city's Board of Aldermen and the County Council voting to put the measure on their respective April 2 ballots.

Civic Progress — an organization of the region’s top chief executives — has donated $750,000 so far to the pro-Proposition P campaign committee, called Citizens for Safe And Accessible Arch and Public Parks Initiative.

In effect, one faction of the region’s top Republicans is bankrolling the pro-Prop P campaign, while another GOP faction is opposing it.

What is Prop P?

Prop P is asking voters in St. Louis and St. Louis County to approve a 3/16th of one-cent sales tax. It could raise $31 million a year to pay for improvements to the Gateway Arch grounds, the regional Great Rivers Greenway trails and greenways, and for city and county parks.

  • Thirty percent of the money, about $9.4 million, would be dedicated to the Arch grounds;
  • Another $9.4 million, or 30 percent, would go to the Great Rivers Greenway;
  • The remaining 40 percent (estimated at $12.6 million) would go for area parks, with $6 million to St. Louis County, $4 million to county municipalities and $2.6 million to St. Louis.

Approval in both the city and the county, by a simple majority, is needed to put the plan into effect. The proposition calls for an annual audit of how the money is spent and also sunsets the tax after 20 years, unless voters extend it.
“There’s a lot at stake here,” said consultant Paul Zemitzsch, spokesman and chief strategist for the pro-Prop P campaign. “We’re right on the facts. We’re right on the issues.”


Proposition P reflects “a big vision,” he continued, “and it’s our job to articulate that to April voters.”

Campaign chairman Peter Sortino said the proposition offers a chance for the region to address some of the tens of millions of dollars in needed improvements to parks, recreational trails and the Arch grounds.

Over all, Sortino added, Prop P’s vision fits in with “the theme of what makes us what we are, which is our rivers and streams.” The Arch and many of the parks and trails, he said, “are so compatible with that element, because they’re along rivers and streams.”

But St. Louis County Republican chairman Buwalda contends that the proposal lacks the necessary accountability and is unfair to county residents. “We're encouraging county voters to reject it,” he said. “We don't like the idea of non-elected people spending tax dollars.”

Buwalda said he also opposes the idea of using county money to aid “federal property,” referring to the Arch grounds, especially when people already pay federal taxes.  And he believes that county residents already are overtaxed. “Prices are going up,” he said. “Why do we want more taxes for something like this?”

Also skeptical are some members of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen. St. Louis Alderman Scott Ogilvie, I-24th Ward, earlier told the Beacon that the proceeds from the sales tax increase would generally benefit tourists — and not people who actually live in St. Louis.

“It’s not aimed at improving the quality of life for most of the people who live in the city,” Ogilvie said. “It’s aimed at improving the tourism experience for people visiting St. Louis.”

Low-profile campaign for low-turnout election

In persuading voters, Zemitzsch said, “The strength of our campaign is really the diverse number of affinity groups that support Prop P. It ranges from folks who are park advocates to bicycle groups to seniors to children’s groups, the St. Louis business community — which is almost united on this proposition.  We’re relying on our partners in this effort to turn out for us.”

But the pro-Prop P campaign isn’t expected to feature a wave of last-minute, high-profile — and expensive — TV or radio ads. Instead, people identified as frequent voters — and singled out by the aforementioned groups — will receive a series of mailers laying out the pro-Prop P stance.

Supportive groups, such as the Regional Chamber, also are sending out advocacy literature.

The campaign is spending much of its money, Zemitzsch said, on grassroots activities — such as phone banking — aimed at getting out the vote.

The reasons for such a low-profile approach are typical for a likely low-turnout election. Winning voter approval, when there may not be many voters, is as much about tactics and message, as it is about the actual issue.

In low-turnout elections, it’s often about who turns out. The side that succeeds in getting their voters to the polls usually wins.

The Prop P campaign, Zemitzsch said, is “more ground-based than a typical campaign where you do a lot of radio and TV.”

“It’s wasteful” to spend lots of money on TV ads, he continued, when “80 percent of the viewers” won’t be voting.

Based on past spring elections, the pro-Prop P campaign is estimating that no more than 20 percent of St. Louis County’s voters will show up at the polls on April 2.

The turnout is expected to be even lower in St. Louis, where Slay faces only token opposition for his historic bid for a fourth four-year term, now that he has won the March 5 primary.

The Prop P critics — particularly the county GOP — are contending, in part, that St. Louis County voters will be asked to provide the bulk of the new sales tax revenue, but will receive less than half of it for their county and local parks.  The county GOP said in a statement that its members also believed that too much was going to the Great Rivers Greenway.

And the anti-Prop P site on Facebook contends that its passage could be yet another step toward a city-county merger, which some tea party groups oppose.

But for the moment, the pro-Prop P forces sound confident.

Zemitzsch said that he and others overseeing the campaign “know how to win April elections.”  Many of the same players were involved in previous successful efforts, also in low-turnout off-year elections, such as those that raised money for revamping the region’s emergency systems (E911, passed in November 2009) and repairing and renovating the county’s courts buildings (Proposition S, April 2012).

“We’re confident we’re going to win. We’re confident we’ve identified our voters,” Zemitzsch said. “We’re confident that we will get them out on April 2.”

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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