Editor's Weekly: Four Questions About The Election
Tuesday’s election would be boring. Vote anyway. That’s what I said last week. But election night turned out to be anything but boring. And so many voters turned out in St. Louis County that a fifth of the polling places ran out of paper ballots.
Some scenes that played out Tuesday were surreal. At Republican Rick Stream’s near-victory party, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III mingled with Ferguson protesters, Rachel Lippmann reported. "I want my gun back," State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed said to Knowles. She had been carrying one (with a permit) before she was jailed.
At Democrat Steve Stenger’s party, police removed some protesters who interrupted festivities with chants of “Hands up.” Meanwhile, despite Republican gains in the Missouri legislature and Stream’s strong showing, his old House district in Kirkwood elected Democrat Deb Lavender.
In other words, election night was full of quirks and puzzles. Here are four lingering questions:
1. Why did Stream almost win the St. Louis County executive race? We won’t know until the county election board produces a geographic breakdown of the vote. Given the interminable pace of returns on election night, don’t hold your breath. But eventually we should be able to sort out the impact of two opposite strains of voter dissatisfaction – both related to Ferguson – that could explain the Republican’s surprise showing in a Democratic stronghold.
Perhaps the Fannie Lou Hamer coalition of African American Democrats succeeded in persuading a significant number of Democrats to abandon Stenger because of his close ties to county prosecutor Bob McCulloch. Or perhaps Republicans turned out in large numbers for Stream because they’re fed up with Ferguson protests. Perhaps both.
Regardless, the greatest challenge facing Stenger and other elected officials will be to define and address Ferguson-related issues in light of these strong and conflicting public opinions. Stream has offered to help Stenger, and perhaps he could play a role.
2. Will Stenger bridge the rift among Democrats? The answer matters far beyond county Democratic circles. Michael Brown’s death created a pivotal moment – for Ferguson, the region, even the nation. With the grand jury decision looming, time is short to build trust instead of suspicion, understanding instead of antagonism.
Those elements will be important in the long run, too, as political leaders seize the moment – or don’t – to tackle deeper issues of fairness, opportunity and racial disparity. Stenger could start the process by mending breaks within his own party – or he could complicate matters by settling scores.
3. Will Republican gains change the dynamics in Jefferson City?
The state faces challenges in education, health care, job growth and other matters. In the last legislative session, disagreements among Republicans were as significant as partisan differences. Next session, larger numbers could make it easier for Republicans to act or could further complicate divisions.
Meanwhile, the partisan divide is thriving. In post-election press conferences, Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon and incoming Republican House Speaker John Diehl resumed the battle over the budget.
4. Can our political system deal with Ferguson?
Officials may be making plans behind the scenes. But they’ve not yet demonstrated publicly that they can deal with the challenges at hand.
Nixon, especially, faces a test. Despite his lame duck status, he wields plenty of political, legal and moral authority in a jurisdictionally fractured region. But during August protests, he seemed averse to playing a visible, vigorous leadership role. Now, he’s called for a commission but has yet to appoint its members.
Many citizens have lost faith in existing institutions and current leaders – elected and otherwise. That’s true for some people who are upset with the civic unrest of the last three months. And it’s true for some in a young generation of protesters who are demanding to be heard. Did these alienated activists find much reason for hope in Tuesday’s election? I doubt it.
And yet, this week also offered proof that public policies and attitudes can be transformed. St. Louis Circuit Judge Rex Burlison ruled that Missouri’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. Immediately, couples lined up at St. Louis City Hall for marriage licenses – a scene that would have been surreal only a few years ago.