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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

Five things to watch in Tuesday's aldermanic elections

Tuesday's elections will decide who will fill 17 out of 28 seats in the St. Louis Board of Aldermen.
Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Tuesday's elections will decide who will fill 17 out of 28 seats in the St. Louis Board of Aldermen.

On Tuesday, St. Louis voters will head to the polls for the municipal primary election. Besides a spirited race for an open aldermanic seat encompassing most of downtown, several incumbent aldermen are facing particularly vibrant challenges. When all the ballots are counted by Tuesday night, the 28-person board could look different.

In the marquee race, St. Louis Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed is expected to coast to a victory over former Alderman Jimmie Matthews, a perennial candidate who’s vied unsuccessfully for various offices.

Here are the five big questions about Tuesday’s races.

Will any incumbents lose re-election?

Incumbency is one of the biggest advantages in electoral politics. If voters can’t find a compelling reason to vote an incumbent out,  a challenger is probably not going to win.  

Alderman Craig Schmid, left, is facing a tough challenge for re-election from Cara Spencer -- who has support from Cherokee Street's business community. But Schmid's beaten back challengers before -- including in 2007 when he narrowly beat Galen Gondolfi.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Alderman Craig Schmid, left, is facing a tough challenge from Cara Spencer, who has the support of Cherokee Street businesses.

Most incumbents on Tuesday's primary ballot have opponents. Some challengers are stronger than others, but an unpredictable turnout could lead to a changing of the guard.

Incumbents facing potentionally vigorous challengers include Alderwoman Dionne Flowers, D-2nd Ward;  Alderman Sam Moore, D-4th Ward; Steve Conway, D-8th Ward;  Alderman Larry Arnowitz, D-12th Ward; Alderwoman Megan Green, D-15th Ward; Alderman Craig Schmid, D-20th Ward; Alderman Jeffrey Boyd, D-22nd Ward; Alderman Scott Ogilvie, D-24th Ward; and Alderman Frank Williamson, D-26th Ward.

With the exception of the recently elected Green, all the other incumbents have survived challenges before – and it’ll be worth watching if they can do it again.

What role will the St. Louis Police Officers’ Association play?

The creation of a civilian review board for the St. Louis Police Department was arguably the most high-profile unfinished item before the Board of Aldermen this year. While it appears to have the votes to get to the mayor's desk, the mechanics of a board have been contentious.

Megan Green recently won election to a Board of Aldermen seat as an independent. It may have showcased that voters in her ward were less interested in party identification and more concerned about individual candidates.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Alderwoman Megan Green, D-15th Ward, is a strong backer of a civilian review board for the St. Louis Police Department. "They want to see something that allows more transparency and accountability for not just our police department, but for government in general," she said.

The group with the most misgivings about the review board is the St. Louis Police Officers’ Association. That group endorsed candidates – such as 7th Ward contender Jack Coatar, 24th Ward challenger Tom Bauer and 15th Ward candidate Beth Braznell – who may push for a civilian review board more to the association’s liking.

“I do have the endorsement of the Police Officers’ Association and the Fraternal Order of Police. And I’m very proud to carry those endorsements,” Braznell said. “I think it is possible to do a civilian review board and do it very well. But I’m very concerned about this movement right now toward fast-tracking.”

Candidates like Green, though, are embracing the creation of a civilian review board with teeth. At a candidate forum last week, Green'ssupporters wore shirts with the words "Outside Agitator"  – perhaps a way of turning Braznell’s critical mailer into a source of pride.

“When I got onto the board, I started working very closely with [Alderman Terry Kennedy, D-18th Ward] in particular to see how we could make a civilian oversight board that is going to really represent the people and is really going to help to heal this divide between the community and the police in some sections of our city,” Green said. “Looking forward, it’s become an area of contention between some people in our ward. But I think it’s something that St. Louis needs and something I’m going to continue to fight for.”

Does money matter?

Unlike state legislative or statewide contests, aldermanic campaigns tend to be fought through handshake-to-handshake combat. 

Beth Braznell
Credit Courtesy of Beth Braznell
15th Ward candidate Beth Braznell has raised tens of thousands of dollars for her aldermanic bid -- far more than incumbent Alderwoman Megan Green, D-15th Ward.

Door-knocking, mailers and yard signs are usually the most common campaign tools. For the most part, those fundamentals don't cost very much.

Still, fundraising is often a barometer of strength. And some candidates – including Braznell, 20th Ward candidate Cara Spencer and Coatar – have taken in more money their respective opponents. Some incumbents, including Boyd and Arnowitz, have raised more cash than their challengers.

Will the winners of competitive Democratic primaries be the ones who have raised the most cash? If they don’t, it may demonstrate that it’s not “all about the Benjamins” in aldermanic contests.

How influential are St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay’s endorsements?

As the longest-serving chief executive in St. Louis history, Slay certainly has sway. In past elections, his endorsement meant a lot, especially when it was backed up with money and manpower from his potent political operation. 

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay speaks with former St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley last year. Slay backed some losing candidates like Dooley last year. But his endorsement has traditionally been fairly potent.

But Slay had a less-than-stellar 2014. Several candidates he endorsed – including former St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and former Recorder of Deeds Jennifer Florida – lost decisively. He also backed a sales tax increase for transportation projects that failed badly at the polls.

Having allies on the Board of Aldermen is more crucial for Slay – especially since the board is responsible for passing or rejecting his agenda. Slay has practical reasons to pay attention to whether his candidates win.

Slay’s endorsed candidates include Olgivie, Schmid, Williamson, Boyd, Flowers, Coatar, Conway and Braznell. While Reed has also endorsed Ogilvie and Coatar, he’s strongly backing Green in her re-election bid against Braznell.

Are aldermanic elections about issues or personalities?

Local campaign guru Richard Callow made a particularly salient comment last week when he Tweeted: “An aldermanic race isn't really about issues. Why cover it that way?”  

The Board of Aldermen at work last year.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
The Board of Aldermen at work last year.

It’s a good question and an intriguing observation. There are times when broader issues drive a race’s narrative – such as the conflict between Schmid and some Cherokee Street business owners. But more often than not, an alderman’s temperament or responsiveness can be the issue in races featuring an incumbent.

Sure, candidates frequently cite their platforms stressing economic development or fighting crime, but in reality, much of the discourse revolves around personalities. Many of these charges and countercharges are relayed in fliers flooding the mailboxes of people in competitive wards.

Without sophisticated polling, it’s hard to know what drives people to the polls. But most everybody can agree with Callow's follow-up Tweet: "Ward elections are won with sweat."

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

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