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County Council member on collision course for re-election bid

State Rep. Rochelle Walton Gray, D-Black Jack, filed to run for the St. Louis County Council. She could pose a stiff challenge to incumbent Councilman Mike O'Mara.
Tim Bommel I House Communications | File photo
State Rep. Rochelle Walton Gray, D-Black Jack, filed to run for the St. Louis County Council. She could pose a stiff challenge to incumbent Councilman Mike O'Mara.

If St. Louis County Councilman Mike O’Mara wants to return to the council for another four years, he’ll have to ward off a potentially serious challenge from a fellow Democrat.

Both O’Mara, D-Florissant, and state Rep. Rochelle Walton Gray recently filed to run for the 4th District Council seat. That north St. Louis County-based district takes in portions of Florissant, Black Jack, Bellefontaine Neighbors, Riverview and unincorporated St. Louis County.

Gray, D-Black Jack, is terming out of the Missouri House. She said in a telephone interview that residents of all races and political persuasions told her she should run for the heavily Democratic seat.

“I was encouraged by several community leaders, especially in the African-American community, to run,” Gray said. “But actually, black and white, Democrats and Republicans from all avenues have asked me to run. Women, more especially, encouraged me. And we want to see a different person in office. And that district is predominantly black now. And we feel like the person there now has failed to represent our interests.”

(The 4th District is one of two county council districts with majority African-American populations.)

Gray was especially critical of O’Mara’s handling of a landlord licensing bill. Critics assailed iterations of the measure as being harmful for low-income renters. “He had the landlord-tenant bill that, I would say, that the majority of our community at large — black and white — did not agree with,” she said.

It’s not uncommon for incumbent county council members to face primary challenges.But there are several reasons why Gray could be a serious threat to O’Mara’s political future:

  • Gray comes from a family that’s proven adept at winning elections. Her father, Elbert Walton, served in the Missouri House for 14 years. And her stepmother, Juanita Head Walton, also served in the House for eight years. (Interestingly, O’Mara’s father, James O’Mara, also served on the St. Louis County Council until Mike O’Mara succeeded him in 2001.)
  • Gray has significantly more campaign cash on hand than O’Mara, especially after state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, gave her a $25,000 donation. As of January, O’Mara only had $91.38 of cash on hand. 
  • O’Mara may have an organizational advantage because of his alliance with organized labor, which is a major political force in parts of north St. Louis County. (He works for the pipefitters union.) But Gray has experience in defeating candidates backed by unions: After redistricting in 2012, Gray squared off against fellow state Rep. Sylvester Taylorand won – even though labor groups had backed Taylor. (Gray noted that she’s compiled a favorable voting record toward labor unions, including opposing “right to work” and “paycheck protection.”)

“It’s not a personal decision [against O'Mara]. It was purely to enhance the African-American community,” Gray said. “The economic base in North County has gone down tremendously. We’ve seen what happened with the Hazelwood School District. And we just need to be more in tune with the community.”

Up for the challenge

For his part, O’Mara said he welcomes the chance to run for re-election – even if it’s a tougher campaign than usual. He said that he didn’t think he’d be at a disadvantage running in a district with a majority African-American population, adding he has “a very good rapport” with the black community. 

Councilman Mike O'Mara has been one of the strongest proponents of making owners of rental property obtain licenses.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Councilman Mike O'Mara is seeking a fifth term on the St. Louis County Council.

He said he prides himself on being accessible in his district — often meeting with stakeholders to have breakfast or a cup of coffee.

“I was born and raised here in north St. Louis. I bleed North County. I like North County,” O’Mara said. “We’ve had the downturn of the housing market, which I’m working on currently. I’ve introduced legislation that I think will drastically help the situation.”

O’Mara also said he didn’t believe the landlord licensing bill would be a major issue in the campaign. He defended it as a way to deal more effectively with problem properties.

“I don’t know how you could make that an issue when you’re trying to enhance a neighborhood that’s been abused by absentee landlords,” O’Mara said. “And I’m going to address that. And we’re going to work hard with our inspection process — and get these homes rehabbed and put back into home ownership. And it’s going to help the school district.”

“I feel very positive that we can turn this market around. It’s going to take some time. And it’s going to take some resources,” he added. “But I’m not going to give up. And I’m going to work hard to make sure it’s good for everyone in North County.”

O’Mara acknowledged, though, that he’ll have to ramp up his fundraising very soon.

“I don’t ask people for money, because pretty much I work for the people in my community. But you know, it’s part of politics,” O’Mara said. “It’s a shame you have to do it. I wish there was limits on contributions, because I think you should run one-on-one with the community instead of trying to buy your way into a position. I’ve always felt being one-on-one with the community, people know you better. They know who you are. And I think that’s probably the best way to run a campaign. But I am going to have to raise money.”

There’s another reason to pay attention to the result of this contest: O’Mara is a strong ally of St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger. If he were to be replaced with Gray, it could make it more difficult for Stenger to pass certain pieces of legislation. 

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