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St. Louis voters select first African-American circuit attorney; O'Mara ousted from County Council

U.S. Lacy Clay raises the arm of Kim Gardner in victory at the Exodus Gallery after the primary election. Gardner made history as the first African-American to hold the office of circuit attorney. Behind her is Alderman Jeffrey Boyd, and to the right is s
Wiley Price | St. Louis American

For the first time, an African-American will be the top prosecutor in the city of St. Louis. And in St. Louis County, County Executive Steve Stenger has lost a well-known ally on the County Council, after a big upset in the District 4 Democratic primary.

Former Missouri state Rep. Kimberly Gardner beat three opponents to win the Democratic primary for circuit attorney, nearly doubling up her nearest competitor. She is nearly certain to win in November, as there is no Republican or Libertarian candidate.

“It’s humbling,” Gardner said of her victory, in an interview with St. Louis Public Radio. “It’s humbling that the community has come together. It’s about moving us forward.”

In selecting Gardner, Democratic voters rejected two current prosecutors — Mary Pat Carl and Patrick Hamacher — and former police officer Steve Harmon. Gardner herself had worked briefly in the circuit attorney’s office.

Throughout her campaign, Gardner emphasized the need to build trust between the community and law enforcement. She said her message of being smart and tough on crime resonated with voters throughout St. Louis.

“People know that we need to do things differently,” Gardner said. “We all want quality of life, we all want to make sure our streets are safer, but we have to address the broken criminal justice system.”

She said she had “no words” to describe the emotion of being the first African-American to hold the office of circuit attorney.

“It speaks to how the city wants to come together,” Gardner said.

She said she was planning to spend a few days taking in her victory, but said she had a plan to reform the circuit attorney’s office that she looked forward to implementing.

In a statement on Facebook, the Ethical Society of Police, which represents the black officers on the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, congratulated Gardner and threw its support behind her. The society had endorsed Hamacher in the primary.

‘Reformers’ make decent showing

A loose slate of candidates running for positions on the St. Louis Central Democratic Committee made some noise, winning eight of the 20 races they targeted though only four were contested.

The central committee handles the party’s operations in the city. The group, many of whom were backed by the liberal organization Mobilize Missouri, had been pushing for greater openness in that process, and more progressive policies and candidates.

In the 7th Ward, Marty Murray took down Brian Wahby, who had been on the central committee for 23 years.

In the 8th Ward, Annie Rice beat Norah Ryan, who had the backing of that ward's alderman, Steve Conway.

Sara Johnson beat Patricia Ortmann, the wife of 9th Ward Alderman Kenneth Ortmann.

In the 14th Ward, Madeline Buthod beat incumbent Laura Owens by 13 votes.

Four other candidates, including one incumbent, had no opposition.

Kemata McCline, the incumbent committeewoman in the 20th Ward, lost by 28 votes.  Challengers to the Hubbard family, in the 5th Ward, fell short as well, though Rasheen Aldridge got within 52 votes of ward committeeman Rodney Hubbard. Most of the other nine races weren’t close.

Betts finally gets sheriff victory

Four years after nearly toppling the long-time incumbent Sheriff Jim Murphy, Vernon Betts is on a glide path to lead the office where he was once a deputy.

Betts won a five-way contest with 43 percent of the vote. His nearest competitor, Joe Vaccaro, is  23rd Ward alderman, from south-central St. Louis. Betts will face Republican John Castellano in November.

Murphy fired Betts in 2011 after learning that Betts had formed an exploratory committee for sheriff. That violated an order Murphy had issued banning his deputies from campaigning for public office, an order that was later rescinded.

St. Louis County Council

Outgoing State Rep. Rochelle Walton Gray handily defeated 16-year incumbent Councilman Mike O’Mara by more than 20 percentage points.

Walton Gray is expected to vote more independently than O’Mara. She said she was inspired to run to represent the heavily African-American district, which includes parts of Florissant, Black Jack, Bellefontaine Neighbors, Riverview and unincorporated north St. Louis County, because O’Mara “has failed” to represent black residents’ interests on the council. O’Mara had insisted he has a “very good rapport” with the community.

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.
Credit Tim Bommel I House Communications | File photo
State Rep. Rochelle Walton Gray, D-Black Jack, out-polled incumbent Councilman Mike O'Mara in the Democratic primary.

Before approaching her term limit in the state legislature, Walton Gray worked for pro-union, education, juvenile justice and community policing issues. She will face Republican Curtis Faulkner, the president of the Juneteenth Heritage and Jazz Festival Inc., and Libertarian Jeff Coleman, a purchasing agent for the Keefe Group, in November.

In the county's 2nd district, incumbent Councilman Sam Page beat fellow Democrat Sam Goodman. District 2 includes Bridgeton and St. Ann; most of Hazelwood, Overland, and Maryland Heights; and parts of Olivette, Creve Coeur and Chesterfield.

Page, who won his seat in a special election in 2014, serves as council vice chair this year and chair of the Justice, Health and Welfare committee. He is critical of remediation efforts at the West Lake Landfill, which is within the district boundaries, and supports federal legislation to transfer control of the Superfund site to the Army Corps of Engineers. A medical doctor, Page also sponsored the prescription drug monitoring program recently established in the county.

Page will face Republican Amy Poelker and Libertarian Ladonna Higgins, both of whom were unopposed in the primary.

Ferguson increases tax

Ferguson residents overwhelmingly voted to raise the city tax applied to electric, gas, telephone and water bills to 8 percent from 6 percent. That means a Ferguson homeowner currently paying $75 a month for electricity, for example, would see a $1.50 monthly increase.

Proposition U passed by more than 30 percentage points in an election that saw almost 3,400 votes. It will bring an estimated $700,000 that the city says will allow it to hire five more police officers and to avoid layoffs of firefighters; it would also keep a city firehouse from closing.

The measure comes at a time when the city has been working to balance its budget, as it takes on the costs associated with a consent decree agreement it signed with the U.S. Justice Department to reform its police department and courts system. Last year, city manager De’Carlon Seewood noted a roughly $2.8 million budget deficit. In April, Ferguson voters passed a sales tax increase, but a property tax hike failed. Because of that, the city had anticipated it would need to cut more positions, but Seewood noted the city was already down several posts including 10 police officers.

Those cuts — and the three firefighter positions and firehouse closure officials hope to save through Proposition U — have helped the city reportedly reduce expenses by about $2.5 million coming into this fiscal year, according to recent working budget documents.