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Open seats, competitive primaries could mean a drastically different Board of Aldermen

Aldermen Joe Vaccaro (rear standing) and Shane Cohn (front standing) debate the minimum wage increase on July 20, 2015.
File photo | Sarah Kellogg | St. Louis Public Radio
Five open seats mean the Board of Aldermen will see its largest freshman class in 26 years in April. The March elections may push that number even higher.

There will be at least five new faces when the St. Louis Board of Aldermen returns in April — the largest freshman class since 1991. And depending on the results of the March primaries, as many as six others could join them.

That much turnover could change the way the Board works and the policies it passes.

There are five open seats — aldermen Freeman Bosley Sr., D-3rd Ward,  Tom Villa, D-11th Ward and Chris Carter, D-27th Ward, chose not to run again. Donna Baringer resigned her 16th Ward seat when she was elected to the Missouri House of Representatives, and Alderman Antonio French, D-21st Ward, decided to run for mayor instead of re-election.

Alderman Lyda Krewson, D-28th Ward, is the front-runner in the Democratic primary for mayor, so a win for her in April would prompt a special election to fill that seat. There are hotly contested races in the 9th and 15th wards, and challengers have an outside chance in the 5th, 17th and 19th wards.


Not many of the young Democratic voters who gathered above the Pat Connelly Tavern in Dogtown this month to hear from the mayoral candidates were immediately aware that the election has implications for the Board of Aldermen as well.

The prospect of large-scale change excited many.

"It seems to me like they say 'yes' to everything," said Ted Cosgrove, a resident of the Lindenwood Park neighborhood, in far southwest St. Louis. "Like, as soon as it comes up, they just give it to them, everybody votes 'yes.' I don't want them to automatically vote 'no,' but I want you to take a look at it before automatically voting 'yes.'"

Lindenwood Park is in the 16th Ward, where Tom Oldenburg and Michele Kratky are running for an open seat. 

"I would welcome an overwhelming new class to the board," Oldenburg said. "Cities need to turn over every once in a while, and we need a fresh approach. That doesn't mean elect me because I'm young. That means a fresh approach, a different background."

The idea of a fresh approach is appealing to Eric Tosso, a recent transplant from North Carolina to the central corridor's 17th Ward. An influx of younger politicians, he said, will help St. Louis catch up with the times.

"I think it really hurts our county, our communities, when we're not having fresh ideas injected into politics," Tosso said.

In the 17th Ward, which includes Cortex and the region's two medical centers, the "fresh ideas" take the shape of candidate Joseph Diekemper, a nurse at Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital.

Joseph Diekemper who ran for aldermen in the 17th Ward in 2017, stands outside his home in the 4500 block of Gibson on February 8, 2017.
Credit Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio
Joseph Diekemper, who's running for aldermen in the 17th Ward, bought his home in the 4500 block of Gibson in 2010. He has lived in the ward since 2003.

"St. Louis has these long-standing alderpersons, including in this ward," Diekemper said. "They sort of have their own little fiefdoms, and they think about things only in terms of their ward, and I think all of us recognize now that that's a problem."

Greater unity among aldermen is exactly what another political newcomer, Gloria Muhammad, hopes to bring to the Board if she is elected. Muhammad, owned two small businesses before retiring, is running for the open 3rd Ward seat in northeast St. Louis, where there hasn't been a new alderman since 1989.

"I think we'll see a change in just how things are looked at from the entire scope of the city, and not just ward-by-ward," Muhammad said.

Insiders' perspectives

Long-time incumbents don't seem concerned about the prospect of a large freshman class.

"I haven't really thought about it, to be honest with you," said Alderman Joe Roddy, the incumbent in the 17th Ward, who was first elected in 1988. "There's the age-old argument of experience versus energy, and I'm sure we'll have a lot more energy and probably a little bit less experience."

Alderman Ken Ortmann said his constituents appreciate his focus on the 9th Ward, which includes part of Soulard and Benton Park. 

"It's always good to know how to get city services to move," he said. "It's having the contacts and knowing how to work with the city departments to get problems resolved, and I'm pretty good at that."

Ortmann didn't have a challenger in his last election, but faces stiff competition this time around from Dan Guenther, a community organizer who once worked in the mayor's office as the community liaison for the project that encouraged monarch-friendly gardens.

If Diekemper, Muhammad, Oldenburg and others running as progressive Democrats win, the laws coming out of the Board of Aldermen could look very different. They'd join a small but vocal group that's already moved the needle on some issues, such as improvements to the Scottrade Center and a proposed Major League Soccer stadium.

"It's exciting to see some of the new energy that's in the city around progressive issues," said Alderman Megan Green, the 15th Ward Democrat who's a leading figure in the progressive camp. "I think finally we have people who are saying, there's no reason that St. Louis can't be a progressive city." Aldermen Megan Green, D-15th Ward, and Cara Spencer, D-20th Ward, both voted for the minimum wage bill.

Aldermen Megan Green, D-15th Ward, and Cara Spencer, D-20th Ward, both voted for the minimum wage bill.
Credit File photo | Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
The results of the 2017 primaries could give the progressive bloc at the Board of Aldermen, including Megan Green, D-15th Ward, and Cara Spencer, D-20th Ward, shown here in a 2015 file photo, a lot more power.

But moving from the minority to the majority is a lot more complicated than it looks, said Jim Shrewsbury, a former aldermen and board president. Basically, as the adage goes, with great power comes great responsibility.

"Many of the so-called ‘wild ones’ as you want to call them, even when they have more members, they will be tempered, because then they will have the ability to influence some policies, and their actions will have serious consequences," Shrewsbury said.

Regardless of policy positions, he added, any change to the current board is good for the city.

"Rules are not followed, procedures ignored," he said. "Plus there are some good members of the Board who will rise in seniority because of these changes."          

Those with a stake in the legislation passed by the Board are mostly staying out of the politics surrounding the election. Leonard Toenjes, the president of the Associated General Contractors of Missouri, said his group is just there to offer advice.

"They’ve got constituents to answer to, and I understand that. All we want to do is make sure that they make the best decisions for their constituents based on the best information they can have."

That role is even more important, he said, considering there will be a new mayor too, for the first time in 16 years.

An earlier version of this story had an incorrect date in the caption for when Joseph Diekemper purchased the home in the picture. That date has been corrected.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.