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Candidates scramble for position in three aldermanic contests

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 26, 2013 - While the mayoral race gets most of the attention, city voters will also go to the polls next month to elect 15 of the city’s 28 aldermen.

For at least eight incumbents, victory is assured. That’s because many who signed up for another term on the board have no opposition in the crucial Democratic primary -- or in the April general election.

But other mainstays on the board face competition for the four-year term. And in the 6th Ward, three Democratic candidates are scrambling to finish off former Alderwoman Kacie Starr Triplett’s term. Triplett resigned in November to take a position with a nonprofit organization.

This past year, the Board of Aldermen has wrestled with several important issues: a multi-faceted sales tax increase for parks and the Arch, a foreclosure mediation ordinance and even a bill decriminalizing marijuana. The new board may have to grapple with a massive redevelopment plan in north St. Louis, public safety funding and an economic development collaboration with St. Louis County. Among the longstanding issues a new board will deal with are: crime and urban development.

Below are overviews of contested aldermanic contests in the 5th, 6th and 15th wards. The Beacon will chronicle more contested aldermanic races later this week:

In 5th Ward Hutchings-Medina challenges Hubbard

In the 5th Ward, Michelle Hutchings-Medina is seeking to oust incumbent Alderwoman Tammika Hubbard, D-5th Ward. Hubbard won a special election in 2011 after April Ford-Griffin resigned to take a post in Slay’s administration.

The 5th Ward includes parts of Carr Square, downtown west, Old North St. Louis and St. Louis Place.

Hubbard, who did not return a call from the Beacon, comes from a prominent political family. Her mother is state Rep. Penny Hubbard, D-St. Louis, her brother is former Rep. Rodney Hubbard, D-St. Louis, and her sister-in-law is 26th Ward Democratic Committeewoman Shameem Hubbard.

After she fended off independent challengers in the race to complete Ford-Griffin’s term, Hubbard handled legislation to include the Bottle District in O’Fallon developer Paul McKee’s plan to redevelop north St. Louis.

Her sponsorship of that bill drew some controversy since her father works for a nonprofit housing agency partnered with McKee. Rodney Hubbard is a registered lobbyist for McKee’s North Side Regeneration Project.

Hutchings-Medina is a relative newcomer to the city. The registered radiation therapist who now sells health -care software moved from Baltimore to Washington Avenue’s loft district in 2003.

Like several other candidates running for aldermen, Hutchings-Medina wants to institute participatory budgeting in deciding how to spend funds allocated to the ward. That idea – first developed by Chicago Alderman Joe Moore – would reach out directly to residents for advice on how to spend fund allocated to the ward.

She wanted to examine implementing the Neighborhood Ownership Model, which aims to get ordinary residents engaged in fighting crime. Above all else, she wants to foster engagement in ward she says is teeming with apathy.

“One of the reasons why the community is where it is and why the ward is in such dire straits is because the residents are not organized and mobilized,” Hutchings-Medina said. “A lot of the neighborhood organizations have deteriorated over the years. They haven’t had much support from the city. And so what I really want to do is get the community engaged again.”

The other main plank of Hutchings-Medina’s platform is “responsible development,” which includes getting McKee to give residents a better sense of how the North Side project is progressing.

“As I move through the ward and do my canvassing, it’s an atrocity to see blocks where there are two homes on the block. And the rest are vacant lots and abandoned homes,” Hutchings-Medina said. “And you also meet homeowners who say, ‘You know, I’ve been taking care of this empty lot for several years. I tried to buy this lot but couldn’t. And now it’s owned by Paul McKee suddenly and we don’t know what he’s going to do with it.’”

“So one of the key things is to get the community reengaged,” she added. “And I think then together we can come up with what are the right solutions for the 5th Ward. I’m not here to profess that I have all the answers. I need the people to help me in that.”

Three vie for 6th Ward seat

Triplett’s resignation set off a three-way race to represent the central corridor-based 6th Ward, which takes in parts of Lafayette Square, JeffVanderLou, Tower Grove East and Midtown.

The contenders to complete Triplett’s term include Damon Jones, Christine Ingrassia and Michelle Witthaus. It’s a contest that features candidates with decidedly different backgrounds – and divergent perspectives.

Jones is the son of former state Sen. Robin Wright-Jones, D-St. Louis, and Mike Jones, a senior adviser to St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley. Before he worked in the office of St. Louis Collector of Revenue Gregg F.X. Daly, Jones spent 11 years building Dodge Rams at the Chrysler plant in Fenton. In 2012, Jones -- who worked on several state legislative contests -- unseated incumbent John Maxwell to become the 6th Ward’s Democratic committeeman.

Jones has campaigned on the theme of “frank and honest dialogue” about the city’s systemic problems with crime, vacant housing and economic decline.

“Every candidate is not willing to address it because they are uncomfortable,” Jones said a recent candidate forum at the Contemporary Art Museum. “But until we have that honest discussion in its totality, we cannot move forward. I will create that dialogue.”

If he’s elected, Jones said he would hold owners of vacant buildings accountable for maintaining their properties.He also said he would monitor carefully the city's transition into controlling its own police department.

“For me in my platform and campaigning, crime has been the No. 1 issue,” Jones said in an interview with the Beacon. “It’s the reason people are leaving the city, it’s the reason people are reluctant to move into the city or consider the city. I’m looking to use the savings proposed in local control from the duplication of services – which is supposed to be $3 million or $4 million – I want to keep those dollars in public safety: more officers on the street, better training for our officers and helping to fund crime prevention programs.”

Jones nabbed endorsements from U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, St. Louis License Collector Mike McMillian and state Rep. Mike Colona, D-St. Louis.

Ingrassia has served as the 6th Ward’s director of outreach. That job, she says, includes obtaining grants for programs to prevent youth violence, for reaching out to the ward’s elderly residents and for attracting and retaining small businesses. She also has been involved in the Vashon Jeff Vanderlou Initiative, the 6th Ward Democratic Organization and the Gate District East Neighborhood Association.

That type of experience, Ingrassia said, would be an asset for the ward. She dubbed herself a “proven problem solver,” who has connected with residents and neighborhood associations to tackle vexing problems.

“I’ve been behind the scenes for a little while and I’ve been able to learn a lot about what to do and what not to do,” Ingrassia said at Trailnet’s candidate forum. “I’ve mostly learned from listening to the residents of the 6th Ward on what their needs and how to address those.”

If she’s elected, Ingrassia said she would use her grant-writing experience to obtain funds to help fight crime and enhance some of the ward’s neighborhoods.

“Because of the state of the city’s budget and the economy right now, I think it’s important to look outside of government spending,” Ingrassisa said in an interview. “One project that we worked on with the city’s parks department allowed us to bring a splash playground into Fox Park. That’s going to be coming in this spring or summer. And the city was able to provide half the funds and then the grant provided for the other half of the funds.”

“When we’re able to leverage money like that, we’re going to be a lot more successful bringing in any type of programs that the ward needs,” she added.

Ingrassia has the backing of Treasurer Tishaura Jones, Alderman Scott Ogilvie, I-24th Ward, and Alderwoman Carol Howard, D-14th Ward.

Witthaus is a former St. Louis Public Schools teacher who now works for Scholastic Books. She was an active participant in the Occupy Movement, which made news in 2011 when participants set up camp in Kiener Plaza.

“We all know what’s wrong with the city, we know what needs to be fixed,” Witthaus said. “But the thing is, I actually have a plan to get people more involved so we can start fixing things and really change the dynamic of the city.”

Like Hutchings-Medina, a key element of Witthaus’ platform is implementing “participatory budgeting” throughout the 6th Ward. 

“Participatory budgeting is really giving residents the right to vote on how you spend the ward budget,” Witthaus said. “It’s spreading because it’s been really popular with the residents. It’s proven to get more people involved in the community and provide more transparency and accountability for where the money’s going.”

In 15th Ward, Florida battles Miller for fourth term

Book publisher Lisa Miller is challenging Alderwoman Jennifer Florida’s bid for a fourth term on the Board of Aldermen.

The two are running in the 15th ward that encompasses parts of Tower Grove East and Tower Grove South, Dutchtown, Benton Park West and Gravois Park.

Florida was involved in faith-based community organizing before she was elected to the Board of Aldermen in 2001. As her accomplishments Florida cites initiatives, include supporting tax increment financing to redevelop Gravois Plaza, facilitating the development of the South Side Senior Center, serving as the primary sponsor to institute citywide recycling and engaging in the redevelopment of South Grand’s business district.

She said she wants to replicate some of South Grand’s redevelopment to Morganford, an area added to the 15th Ward through redistricting.

“It’s working in four areas,” Florida said in an interview with the Beacon. “With neighborhood safety, crime is down by 24 percent. We’ve initiated many neighborhood-based programs with housing, economic development of business and investment in infrastructure. And we’re moving toward green solutions for safer alleys.”

If she’s elected to another term, Florida said she would work toward improving the ward’s housing and bolstering multi-modal transportation. She also wants to work to bridge the region’s often-fragmented governments, which includes "rapid bus transit."

“We have to think more regionally,” Florida said. “We need to work on creating a stronger transit system. And transit doesn’t necessarily have to be rail – because it’s something like $60 million a mile to build out. And that’s why rapid bus transit has so much potential because there’s more flexibility and we could increase ridership.”

“One of the things that holds us back is the metropolitan planning organization reflects eight counties, but Metro only represents St. Louis, St. Louis County and Illinois,” she added. She would like to see Metro represent the same areas as the MPO.

Miller is a relative newcomer to the political scene. In addition to owning Walrus Books, Miller has served the last 30 years in the U.S. Army and the U.S. Army National Guard. Miller – who plans to retire from the military this year – cites her experience in Afghanistan from December 2008 to December 2009 for preparing her for aldermanic duty.

“That’s given me education and training as a planner,” Miller said. “I’m a lieutenant colonel. My training is to create plans to achieve results. And that’s very applicable to the types of things you want to do in government."

Like Witthaus and Hutchings-Medina, Miller advocates “participatory budgeting.” She also said she would work with the city’s planning department for a comprehensive development plan for the entire ward.

And she would pursue an efficiency study to examine whether city government operations need improvement.

“When we talk about responsibility, it’s about first working smarter – not harder,” Miller said. “And just adding more people to the payroll doesn’t necessarily make us more effective at what we’re doing. We’re looking for efficiencies."

Miller is Florida’s first Democratic primary opponent since 2001. Florida said one of her main goals is getting to know people in the new parts of her district.

“It’s kind of like being a mom in way,” Florida said. “You need to be accessible. You need to be responsive. We’re the first line of government typically. You go higher up and you have less access. So you really are the boots on the ground with the people.”

Miller said that her challenge to Florida is about bringing in aldermen with different ideas than the people who have served for a lengthy period of time.

“These folks had their chance to be innovative – and they weren’t,” Miller said. “And it’s time for new voices to bring those new solutions.” 

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