St. Louis progressives firmly in control of city leadership after election
Tuesday was a banner night for St. Louis’ progressive political faction.
That group of candidates, who are generally aligned with St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones, won a majority of seats on the Board of Aldermen. That provides a clearer path for both Jones and Board President Megan Green to chart out a policy agenda for a city flush with cash — and massive challenges.
“I think tonight voters chose progressive candidates … and people that they know are going to lead our city into our next era,” Jones said.
Jones and her allies will now be under more pressure to create policies that will make the city better.
“When I was campaigning, I was often asked: ‘What's the ability to get this done at the board?’” said Alderman-elect Michael Browning of the 9th Ward. “And I would tell them: ‘Well, there's a whole slate of candidates that's running with me.’ And a lot of those candidates were elected tonight. So I'm very optimistic.”
Can progressives make city government function better?
St. Louis has struggled for years with a high violent crime rate as well as rampant poverty and disinvestment. And the city government has often scrambled to provide services like trash collection to residents.
“It is a challenge delivering city services, we need to improve on that,” said Alderman Shane Cohn of the 3rd Ward. “We've had our challenges with staffing with equipment and things of that nature. But I think at the end of the day, you know, people want to see action from our city government.”
With a new police chief and more money from the federal American Rescue Plan, Jones and her allies will be expected to deliver on efforts to improve life in the city. And if they don’t, some of the aldermen who will be up for election in 2025 could face tougher challenges than those on Tuesday.
“And I think you could see those folks who have a two-year term, who won by a thin majority or a thin margin, not necessarily run on a mandate platform,” said Alderman Tom Oldenburg of the 2nd Ward, who is not part of the progressive group. “And you'll have to see more compromise. And you could see a new board in two years.”
Can the progressive faction stick together?
One of the challenges of defining factions in St. Louis politics is that participants often shift depending on the issue. Alderman Bret Narayan of the 4th Ward, for instance, noted he approaches legislation by “looking at each individual issue and representing my constituents on that issue.”
“I try to stay away from the broad labels and try to look at each issue, talk to my neighborhood about it, talk to the ward as a whole about it and figure out how we should proceed on any given issue,” Narayan said.
Oldenburg said he expects some tension to emerge among the candidates who had the support of both Jones and Green on Tuesday.
“While I think that there is a majority of folks who would identify as progressive, the Black Caucus still remains very strong, and there's still no love lost between the caucus and white progressives,” Oldenburg said. “So I do believe that there's still going to be a heck of a lot of compromise that has to take place down at the Board of Aldermen.”
Jones, whose victory in 2021 was largely thanks to an alliance between Black voters and white progressives, isn’t expecting uniformity on everything. But she is hoping the tone will be less adversarial than it was when Board President Lewis Reed was in office.
“It fortunately helps when you have a number of people who are like-minded and who also want to see the city win again,” Jones said. “I don't expect us to agree on everything. But I do expect us to, to disagree privately, and not put it out as a show for everybody to see.”
How will the city handle major financial decisions?
In addition to having lots of money from the American Rescue Plan and a settlement over the departure of the St. Louis Rams, Jones and her aldermanic allies will now have a new stream of revenue from a 3% tax on recreational marijuana that was approved Tuesday.
“I anticipate that's going to be hotly debated,” Narayan said of the marijuana money.
Some newly elected aldermen want to use the marijuana tax revenue to shore up St. Louis' public health effort or pay city workers more. Alderwoman-elect Alisha Sonnier of the 7th Ward wants to examine whether the city uses the funds to right historical wrongs against Black people.
“Being that we know that it was people of color and Black people that were disproportionately targeted by the war on drugs, I think that it should be something to explore what that looks like to invest into reparations and equity in our city,” Sonnier said. “I hope that we are willing to invest some of that money into real sustainable resources for the unhoused parts of our communities and for affordable housing. I would love to see some of that money go into expanding our universal basic income.”
Others are looking further into the future. Alderwoman-elect Daniela Velazquez of the 6th Ward also wants to make sure some of the money is saved so the city can deal with less bountiful financial times.
“I'm a believer that we should use some of the surplus money from the Rams settlement for an endowment for the city to give us some kind of income on a long-term basis,” Velazquez said.
Will the city overhaul its charter?
Voters narrowly passed an initiative setting up a charter commission every 10 years. Departing Alderwoman Annie Rice said the charter is in a serious need of an upgrade if the city is going to operate properly.
“Proposition C will give us a path to move forward both now and every 10 years into the future,” Rice said. “And that’s the momentum that the city of St. Louis needs.”
Jones said she’s enthused about the charter commission, as it could excise some rather antiquated provisions.
“Like people should be committed to an insane asylum or work off their debts at the Workhouse, or how every elected official is referred to in the charter as ‘he or him.’ And we know that's not the case nowadays,” Jones said. “So I'm excited to see what kind of work our charter commission is going to do.”
Can turnout improve for city elections that don’t feature a mayoral contest?
Because of St. Louis’ recently enacted approval voting system, Tuesday’s elections were far more consequential than previous April contests. Before Proposition D passed several years ago, city voters for the most part decided aldermanic and citywide elections in the March Democratic primaries.
Turnout was about 18% for this election, which is a bit higher than for the March 2019 primary that featured a competitive race for aldermanic president. Considering Green was unopposed on Tuesday, turnout was not necessarily bad from a historical perspective.
“We actually did see an uptick in participation in the cycle,” Cohn said.
Some have suggested that citywide and aldermanic races could have more participation if they coincided with state-based primaries in August and November of even-numbered years.
And there could be at least one change coming to how city elections are handled. Oldenburg said there’s widespread momentum to only have one election when two candidates file for an aldermanic or citywide contest. Under the current guidelines, those two contenders have to run against each other twice — once in a primary and once in the general.
“And I think everyone agrees that needs to be fixed,” Oldenburg said. “Does it need to go back to the voters to get fixed? Probably.”
Hear St. Louis Public Radio correspondents Jason Rosenbaum and Rachel Lippmann discuss the results of Tuesday's municipal elections on St. Louis on the Air. Listen on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast, Stitcher, or by clicking the play button below.