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St. Louis County voters overwhelmingly back smoking ban, E-911

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 3, 2009 - Voters in St. Louis County on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved Proposition N, a smoking ban for many public places, and E-911, a sales-tax increase to pay for communications equipment for public safety agencies.

And in the 73rd District state House contest, Democrat Stacey Newman handily defeated Republican Dan O'Sullivan. Throughout the day, area election officials reported few problems.

Jane Suozzi, co-chair of the chief group in favor of Proposition N -- County Citizens for Cleaner Air -- was ecstatic over her side's victory.

"The welfare of the public wins," she said. "People have educated themselves and recognized the momentum. We are tired of being behind on this issue. The fact that we allow smoking everywhere has hurt us as a region."

The group's chairman, Charles Gatton, added, "Now I can’t wait until January of 2011,” when the proposition will go into effect.

Proposition N's passage means that a stronger ban also will go into effect in the city of St. Louis, where the Board of Aldermen had recently taken action. The city's ban was contingent on Tuesday's passage of St. Louis County's version.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay had taken the unusual step of posting an election-eve appeal on his blog in which he encouraged St. Louis County voters to approve Proposition N.  Tuesday night, he hailed the measure's approval.

Voters in one of the county's largest communities, Kirkwood, also strongly backed a smoking ban, which will go into effect Jan. 2. Debra Hacke Cotten, a spokeswoman for the group Healthy Air for Kirkwood, said, “We are very excited. It was a very decisive victory. Obviously it was what the people of Kirkwood wanted."

Meanwhile, the chairman of Tuesday night's other countywide winner -- E-911 -- also was celebrating. Former County Councilman Skip Mange said its approval showed that "the voters in St. Louis County really understood the need for unified communications."

But while happy over E-911's success at the polls, he cautioned that voters will have to wait to see many of the improvements. Some of the changes, such as tracking emergency calls from cell phones, can be made quickly, Mange said. But he predicted that it will take two years to get all of the new communications equipment in place.

Mange gave credit to all the police and fire departments, ambulance districts and mayors of various municipalities, for their solid support of E-911. It had no organized opposition.

But that wasn't the case for Proposition N, which had touched off fierce opposition from various business organizations and other groups.

Outspoken opponent Bill Hannegan hinted that his side may go to court to get Proposition N changed or overturned. He said that opponents were particularly upset with the exemption for casinos.

The anti-ban camp may get some help from the St. Louis County Libertarian Party, which lauded the voters who had opposed it.  Said the party in a statement: "While we are saddened by the passage of Proposition N, we look forward to working with the metro area's pro-freedom voters and activists over the next 14 months to overturn this ill-advised law before it takes effect."

But Hannegan first wants to examine what happened Tuesday. "We're trying to figure out exactly what happened," he said, adding that opponents hadn't expected to lose by such a large margin. "We thought we'd do well to have a low turnout, but now it looks like it might have been better with a bigger turnout."

Turnout Slightly Above Predictions

About 20 percent of St. Louis County's voters showed up at the polls, slightly above the earlier prediction by county Democratic Elections Director Joe Donahue.

The county's overall turnout was affected, in part, by the even higher turnout of almost 25 percent in the 73rd state House race. The district includes all or part of many mid-county communities, from northern Webster Groves to Olivette.

O'Sullivan and his allies, including his wife, had spent most of Tuesday traveling to various polling places.

Newman (and her campaign also had visited polls, as well as conducting a phone bank in her living room to remind roughly 2,000 identified supporters to go out and vote. By 4 p.m., most of them had, her calls indicated.

Newman replaces fellow Democrat Steve Brown, who defeated her in the August 2008 primary for the state House seat. Brown had to resign in August after pleading guilty to a federal felony charge.

Eight county communities and school districts also had various tax or fee-hike proposals on Tuesday's ballots. All but two were approved; the rejections were in Florissant and Velda Village.

In St. Louis, turnout was less than 10 percent among the voters in the 4th state Senate district, where Democrat Joe Keaveny was the only candidate and snagged virtually all the votes. He succeeds fellow Democrat Jeff Smith, who was forced to resign last August after pleading guily to federal felony charges in connection with his failed 2004 bid for Congress.

Former state Rep. Brown's guilty plea was in connection with the same congressional contest.

Slay, in his blog pitch, also had encouraged county voters to support E-911. Among other things, the city's mayor said that county rejection of the proposed sales tax hike could signal trouble for the region's transit agency, Metro, which is expected to ask voters next spring to approve a sales tax hike.

Mange, the chairman of E-911, wasn't sure that his side's success could predict a boost for Metro. "They'll look at our results very carefully and see what worked," Mange said. "But they'll have a different message."

A key lesson from E-911 that could translate to other issues, he continued, was the importance of getting bipartisan backing for tax-related proposals. Added Mange: "You've got to bring people together."

(Beacon staff writer Elia Powers provided information for this report.)

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.