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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

On the Trail: Franks mounts latest challenge to the Hubbards

Bruce Franks and state Rep. Penny Hubbard
Courtesy of Bruce Franks' campaign and House Communications
Bruce Franks and state Rep. Penny Hubbard

It’s almost like clockwork: Whenever a member of the Hubbard family is on the ballot in the St. Louis area, their political adversaries exude confidence about beating them at the ballot box. These opponents usually point disparagingly to the family’s political alliances and voting patterns— and contend that they’d act in a more progressive fashion.

With one notable exception, all of these challengers failed to win — and have largely faded from the political scene. And as a result, the Hubbard family won races for state representative, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen and the St. Louis Democratic Central Committee. The subtext of it all? Beating a Hubbard is really, really hard.

But in his quest against state Rep. Penny Hubbard, Bruce Franks Jr., says he can avoid falling into the same trap that bedeviled other Hubbard antagonists. He said he's established himself in the community, both in the private sector and through his activism.

“I can’t be scared. I can’t be shaken. I can’t be intimidated,” Franks said. “So I don’t move that easily. A lot of the tactics and other things that we often hear about simply won’t apply to me.”

Franks and Hubbard are battling it out in the 78th District, which stretches from south St. Louis to parts of north St. Louis. It’s the latest battle for a family that’s accomplished a lot in the political arena — and is often challenged at the ballot box and in the court of public opinion. 

“I just think that there’s a jealous thing there. And it’s sad that it’s like that,” Hubbard said. “Because this is not an easy job. You really have to be dedicated and really want to help your people, you know?”

Enter the newcomer

One of the reasons Franks says he's different than other Hubbard antagonists is his professional and personal background. He has run several businesses and started an advocacy group aimed at bridging divides between African Americans and law enforcement (he also gained notoriety as a battle rapper). He's forged relationships with St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce, St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson and St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar.

Bruce Franks talks with a supporter earlier in July 2016 on Washington Avenue.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Bruce Franks talks with a supporter earlier week on Washington Avenue.

He said the protest movement that came about after Michael Brown’s shooting death had a profound impact on him. It also taught him a lot about local politics.

“I started to learn this whole political process and how the local politics go. Because before, I wasn’t educated about it. Nobody concentrated on my neighborhood,” said Franks, who lives in the Benton Park West neighborhood. “So we didn’t know about that political process and how important it was. Once we got that together, I went to the community. The community started to push as far as me being a candidate.”

If Franks unseats Hubbard, he said he would work to punish gun owners who don’t report their lost firearms. He also would try to get more money for job programs and infuse more money into the state’s K-12 school foundation formula. He also wants to be a responsive voice for people in the district.

"When it comes to state representatives, we’re going to have to vote right. We’re going to have to fight for the people in Jefferson City," Franks said. "You know, we’re going to have to fight. But when we get back home when session is over, are we being engaged and resourceful? Are we being that liaison between the state offices and our community — which speaks to our job as a whole?

Franks also said he would be less inclined to vote with Republicans than Hubbard. Among other things, Hubbard was one of several Democrats who overrode a veto of a redistricting map. And she received some blowback from her caucus after she voted for a bill to hold special elections for most statewide vacancies.

“Two years ago, I didn’t know I was going to run for state rep. You would have told me that, I would have looked at you (like you were) crazy,” Franks said. “But the people deserve representation. Our community deserves proper representation. And no disrespect to our current representative, but it’s time for something new. It’s time for a change."

'Doesn’t have a clue'

So what does Penny Hubbard think about of her latest challenger? Well, let's just say that she doesn't have a particularly high opinion of him.

“I just figured my last term could be better served to continue to try to pass legislation to do things to help the constituents in my community,” said Hubbard, who will be unable to run for another term if she wins due to term limits. “And that’s kind of the mindset where I was. Not to be out here going back and forth with an individual who doesn’t have a clue about what really goes on in terms of being a state rep and being in Jeff City.” 

Penny Hubbard, right, chats with state Rep. Sharon Pace earlier this year.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Penny Hubbard, right, chats with state Rep. Sharon Pace earlier this year.

Penny Hubbard was in some ways a latecomer to politics: Before she unseated incumbent state Rep. James T. Morris in 2010, Penny Hubbard spent several decades working for the St. Louis Department of Corrections. She also served a six-year term on the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole, a highly sought after gubernatorial appointment.

She said her professional background gave her insight on how government worked — and why it was sometimes necessary to work with people of differing opinions. And it also influenced what type of bills she introduced: Many have to do with altering the state's prison system.

"I’ve been involved in shelters. I’ve been involved in after-school programs with youth," Hubbard said. "I guess since I’ve been so involved in the community for so many years, I do understand how the roles go, to where you have to set all the differences aside and try to work together in order to get anything done." 

Hubbard said she would like to spend her last term trying to fund programs that reduce prisoner recidivism. She also wants to build on Gov. Jay Nixon's executive order that barred executive offices from asking if certain job applicants have criminal records.

When asked about how she's encountered criticism for voting with Republicans on some issues, Hubbard replied: “The people that I represent, I’m pretty confident that they know that whatever I do is for the best for them.”

“I know who I am,” Hubbard said. “I’m a strong woman. I’m a strong Democrat. But at the same time, if there’s something that I can do to make it better for my constituents … I can work that. And the people that I represent and serve will believe in me to know that I’m doing the best that I can do for them. All of the decisions in Jeff City are not easy decisions. Sometime you have to make some hard decisions. But at the end of the day, it’s about the constituents. ”

And as her family keeps winning elections, Penny Hubbard contends there's been resentment from political adversaries. She said she's going to focus on winning her fourth term in office.

“You know what I think that’s really about? My entire family has been in politics for years. And you know, I’m not saying we’re above anybody else,” Penny Hubbard said. “But we’re about doing the right thing. And because we’ve been in politics for so long, I think they have a problem that they want to try to control us. And jealousy is there, because they feel like we’re doing too much. But we’re public servants. And we do the right thing. And we strive to make our communities better, as well as our state and issues.”

Pounding the pavement

So how has the Hubbard family survived and advanced through St. Louis and Missouri politics? Part of it likely stems from the family’s professional and personal standing within in St. Louis' 5th Ward.

In addition to her professional career, Penny Hubbard's husband, Rodney Hubbard Sr., is the executive director of the Carr Square Tenant Corporation. By living in the north St. Louis ward for a long time and building relationships with lots of people, the Hubbards likely developed a fairly loyal constituency. They also cultivated a sophisticated political organization and a decent amount of name recognition.

(Money is a factor too: After this article was published, Penny Hubbard's July campaign finance report showed that she raised about $23,000 during the last quarter. As of Saturday morning, Franks had not filed his July report.)

And the Hubbard family has been adept at getting absentee voters to cast ballots for them: Former state Sen. Jeff Smith wrote on Twitter in 2013 that “anyone who wasn't ready for the [Hubbards’] absentees hasn't studied the last couple decades of 5th ward politics.”

(The Riverfront Times reported this week that an attorney for Franks and two Democratic Central Committee candidateswant the St. Louis Board of Election Commissioners to monitor absentee balloting in races where the Hubbards appear on the ballot. Board of Elections Commissioner Joan Berger said in an e-mail to St. Louis Public Radio that the “Board is reviewing the letter and the law with our attorneys” and “will then determine an appropriate response.” 

Penny Hubbard told the RFT that her family “will never apologize for helping seniors and the disabled exercise their constitutional right to vote.”)

Franks is hoping to blunt those organizational advantages. His April report showed that he received a decent amount of campaign contributions, including a $5,000 donation from state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal. That’s enough money to send out mailers and get canvassers out on the doors. And he’s also hoping that a slew of candidates for central committee positions energize turnout.

Whether it's enough to avoid the fate of those who challenged the Hubbards in previous years will be revealed after the Aug. 2 primary.

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

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