Francis Slay for Mayor of St. Louis

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francis-slay-photoIf a mayor is to take full credit and blame for everything within the city limits over their tenure, this is likely an argument for Mayor Slay. While St. Louis has many problems, and nextSTL continues to highlight quite a few of them, the reality is that the chief executive of this city is juggling macro trends of urban disinvestment, loss of manufacturing jobs and the billion dollar subsidies of suburban growth. Without dumbing down our expectations, success in St. Louis is going to look different than success in Boston, San Francisco and elsewhere.

The list of successes in St. Louis over the past decade are numerous. Neighborhoods from Old North to Wells-Goodfellow to The Grove have experienced a resurgence. Washington Avenue, Downtown West, the Central West End, all more vibrant than a decade ago. A secure source of funding for the Metro transit agency is in place. The Peabody Opera House is open. The first new bridge across the Mississippi, which will create a new northern entrance to downtown is nearly complete. Cherokee Street is a major cultural destination. Forest Park hasn’t looked so good since 1904. The mayor didn’t make these happen single-handedly by any means, but it’s happening on his watch.

Crime continues on the mayor’s watch as well, but just shouting “crime!” at an incumbent isn’t going to cut it. Is there too much crime? Yes. Always. Is crime spiraling out of control? No. We have asked quite a number of open-ended questions about crime on this site. We’ve highlighted the incredible racial disparity in homicides, for just one example. The knee-jerk defensiveness of the mayor’s office has been unnecessary and even misleading, but a fair reading of crime trends in the city does show increases that might point to negligence or incompetence. To his credit, Slay has pushed to return local control of the city’s police department for the first time since 1861. Oddly, this has managed to make him some enemies.

The implicit (and sometimes explicit) charge directed at the current mayor is that he doesn’t care about the north side. That he doesn’t care about black people. That his white neighborhood prevents him from understanding his city. In short, he’s racist. It’s ridiulous. Is there a discernible difference in policy or progress between Cincinnati’s Mark Mallory (who is black) and Slay? How about Detroit? Cleveland? No, no, no. Every historic American city struggles greatly with investing in areas of high poverty and neglect. The color of the mayor doesn’t seem to be predictive of success. Why would it be so in St. Louis?

It can be difficult to discern a quantitative difference between cities such as Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and St. Louis. All experienced roughly 8% population decline from 2000-2010. Each has a current residential population of just more than 300,000. The three have many similarities, yet the perceptions of each are often different. Why? Of course it’s easy to admire other cities and other mayors when largely what you know about them comes to via a Twitter feed of like-minded urbanists, or simply the highlights gleaned from the national press. But there’s a qualitative difference in the city narratives as well. And the chief storyteller for any city is its mayor.

I spent all of 90 seconds chatting with Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory at a conference in Kansas City recently. He made me want to move to his city. I listened to Missoula, Montana Mayor John Engen accept an award at the conference, he made me want to visit Missoula (“I heard about this “smart growth” thing and thought it was a weight loss program, so I showed up.” He’s a larger man.) Francis Slay doesn’t do that. Reed held that promise for some time, offering a charisma and enthusiasm that may just will a city to be better, but the campaign and plans to implement that promise hasn’t materialized.

I don’t like the “lead from behind” mentality of city hall. In my experience, the phrase, “if the mayor leads on this it will lose” has been uttered two dozen too many times. Is it reality? Perhaps. In a region where a suburban county executive holds veto power over $100M downtown projects like a particularly dysfunctional mini UN, declining to lead isn’t always a cop-out. It’s also not an attractive leadership style, but it does present an opportunity. Have an idea, have it organized, present a win for Room 200 and you will likely find support.

As you can tell, his isn’t a sweeping endorsement of Slay policies or his coterie of often smirking, self-aggrandizing acolytes. It’s a call for you to cast a vote for Slay. Then use that vote to remind the mayor that you put him in office. Get engaged, push against the status quo and be heard. Be loud. Don’t join the mayor’s Vanguard Cabinet, demand a seat at the table on your own conditions. Build a political force. Join the emerging voices in this city and apply pressure to the system.

nextSTL largely operates under the assumption that what’s wrong with St. Louis isn’t the individuals with easy access to Room 200, but rather the absence of a vibrant conversation, of a progressive, younger, emerging voice within the city. This premise in its pure form tells us that it’s neither the mayor’s nor Walter Metcalf’s fault that the CityArchRiver project is making some historically horrible decisions. It’s the fault of us that a more progressive voice wasn’t organized and pushing a better vision a decade ago. The conversation is asymmetrical and we can only control one half.

I doubt the mayor remembers this, but I sat near him on the Arch grounds several years ago as a press conference was held announcing some milestone in the CityArchRiver project. He momentarily found himself standing alone and although a skeptic of the plan, I took the moment to say, “Mayor, thank you for all the work you’re putting into this project.” His reply, “It’s easy, I just do what Walter tells me to do.” Fair enough. It was an off-the-cuff remark, and I mean, we don’t want the mayor designing a park anyway, do we?

Those who rule are the ones who show up. When Mr. Metcalf (and the Danforth Foundation before) was selling this big idea to city hall, who was there with an alternative vision? From 2010 to until recently, I have served as chair of the organization City to River (citytoriver.org). The group advocates for reconnecting the neighborhoods of the central city to the riverfront. Unfortunately we have been seen by many as an opposition force, naysayers to a private-public partnership supporting our Arch. It’s not true, but we were late and fighting uphill the entire way. Convincing residents, MoDOT, the mayor and others is a big haul. (For the record, I’m fully convinced that I-70’s days downtown are numbered, it’s just a matter of when.) Those involved with City to River have showed up and worked very hard, and have made progress, but it’s still just a start.

Paul McKee shows up too. Who else has presented a vision for investment in the city’s north side on a scale that recognized the problem? We rightfully celebrate organizations like the Old North Restoration Group, but fail to recognize that their success is the result of decades of work and impacts a relatively modest portion of our city. We can’t wait for 45 new Old North’s to just appear. That’s obviously not the whole NorthSide story, but there’s a good argument to be made for the project. The problem is that a large number of you reading this could make the argument more forcefully than what we’ve seen from city hall.

More than once I’ve recoiled (and lashed out) at the charge that until a Tweet or “Like” equals a vote, young tech-savvy “progressives” in the city will continue to lose. Why? Because the playing field is obscenely tilted. We should forever reject the premise that money is the only or primary access point to our elected officials, and yet the critique offers an important lesson we ignore to our own detriment.

Those who show up are changing St. Louis. It’s not just the monied, connected status quo, we’re changing it. The Preservation Research Office, City Affair, City to River, SPACE Architects, STL-Style, Anastasis Films, Rally STL, Openly Disruptive (to mention just a small handful of which I’ve interacted with), and many, many others…all tugging at the reigns of St. Louis’ future. Understanding the weight of the system, and the inertia of the status quo isn’t defeatist, it’s empowering, reminding us to be engaged, to not wait for a mayor to bless our vision. Throwing out the bum in power (whoever that may be) will never itself bring about change.

The mayor’s race to this point has been a ridiculous charade devoid of any new vision for the city. The Lewis Reed camp evinces no new vision for St. Louis. Haven't been paying attention? Here’s their campaign message: Slay is corrupt, has failed at managing crime and doesn’t like the north side. It would seem that there is no challenge to the status quo at all, but simply a desire to be at the head of the existing political pile. That’s not a vision that anyone should be excited to endorse. That’s also not exactly the Reed campaign’s vision, but something must fill the vacuum. What’s missing is any discussion at all about the two largest projects in the city in decades. Neither NorthSide, nor the CityArchRiver project (and what about Ballpark Village, the Rams, transit expansion, historic tax credits…) have occupied any space in this election.

The issue at hand is whether a vote for Lewis Reed or one cast for Mayor Slay will do more to further our cause. In this regard, we would rather try our hand at being a productive, positive force in the city rather than the antagonistic voice throwing accusations straight out of a three decades old volume of Divisive City Politics for Dummies and seeing what sticks. It’s true a three-term incumbent can play defense and exercise the privileges of power, but this only makes it more important that a challenger offer a clear alternative vision. Despite early promise, this hasn’t happened. Ultimately what we want isn’t about who’s mayor, at least not until there’s an alternative carrying a more positive, progressive vision for our city.

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  • planb247

    love you all but I, for one, disagree.

    • T-Leb

      With anything in particular? Or just general disagreement?

    • politicks

      love you as well, but i disagree with your assertion.

  • mike

    Slay for Mayor! He has my vote.
    But next time, Alex Ihnen, please campaign for mayor. I think you have the credentials. I’m serious. You can talk, you can listen, you’ve got the stuff that’s necessary. It’ll be interesting to see what the next four years have in store for the great St. Louis

  • ealfotd

    I hope someone will find a way for both competitors to read this article.

  • bailorg

    I’d rather have someone who has the ability to, at least occasionally, say no, or have the ability and wherewithal to give them a better idea, to the people who show up with hare-brained projects that won’t help or have little or no chance of succeeding.

    Mayor Slay hasn’t shown that ability, and I’m more than willing to give Lewis Reed the chance to.

  • John

    I agree. Alex should run for mayor.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mark-Groth/1233227399 Mark Groth

      have to live in St. Louis to run for St. Louis office, sad but true, we are separate entities.

  • Chippewa

    I’m sorry, but I have to disagree. Schools are my most important issue, followed by Paul McKee’s actions. Slay is on the wrong side of both.

    I won’t be voting for either, I can’t support Reed. But I do hope Slay loses.

    • Kingshighway

      Then you kind of do support Reed

      • Chippewa

        In a way, yes. But I won’t be voting for him.

  • City Voter

    Alex first has to move into the city to run for Mayor.

  • Simon Nogin

    Totally agree. Great post nextSTL.
    Something of a side note, RallySTL doesn’t seem to be garnering much interest, in terms of funding the selected projects. Could you guys do an article on this, or a how-to-spur-interest post so people can share that? The ideas in the funding stage now are mostly very good ideas (particularly the roof-top garden), and it just seems like people don’t know about the ideas or the website at all

    • Alex Ihnen

      Rally has a $250K advertising budget. We have $5. I would like to write something up regarding what would make a good Rally idea. I think part of the problem is that the ideas don’t lend themselves to crowdfunding in some cases. Hopefully Rally evolves and eventually takes off!

  • Daniel Layton

    After your endorsement of Wahby a few months ago it’s starting to look like you have a preference for insiders with questionable records. Or perhaps you like Lebanese-Americans? Most of the recent improvements in St. Louis have happened despite Slay and not because of him. I can’t think of many things he can really claim he did. I also can’t in good conscience vote for a candidate receiving major campaign funding from the hardcore right winger Rex Sinquefield. I’ll vote for Reed just in the hopes of stirring things up. Slay has a mixed record at best and I can’t imagine him having much more to offer St. Louis. Two terms is more than enough.

    • Alex Ihnen

      Seems fair, except the Lebanese-American part.

    • jhoff1257

      So you can vote for a candidate who takes 30,000 dollars from a Metro East strip-club owner and convicted felon? Seems legit…

      • EMCU13

        There is no comparison between the Metro East Strip club owner and Sinquefield. Sinquefield has way more influence over Slay ($150,000 to Mayor Slay this campaign alone) than this man would ever have over Reed.

        • John R

          Not sure if Sinquefeld has any real influence over Slay, but having unlimited campaign donations in Missouri is disgusting and needs to be fixed.

    • Chippewa

      Agree (mostly). Wahby was just a bad person. I was ecstatic that Jones won.

      I can’t really attribute much, if at all, of the improvement in the city to Slay. Doesn’t mean I’m voting for Reed though. Let the idiots downtown squabble. Neither have done or will do much to improve life in the city.

  • Brad Waldrop

    Are young people in these new neighborhoods voting? About 5-10 loft dwellers per 80+ unit building are registered to vote. No joke. Check the Board of Elections. It’s public info. Voter apathy at the aldermanic level, where one can be most affective developing policy with their voting neighbors, is sad, sad, sad. Especially when we brag we’re educated “urban pioneers.” Slay is a good Mayor. Everyone needs to get involved in his fourth term and change STL more.

    • Brad Waldrop

      Rather, 5-10 per building are registered and ACTUALLY vote.

  • Tara

    In my experience, Mayor Slay’s office has been open to positive initiatives presented with a feasible plan of action. You have to do the work, but they won’t stand in your way if you make a compelling argument and concerted effort to engage the staff at the Room 200.

    That said, I am also really disappointed in the Mayor’s perpetual talk about making St. Louis a front runner in urban initiatives and innovation, then putting no money where his mouth is and failing to break STL’s habit of ultra-conservative investment. Let’s look at things like the Google Fiber Initiative or the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge. St. Louis is THE ideal city for these types of programs to claim credit for the imminent “comeback” that our passionate post-industrial city has ahead of it. But where do our Mayor’s office’s proposals fall short as compared to those of comparable American cities? I can’t be sure — but I think it has to do with our fear of actually innovating and choice to instead play it safe by attempting the same tired approaches to those ongoing problems that plague our political landscape (namely, crime).

  • Tara

    Obviously, the issue is money. Our city doesn’t have a lot of it, and Slay doesn’t want to be known as the one who failed this or lost that — rather than taking an attitude of “Let’s try something that will make us stand out if we succeed.” We have so much to gain. I wish that our mayor banked on new ideas more.

    I don’t think any of my concerns are even on the radar of Lewis Reed; haven’t heard him suggest any sort of strategy on job creation, entrepreneurship, or anything else that goes beyond the STL status quo.

  • EMCU13

    The Reed camp does have new vision for St. Louis. By giving more people the ability to get somewhere in St. Louis, we can unite this city. Those who don’t know a Wahby or a Slay, or someone else with a big last name also deserve a chance. Small businesses deserve a chance for city contracts, not just those who write large campaign checks.
    In the past 12 years, 37,000 resisdents moved out of St. Louis, and we lost 1 congressional seat. Slay will not fix our crime problem because he voted against funding after school programs and voted to cut 80 police officers out of the budget. Businesses and people will stay out of the city as long as our crime rates are high and our education system is in decline, and there’s nothing that Slay has done about it in the past 12 years, and I’m not convinced that he will do anything about it in the next 4.

  • Brian Ireland

    The NorthSide redevelopment has been handled shoddily from the get-go. Voracious land banking, letting properties deteriorate, lack of communication with residents, gentrification concerns, opaque disclosure…the list of missteps and slights is lengthy and, as usual, Slay’s leadership vis a vis a North Side issue has been ineffectual.