Reed vs. Slay: Race and the Absence of a Race

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There’s a shooting in the City of St. Louis and Twitter is instantly splattered with critiques of Mayor Francis Slay. The most recent: a news Tweet stating “One person was shot Wednesday at St. Louis MetroLink Station” was responded to with cynicism. “Just one? It's working, @MayorSlay!” and “but the victim knew the shooter so it doesn't count”. The charge is that the mayor has the tone-deaf temerity to Tweet about anything but shootings. At heart, these responses, and much of what is being hurled from opponents of Slay amount to criticism without solutions. That’s not entirely true, the solution, we’re told is to replace Slay with Aldermanic President Lewis Reed. Would Reed only Tweet about shootings and nothing else?

The City of St. Louis faces very significant challenges. The poverty rate is more than twice the national average, the homicide rate more than seven times the national rate. Is this the fault of the mayor, in office for nearly 12 years? Should he have done more over the past decade? Has he retarded or advanced the development of the city's most challenging areas, namely North St. Louis, where poverty and crime rates are several times higher than the city as a whole? Should he take credit for pockets of urban resurgence?

To say that there are things we would all like to see change in the city would be an understatement of urban renewal proportions. We're losing residents, jobs and prestige. Any progress is clearly a mixed bag. Thousands of loft dwellers now occupy downtown warehouses, vacant when Slay took office. Thousands more have fled the city altogether. Does Reed have a plan to stem the exodus?

The three-term mayor has a very long political record. Any challenger has a clear record to run against. It’s easy enough to buy that there’s corruption and negligence in City Hall, that things could be better. We’ve seen it. We know it. But that’s not enough. STD rates remain unacceptably high in the city. The public school system is a mess. The administration often appears tone-deaf on crime. The question for Reed is how to effectively lay the problems of the city at the mayor’s feet and offer an alternative. Will STD rates go down in a Reed administration? How?

This is St. Louis, so there are nearly constant calls for the end of racially divisive politics. These are nearly universally offered alongside charges of racism. There's little doubt that a political machine in power for three terms (and really longer) understands well how to position itself regarding race in St. Louis on just about any issue. And so charges of racism should not be discarded entirely, but such charges do not offer solutions.

Telling city residents that the mayor is racist and/or employs racial tactics and is corrupt isn’t enough. In the end, absent a signature scandal, a challenger must offer a viable political and administrative alternative to the incumbent. Still early in this campaign, this isn’t happening. Fair or not, this election is a referendum on the challenger. Would a Reed administration be devoid of corruption? Who would be appointed to key positions? Who and what need to change?

Reed is a more dynamic personality than Slay. He’s gregarious, energetic and smart. I’d enjoy nothing more than to have a mayor stand up and say that St. Louis is the best fucking city on the planet, God’s gift to the Midwest (which happens to be God’s gift to planet earth, seriously, just look it up). But to do so you have to have big ideas, new initiatives, a vision for the city beyond blaming the incumbent. Fair or not, this is the playing field we see. The city could benefit from political turnover, a new vision and fresh ideas.

And so how has Reed sought to differentiate himself from Slay? There doesn’t appear to be any light between policy stances on some of the largest issues facing the city: the $500M+ CityArchRiver project, a $400M TIF for NorthSide Regeneration and then the languishing Ballpark Village and the city’s inability to enforce agreed upon penalities. Would Reed’s approach to any of these be different that Slay’s? What about the city’s earning tax? Historic tax credits? The city seeking greater collaboration with St. Louis County? How would Reed work with Rex Sinquefield? We don’t know. And it would appear that there are policy differentiation openings on each of these, and many more. In fact, the mayor’s stance on each is unclear or less than forthright.

There’s $1,000,000,000 in development just in the issues above, for a city of 318,000 residents. And yet the topic of the day and every day so far in this campaign is race. Speedbumps are a racial issue. Recreation centers are a racial issue. TIFs are a racial issue. So what’s the winning path on race? The Reed campaign may be bolstered by the recent Treasurer’s election, where Tishaura Jones defeated another black candidate and two white candidates. Jones received roughly 75% of her total votes from majority black wards. Voter turnout in majority black wards far outpaced that of majority white wards (18.4% compared to 14% in predominantly white wards). Without a doubt, there’s a number were a duplication of this would put Lewis Reed in Room 200. Is it a 5% spread? 10%?

Ultimately, can race pave the path to a mayoral victory? In 2000, there were nearly 26,000 more African American residents in the city than white residents. Over the past decade, the city lost 29,000 residents, 21,000 of whom were black. In 2010, there were just 17,000 more African American residents than white residents in St. Louis. And so some refer to St. Louis as a majority black city. Yet considering residents who are old enough to vote, there were 8,000 more white residents than black age 18 or older in 2000. That gap increased to nearly 9,500 in 2012.

In the meantime, voters continue to receive Twitter mentions linking to a YouTube video showing Missouri State Senator Jamilah Nasheed, who is black, criticizing Slay and wearing a "RECALL SLAY" T-shirt. The video is meant to ask why Nasheed is supporting Slay this time, inferring she's been bought in some way. The charges of racism continue while desperately needed discussion of a wide array of issues is ignored. This appears to be what both Slay and Reed want. Reed may be banking on a sequel to the Treasurer’s race and the mayor is happy to avoid any substantive engagement with his challenger.

Slay, as a longtime incumbent, can play political prevent defense. Some of Slay Chief of Staff Jeff Rainford's and campaign manager Richard Callow’s retorts are classic, if not a bit beneath the office. “Somebody must have stolen the Reed campaign schedule," said Callow in response to a back and forth about the debate schedule. "I will confirm for the record that we have absolutely no intention on relying on Mr. Reed’s campaign to deliver him on time and prepared to any scheduled event.” Rainford recently mocked a Reed endorsement error, Tweeting, “Lewis Reed just announced three new endorsements: George Jetson, Dom Perignon, and HB Finn.”

This doesn’t advance the political discussion in St. Louis, even if it can be entertaining. In the end, it’s sadly all we have. I’d planned to use a boxing analogy and score this race as being in the early rounds, but to be honest, it appears Reed’s camp is happy to posture and shout at the weigh-in press conference while Slay has yet to be required to even put on his gloves.

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  • Will Fru

    So, will NextSTL be endorsing a candidate?

    • Alex Ihnen


  • Eric Matthew Wilkinson

    Thanks, Alex. One thing I think is clear is that there is surely not a shortage of solutions. Community organizations, residents, small business owners, neighborhood groups, and, to a certain extent, aldermen, all know what needs to be done. The problem is that the gulf between these groups and city hall is so large that most anyone who can see is frustrated. City Hall can’t organize the Aldermen and the Aldermen can’t organize City hall. No one is on the same page and everyone has their own projects. For an outsider (a.k.a. the average STL citizen), all of these people (Reed, Slay, and their staff) seem out of touch. This has to be bolstered by the fact that our mayoral race now suffers from the same big money issues as most politics; why, for example, do we have to mention Rex Sinquefield when talking about livability issues in St. Louis? Because he opposes campaign finance reform and is a large donor to Slay? Is being rich a reason for being included in a discussion about quality of life issues for the majority of (non-rich) citizens? Does the mere mention of his name indicate that he has undue political influence? Why else would a libertarian/free market/conservative like Sinquefield donate so heavily to a supposed democrat? People see this out-of-touch money and the lack of progress on issues that they care about and become frustrated. And what about Reed? He is not even mayor and people already see scandals (look it up) and smell corruption and get frustrated with the whole thing. Then they leave, many times after they have kids and no longer have energy for the nonsense that seems to prevail. All of this manifests itself in things like the tweets you mentioned. For my part, I have lived in the area for 8 years and in the city for 6. When my wife and I bought a house we did so in the city. We like the potential and hate the suburbs. And we wanted to do our small part for the city. We remain boosters of urban living and the city but it is frustrating to feel as though yer hard earned money is being squandered by overpaid and out of touch idiots. Our first child is due in a couple weeks. Where we live when we outgrow our house remains to be seen but I can tell you it will have more to do with whether or not we feel like we can walk to the cafe 3 blocks away when it is dark out than most anything else. It will also have a great deal to do with what is required in order to send our kid(s) to a good school. CityArchRiver is important. City Garden is great. Fixing St. Louis Center and Union Station would be awesome. But these can’t happen in a vacuum; there needs to be equal investment in social capital and the other issues that go into quality of life issues in order for any of this to work. Unfortunately I only see lip service paid to these issues by the current occupant of room 200. I can’t help but think that this is because of where the money comes from.

  • Dan

    St. Louis needs Mayor Slay for another term. He has done so much for this city in the last decade. The mayors before him were the ones who destroyed the city. They literally robbed St. Louis. Slay has focused on getting downtown alive again and he has succeeded. He has focussed on the common ground, the central corridor which is vital to the city’s growth. It’s been a slow process of re-development, but that’s normal. It’s also clear that Slay thinks globally and internationally. He knows that there’s more to St. Louis than black and white. What about all the Hispanics, the Bosnians, etc, etc? Does Reed know how to deal with these communities? Does Reed know anything about policies pertaining to multilingualism? Does he support bilingual education as Slay does? Well I sure haven’t heard anything about these issues from him! I don’t believe Slay is racist at all and Reed’s focus on “racism” means that he has nothing else to talk about. There is no white/black game anymore. That’s a thing of the past. We have immigrant issues and we need to establish a stable economic center so that everyone has an equal chance to succeed in our community. Mayor Slay has helped to transform our city without playing the race card. But Reed thinks by playing the race card he’ll be able to get the African American voters. What a shame. In reality, Reed is being divisive. He is no viable alternative. Recently Mayor Slay was walking down my neighbourhood street. I waved my hand and he came right over to speak with me. He’s very personable and down to earth but very intelligent at the same time. I believe that he’ll be able to transform St. Louis for a better future. I’m voting for Mayor Slay.

    • Dmitri K.

      I am 100% agree with everything you said Dan. Very well said!!! Mayor Slay is the best mayor for St Louis. I am a foreigner here and I can see as an independent outsider person how much he is doing for the city development and neighborhoods. I am so glad I’ve been having an opportunity to observe a city transformation for a few years and I hope he gets elected again and again.

  • Eric

    Alex, this is pretty much what I’ve been saying from Day One about the campaign – or lack thereof. President Reed should be talking about how, among other things, he pulled off an aldermanic redistricting without a single shred of drama. That’s pretty deft, and it says a lot in a city that only knows drama. That we only hear criticism without solutions from a couple of well-placed surrogates does not bode well for swing wards.

    • Alex Ihnen

      The redistricting may have indeed been a success, but because it wasn’t threatening to anyone. Of the 28 city wards, just one has a black/white resident divide of less than 14%.

      • Eric

        True. We saw some significant shifts in the last census – my ward included.

  • Adam Shriver

    Is there any evidence that the people responsible for the first two tweets you mentioned have ever said that, “the solution” is “to replace Slay with Aldermanic President Lewis Reed” or that they have anything to do with Reed’s campaign? If not, then your first paragraph seems to unfairly tie the Reed campaign in with a couple of random Twitter critics.

    • guest

      Either way, is it really fair to assign blame for individual acts of crime to any single politician? If that’s your political strategy, seems very weak and unfocused.

      • Adam Shriver

        Again, “political strategy” implies that the tweets are coming from people with political agendas. If you do a topsy search to see where they’re coming from, it looks like they’re just random people grousing, rather than political operatives.

    • Alex Ihnen

      That’s why I try to refer to critics and opponents of Slay rather than “the Reed campaign”, though in this case people working hard to get Slay elected immediately retweeted the aforementioned comments.

  • St. Louis has a mayor? I had no idea.

    • guest


      • Yes!

        • guest

          No way! You seriously had no idea that St. Louis has a mayor. Wow. Well, it has a mayor, a treasurer, and all kinds of people in government offices. It’s very historic.

  • Chippewa

    “The public school system is a mess”

    Yep. And Slay has had more of a direct impact in that than anybody.

    The biggest thing keeping families out of the city, is one thing that Slay has worked hard to smash. First the Archibald slat of school board candidates giving out cash left and right to whomever they liked, and then, when the parents (whatever were left) got uppity and elected their own people, Slay threw a hissy fit and lobbied for a state takeover.

    Sorry, but for this case, the devil I don’t know is better than the one I do.

    • dani

      You should probably learn more about no child left behind. The destruction of the public school system has much more to do with the federal government than any state or local boards.

      • guest

        And the public schools are totally outside the normal political process. The board of education is independent and there is no residency requirement for SLPS employees, not that that makes any sense at all…

      • Chippewa

        I know all about NCLB. It doesn’t excuse Slays actions.

  • Is there any polling data on this race? I’d be curious to see the early(ish) numbers, even with a wide margin of error.

    • I doubt it. There _might_ be an internal poll, but even that would surprise me.

      • guest

        It would require some highly sophisticated polling to determine anything. Count contested aldermanic races in black wards to get a sense of Reed’s real chances. The more contested aldermanic races in black wards, the better chance for Reed to win. What does that tell you about St. Louis politics?