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

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.