For some in both camps, the decision of a group of African-American Democratic officials to endorse Republican Rick Stream for county executive boils down to one word:
Berkeley Mayor Ted Hoskins said as much when he explained at Wednesday’s news conference — which featured about two dozen north St. Louis County officials — that Stream’s conservative views and legislative votes aren’t the issue.
“Don’t ask us any questions about his record,’’ Hoskins said. “Sometimes you have to spank your child. … We’re punishing the Democratic Party because they have disrespected us.”
Hoskins and other coalition members cited, in particular, Democratic splits over the continued protests in Ferguson that began with the fatal police shooting in August of an unarmed African-American teenager.
But the spurned Democratic nominee, Steve Stenger, asserts that he’s being paid back primarily because he ousted County Executive Charlie Dooley – who also is African-American – in the August primary.
“I think that to say that this is about ‘respect’ … is somewhat disingenuous,” Stenger said. “I think what this is about is basically ‘sour grapes’ politics.”
Meanwhile, Stream contends that he’s being paid back for being conciliatory in his dealings with area African-American legislators during his eight years in the Missouri House.
“I have worked across party lines year after year as budget chairman to balance our state budget during tough economic times while protecting programs that impact the most vulnerable children, women and citizens in our state,” Stream said.
African-American votes can make the difference in close contests
The key issue, however, is the electoral impact of the decision of the new Fannie Lou Hamer Democratic Coalition to break ranks with its own party. Hamer was a Mississippi civil rights activist credited with immortalizing the phrase, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Hoskins said that sentiment sums up the coalition’s long-standing frustration.
County Councilwoman Hazel Erby, spokeswoman for the group, said African-American officials are tired of being taken for granted. “We turn out the vote,” she said. “We’re called on when it’s time to turn out the vote, but we don’t have input in the issues that matter in our community.”
In a typical election, African-American voters cast roughly 15-20 percent of St. Louis County’s ballots. And the huge bulk of their votes are for Democrats.
Hoskins said black urban votes have made the difference in many statewide elections, and that it’s time for Democrats – he singled out U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill – to acknowledge the importance of African-American support.
McCaskill's initial Senate victory in 2006 was due, in part, to a strong African-American turnout.
Still, the key question is whether the Hamer Coalition can influence a sizable chunk of black Democrats to switch parties on Nov. 4. Ken Warren, a political science professor at St. Louis University, is skeptical that large blocs of black voters will cast ballots for Stream.
What’s more likely, Warren said, is that disaffected African-American voters might stay home, or skip casting a vote in the county executive contest.
But even a non-vote could cause trouble for Stenger, Warren said, if lots of county Republicans show up and vote for Stream. He noted than in 2010, the overwhelming black support for Dooley gave him a narrow victory over Republican Bill Corrigan during a election that saw a huge GOP turnout.
Democratic consultant Mike Kelley, who’s a former executive director for the Missouri Democratic Party, contended that African-American support for Stream amounted to “a suicide mission’’ that would hurt the progressive cause.
“Rick Stream has a record where he led the fight to keep Barack Obama off the ballot,’’ Kelley said, referring to the GOP effort to require presidential candidates to produce birth certificates.
Stream also has opposed expansion of Medicaid, and has backed the photo ID requirement for voters. Erby said that the coalition wasn’t concerned about such views because county government doesn’t deal with such issues.
Endorsement focus could shift to Clay
Stenger indicated that he soon plans to roll out some major endorsements that he hopes can counter the opposition from the Hamer coalition. He didn’t say whether any of his big-name backers will include other African-Americans.
Stenger acknowledged that he does plan to reach out to the region’s most powerful official who is African-American: U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay Jr.
But a spokesman for Clay indicated that the congressman may be cool to any overtures from Stenger. “The congressman is solely focused on his own re-election,’’ said spokesman Steve Engelhardt.
Clay, like the coalition, is particularly angry with County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch, a fellow Democrat. He is overseeing the local grand-jury investigation into the fatal police shooting in Ferguson that has touched off almost two months of protests.
Many African-American officials have sought to replace McCulloch with a special prosecutor. They question his impartiality because McCulloch’s father was a police officer killed by a black suspect in the 1960s.
Hoskins and Erby made clear that McCulloch’s support of Stenger – and Stenger’s refusal to break with the prosecutor -- was a key factor in their decision to back Stream.
“Steve Stenger’s unbreakable alliance with Bob McCulloch shows that he will be unable to run the executive’s office independently and without influence,’’ Erby said.
Stenger reaffirmed his support for McCulloch, but added that the prosecutor has had no influence over his views of how to run county government.
In any case, Stenger's allies believe that he politically must stick with McCulloch, a popular figure with Republicans and conservative Democrats -- especially if more African-American officials go with Stream.