Inside a cavernous office space on Cherokee Street in south St. Louis, Bruce Franks’ die-hard supporters are prepping to go door-to-door for a candidate that’s captured the attention of St. Louis’ political community.
These volunteers are getting pointers on how to hand out door-hangers and convince 78th District residents that Franks is the one to represent them in the Missouri House over incumbent state Rep. Penny Hubbard.
On the surface, the stakes seem low: The winner, assuming they can defeat Republican Erik Shelquist in November, gets a seat in a Missouri House that Republicans dominate.
But both candidates have distinct reasons for putting so much on the line.
“In the 78th District, we won’t be OK if Penny Hubbard wins,” Franks said before going door-to-door with his canvassers. “It will be the same thing that we’ve gone through for the last six years: Voting in a way of financial interests and personal relationships. Not being engaged. Not being resourceful in the entire district. True representation is what’s at stake.”
The disputed election between Franks and Hubbard has focused a lot on how absentee ballots are administered. But for supporters of the two candidates, this unusually prolonged battle is about more than procedures. To Franks and his supporters, winning this special election about shaking up St. Louis’ political environment and injected new blood into the system.
And for Hubbard, Friday’s contest is about who can best serve a financially and racially diverse state legislative district.
“I’m concerned about my constituents and what’s being brought to the table to support them,” Hubbard said. “I think my opponent doesn’t have a clue of what it takes to be a state rep. I don’t think he understands the needs of the constituents. I don’t even think he understands the 78th District.”
Up and down
The 78th District stretches from north to south. It touches or contains neighborhoods like Carr Square and Old North St. Louis, as well as Soulard, Benton Park West and Dutchtown. Both the north and south portions of the district have large African-American populations.
The contest primary between Franks and Hubbard was easily the closest of primary night. Hubbard’s 90-vote margin of victory came from her overwhelming advantage from absentee ballots. (Franks and his attorney wrote to the Board of Election Commissioners in July asking it to monitor absentee balloting in races that included the Hubbards. The board declined.)
After the election, Franks sued to overturn the results. And citing problems with how the Board of Elections handled absentee balloting, St. Louis Circuit Judge Rex Burlison ordered a new election for Sept. 16. Hubbard declined to appeal a ruling upholding the decision.
As the only race on the ballot Friday, this contest is in a much brighter spotlight than before the August primary.
Franks has a unconventional professional and personal resume. He is a small-business owner who became known for Ferguson protests, anti-violence activism and even his battle-rapping abilities. Some of Franks’ activist inspiration can be traced to 1991, when his brother, Christopher Harris, was killed. That prompted Franks to become a life-long fighter against gun violence. He carried that passion onto the streets after Michael Brown’s shooting death.
“I’m out in the streets, I’m protesting. The whole time with tear gas and pepper spray and everything,” Franks said in a July interview. “And as it went on, I began to evolve. I began to open my mind up some more. I became a peacekeeper. And then after being beat by the police myself, I had some time to think and reshape some things and really worry about [finding some] form of solution. And in this, I started to learn this whole political process and how the local politics goes.”
Franks was part of a group of candidates in St. Louis who backed Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (he made a memorable speech before the Vermont senator spoke at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville). He also was one of the candidates who received political and financial support from state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a University City Democrat who unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, D-University City, in August.
Chappelle-Nadal said she promised Ferguson activists that she would back them in their political endeavors. She said she "wanted to help young people get into the political process," adding we "still have a lot of angst because of what occurred two years and has been ongoing."
“We’ve been dealing with economic and educational and social inequity for a long time,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “And Bruce Franks was one of those soldiers fighting for justice.”
“I support Maria because I’ve seen her. I know her. She fought with us,” Franks added. “Do we agree on everything? No. Can we sit down and talk about it? Yes. I know nothing about Lacy Clay. I just know we were on a plane together last year leaving Washington, D.C., and I tweeted him and re-tweeted it. That’s it.”
(Clay’s spokesman did not reply to a request for the congressman to be interviewed in this story.)
Among other things, Franks said he wants to punish gun owners who don’t report their lost firearms. He also wants to try to get more money for jobs programs and education. And more than anything else, Franks said the House could benefit from having someone with different life experiences navigating the chamber.
“I think my life experiences will tie into that with working with anybody who doesn’t come from where I come from, who hasn’t gone through what I’ve gone through,” Franks said. “And there’s still a lot of room for me to learn about different backgrounds and different situations and difference experiences as well.”
By her own admission, Penny Hubbard’s bid for a fourth term in the Missouri House has been “strange.”
Hubbard faced spirited Democratic opponents before, including an incumbent state representative in 2010, two challengers in 2012 and one opponent in 2014. But it's safe to say that former member of the state probation and parole board has never been in an election like this one.
“My feelings about this entire primary election is that I won an election by 90 votes,” Hubbard told St. Louis Public Radio last Friday. “And all of this here that’s created in all the slander and everything that’s occurred throughout this entire time has just been very strange to me.”
Hubbard, who worked in the St. Louis corrections system before entering politics, is referring to accusations that her campaign abused the absentee balloting system. This type of complaint has been lodged against the Hubbard family for years, but it received a lot more attention after the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on alleged irregularities that occurred before the Democratic primary. (Hubbard addressed specific allegations in her interview with St. Louis Public Radio last week.)
“My entire family works hard. We don’t sit back and wait for someone to hand us anything,” said Hubbard, responding to a question on why she and other members of her family get so many absentee votes. “We get out on the streets. We engage ourselves with the constituents that live in our community. And that’s the only way we know how to win an election – being out on the streets and working hard.”
The Hubbards have had a fairly successful tenure in St. Louis politics. Penny Hubbard’s son (former state Rep. Rodney Hubbard Jr.), daughter (St. Louis Alderman Tammika Hubbard), and husband (Committeman Rodney Hubbard Sr.) have won elections over the past decade. And one of the keys to their political success, and a possible reason for passionate opposition, is their partnerships with powerbrokers.
For example: The Hubbard family has been strong political and logistical supporters of Paul McKee’s NorthSide Regeneration project, a priority for St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and Republican legislative leaders. Rodney Hubbard Jr., said in a 2015 interview that the political concord came down to energizing north St. Louis’ economy.
“I’ve never seen Paul McKee go out to anything and turn his back on it,” said Hubbard Jr., who is a lobbyist for the North Side Regeneration, LLC. “I bought into his vision ... in wanting to make north St. Louis better.”
The Hubbard family’s noteworthy political relationships go beyond Paul McKee:
- When Rodney Hubbard was in the House, he sometimes voted with Republicans on key issues – including legislation advancing “school choice” and a measure to repeal donation limits. These types of votes were front-and-center when Robin Wright-Jones defeated him in a 2008 state Senate election. (Hubbard said in 2015 that he, like other lawmakers, regrets his vote to repeal campaign contribution limits.)
- Tammika Hubbard has handled some of Slay’s top legislative priorities in the Board of Aldermen, including numerous incentives for McKee’s NorthSide project and a financial package for a now-scuttled football stadium. Slay has endorsed Penny Hubbard in her previous campaigns.
- Penny Hubbard provided key votes for GOP priorities, including a congressional map that effectively ended U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan’s congressional career. While several Kansas City-area Democrats voted for that map to help U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, Hubbard attributed her vote as an assist to Clay. Along with a number of other Democrats, Hubbard also voted to override a veto of a bill limiting court-ordered damages against the Doe Run Company. Overturning that bill's veto was a major priority for organized labor groups.
When asked if voting with Republicans on certain issues engendered opposition against her, Penny Hubbard replied that working with people of different political persuasions is necessary to get things done – especially when large parts of St. Louis are struggling with disinvestment and crime.
"I know who I am. I’m a strong woman. I’m a strong Democrat. But at the same time, if it’s something that I can do to make it better for my constituents ... I can work that," Hubbard said in July. "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."
On a Friday
At first glance, the stakes of Friday’s election are not immediately obvious.
After all, the Board of Aldermen has approved a $390 million tax incentive package for the NorthSide Regeneration project. And those types of incentives don’t appear to be in any danger – especially with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency facility being built. And while the Franks-Hubbard race could test Lacy Clay’s political strength, he’ll still have powerful allies in state legislative, county government and local government regardless of the outcome.
But people like state Rep. Michael Butler believe the race is part of a larger political shift. He said a Franks victory could showcase the weakening of longstanding political organizations, especially as Slay prepares to leave his post as mayor.
“There’s a difference of old school political tactics and machine politics that has worked in very small areas of the 78th District. And then there’s a new wave of … more diverse politics that Bruce represents,” Butler said. “It’s about whether other new organizations around St. Louis are going to flourish in really what is the new time and new era, which some have termed the ‘post-Slay era.’”
Franks also said that his decision to challenge the results of the primary elections could prompt changes to how absentee balloting is administered.
“I think the absentee process as a whole, from campaigns to the Board of Elections, will be run a lot tighter. And not tighter to disenfranchise, but tighter to make sure that we’re following everything that we’re supposed to follow and everybody’s doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing,” Franks said. “I think this fight will deter candidates from taking advantage of disenfranchised communities by misleading them with absentee voting.”
Both Hubbard and Clay have been critical of the decision to have a new election on such a short time frame. Clay even wrote to the Justice Department before an appeals court upheld St. Louis Circuit Judge Rex Burlison’s ruling.
“I am concerned that the activity surrounding this election involves a clear case of disparate enforcement of voting laws and will result in the disenfranchisement of many of my constituents,” Clay wrote. “On balance, this type of voter denial is being disproportionately visited on a racial minority.”
(For what it's worth, the appeals court wrote that the re-vote didn't violate the Voting Rights Act or the U.S. Constitution. Whether the Missouri Supreme Court agreed with that interpretation will never be known, since Hubbard decided not to appeal the ruling.)
Hubbard said that she's going to do whatever it takes to get her constituents to vote on Friday.
“I will not, and let me make myself real clear with this: I will not apologize for trying to assist the constituents in my district who are handicapped and getting them to the poll,” she said. “I will be riding them in my car to the polls. I will be doing whatever I can do to engage in whoever wins this election. It’s important that they not be taken out of having a say and a vote in this election.”
Hubbard also contended that Franks is ill prepared to deal with the realities of legislative politics.
“It’s not about cartoon characters, superheroes and that kind of nonsense,” she said. “It’s about making these communities safe. It’s about setting examples. I think elected officials ought to be held to a higher standard. … And how in the world can we talk about cartoon characters and superheroes and that kind of stuff when you have people who are dying in our community?”
Franks often incorporates superhero motifs into his youth mentorships and political activism. When he heard about Hubbard’s comments, Franks said it was clear “the gloves were off.”
“I wear Superman shirts because Superman has his powers at all times. He’s the same person every single time. And that’s me. I’m the same person no matter what room I’m in, no matter who I’m in front of,” Franks said. “It’s going to take superheroes to change the narrative of what’s going on in our neighborhoods, what’s going on in our community, and what’s going on in our nation. And superheroes don’t just run into burning buildings or jump into the middle of traffic or save somebody falling from the sky. Superheroes change lives every day by simply communicating, by simply providing resources, by mentoring, by teaching, by whatever it is you do.”
As for Clay, Franks said: “Lacy has no power to change anything in this race.”
“He can write as many letters to [U.S. Attorney General] Loretta Lynch, the president, the pope. It doesn’t matter,” Franks said, who has also written a letter to Lynch. “At the end of the day, the people of St. Louis – that’s who put you in office.”