On a slightly overcast day in St. Louis’ Penrose neighborhood, state Rep. Joshua Peters briskly moved from brick bungalow to brick bungalow to get the word out about his re-election campaign.
Sporting a sky blue polo and dark-rimmed eyeglasses, the 26-year-old exuded the experience of an old political pro when greeting potential voters. Sophia Hubbard told Peters a member of his campaign staff had already come to her door. Oliver Williams told him something similar – and signaled that Peters had his vote on Aug. 5.
Peters was followed around by Michael Williams, who was checking off the names of potential voters from a clipboard. He characterized the campaign as “very high energy.”
“This race is a race that showing very good promise for the people,” Williams said. “And Josh is showing them great support for their dreams and their ambitions for what they want the city to be.”
Peters will need as many people like Hubbard and Williams as possible if he is to return to Jefferson City because his re-election is anything but certain.
Peters is engaged in a competitive race against fellow Democrat Chris Carter, Sr., in the heavily Democratic 76th House District in north St. Louis.
Carter is a member of one of the city’s most storied political dynasties, which brings name recognition and political support – especially since Carter’s 27th Ward is a population center within the district.
But Carter said he’s not trying to skirt by on his family name. Rather, he said he’s kept up a relentless campaign schedule with paid and volunteer canvassers. And he’s prodded constantly by his son, Alderman Chris Carter III.
“He pushes me non-stop,” Carter said. “Get up. It’s no sleep. We don’t get sleep. We knock day and night. We phone call. We do everything to get you to say yes. Whatever it takes. Whatever it takes. That’s what we got to do.”
Both candidates say they stump hard because they want to make north St. Louis better. But this race also could be a test of the Carter family’s political strength -- and the strength of Peters’ former boss, U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis.
In some ways, Peters’ bid for another term in the Missouri House is a small challenge compared to what he’s been through. The Wells-Goodfellow native was homeless for part of his childhood, at one point living out of his car with his mother and siblings.
Peters – a graduate of Beaumont High School – witnessed a constant stream of violence.
“I’ve seen people in my school killed right in front of me,” Peters said. “Graduating from Beaumont, walking out the doors, what have you. People get shot all the time. So I’m proud to represent the 76th District. I’m proud to represent the people that I come from. We’re torn from the same fabric.”
Peters became the first member of his family to get a college degree when he graduated with honors from Lincoln University in Jefferson City. Before going to Washington, D.C., to work for Clay and for Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter, Peters spent some time interning for Missouri lawmakers like former state Rep. J.C. Kuessner, D-Eminence.
Last year, he won a special election to fill the House seat that the younger Chris Carter vacated after being elected to the Board of Aldermen. He said he started going door-to-door to meet directly with residents. Legislative service, he said, is “an opportunity to give back to my community, the community that has given so much to me.”
“To be honest with you, I’ve been a public servant before holding office,” said Peters, when asked about how long he’s been going door-to-door. “All of this was about making sure the constituents knew what I was doing as a state representative, the role of their state representative and to let them know they can have a direct communication with me.”
Peters notes that he sponsored two bills that passed the Missouri House. He also vocally opposed a school transfer bill vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon, even gaining a bit of attention when he called for a closed session of the Missouri House to discuss the legislation.
“The folks in Normandy deserve way more than what they’re getting,” Peters said. “It’s a disappointment to see that we have rented politicians who pretty much set the students out to fail in my opinion."
If he wins re-election, Peters said his priorities include enlivening economically struggling part of his district. He also wants to do whatever he can in Jefferson City to build up the city's public schools, which currently are provisionally accredited.
“One of the first things I want to do is I want to see to it that St. Louis Public Schools are fully funded and that they get their accreditation back,” Peters said. “After all, I come from the public sector having graduated from Beaumont High School and [Lincoln University] — both public institutions. I believe in public education. I want to see that happen."
A legacy of service
If Peters wants to go back to Jefferson City next year, he’ll have to work for it. Politics is the Carter family business.
“We were breastfed into doing this as little kids back in the early '60s,” Carter said.
The best evidence of that humorous adage can be found at the Carter family compound in the city’s 27th Ward, which features wall after wall of signed bills and photos with the some of the state’s political royalty. It’s a monument to one of the city’s most storied political dynasties.
Carter’s mother, Paula Carter, was an influential state representative and senator. She had a legendary reputation for candor and for being a tough and effective negotiator.
His brother Greg Carter was a city alderman for years. And his son, Chris Carter III, served in the Missouri House before getting elected to the Board of Aldermen.
Needless to say, the Carter family name is well-known in the 27th Ward.
“We’ve got good relationship with everybody,” Carter said. “I can go on any block and get something to eat. It doesn’t matter. If I was in trouble, I can get a way home from one block to another. That’s the way it is.”
(The younger Chris Carter, though, noted that the family’s name is something of a double-edged sword. When he ran for the Missouri House in 2008, he said, some people expressed great love for his family. Others were hostile because of something that Paula or Greg Carter did years ago. “It’s not all peaches and cream,” he quipped.)
In any case, Carter – who has worked for his family’s security and property management businesses for several decades – wasn’t angling to jump into the political fray. But things changed when his brother Greg died in a car accident in 2012. Soon afterward, elderly residents came by with $5 checks to support his electoral ambitions.
Carter took it as a sign to enter the political fray.
“I don’t care who would have ran," Carter said. "It could have been Mayor (Francis) Slay in that seat. I would have run against him.”
If elected, Carter said that he’d focus on improving the district’s economy and educational infrastructure. He wants to work with the district’s various aldermen to pinpoint specific priorities. (A number of the district's aldermen -- including Alderman Antonio French, D-21st Ward, and Alderman Sam Moore, D-4th Ward -- have endorsed him.)
“We have some issues in St. Louis right now with our public schools. And we really need some help with our teachers. Teachers need raises. We need books. Our classes are overcrowded,” Carter said. “That’s why it’s imperative that I have a great team with me. And that’s these aldermen of our 76th District.”
No love lost
Like many legislative primaries, the campaign has its share of political and personality conflicts.
Peters recently called a press conference to criticize Carter for legal issues involving his businesses and “purposely allow(ing) people to believe that his son, Alderman Chris Carter, a former representative, is running again for state representative.”
The elder Carter said that Peters has a promising political career ahead of him but he has a more robust professional connection to the community.
“He lacks the experience that I have,” said Carter, who served in the Army and in the St. Louis Police Department before going into private business.
The biggest conflict, though, may revolve around Clay, Peters’ former boss. Some aldermen and state legislators are reportedly backing Carter because they don’t care for Clay.
For instance, state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal – a University City Democrat and fierce critic of the congressman – gave Carter thousands of dollars for his campaign. In part, she did it was because she's close to the Carter family. But, she added, that's not the whole story.
“This race is going to be about the credibility of Congressman Clay,” Chappelle-Nadal said earlier this year. “If Josh Peters loses, then that obviously makes a statement of how effective that community thinks that the congressman is. Now I don’t know. I don’t live in that area. What I do know is that there are people who live in the 27th Ward and in that state representative district who are my friends who absolutely love the Carter family.”
Both the younger and elder Carter said Clay, who couldn’t be reached for comment for this story, has used heavy-handed tactics to neutralize political opposition. The younger Chris Carter said he was particularly perturbed that Clay, among other things, aggressively meddled in the discussions on who should fill his House seat.
This occurred, he said, even though the Carters worked hard in 2012 to help Clay beat U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, in a Democratic primary.
“The majority of folks who are with us aren’t with us because of Josh. They’re with us because they don’t like Lacy,” said the younger Chris Carter. “I mean, like I said: I think that Josh is a bright, young African-American brother who has a bright future. I just think that he needs to choose a better mentor.”
For his part, Peters is proud of his alliance with Clay. In fact, the two have canvassed the district together over the past couple of months. But he said people may be missing the bigger picture if they try to make the race a referendum on Clay’s political power.
“This race is not about the congressman. This race is about me and my opponent,” Peters said. “It is not about politics. It’s about people. And that’s what I think the city of St. Louis has drifted away. They’re looking at the politics of a race, whereas they should be looking at the best interest of the people.”
Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, said she doesn’t think the outcome will be a test of Clay’s strength. She added, “The Clay regime in the city of St. Louis, as well as the county, is extremely strong. “
Nasheed – who said she is staying neutral in the contest – said the outcome may hinge on which candidate has the best ground game.
“It’s going to be knocking doors and reaching out to the constituents,” Nasheed said. “And I think both Rep. Peters as well as [Carter], they both come with stamina. They can knock those doors and reach out to the voters.”