Bruce Franks looked a political machine straight in the eye. He didn’t back down. He didn’t give up. And last Friday, he won.
Franks’ landslide victory over state Rep. Penny Hubbard could resonate far beyond last Friday’s unusual special election. In beating Hubbard, a three-term representative, by more than 50 percentage points, Franks sent a thunderbolt of sorts through the St. Louis political community.
This didn’t happen by accident: While pursuing a successful legal challenge of the Aug. 2 primary results, Franks stitched together a unique political coalition stout enough to turn out passionate supporters in the pouring rain. While the fickle nature of Missouri politics makes this reporter hesitate to make any hard-and-fast declarations, Franks may have just put together a political blueprint that could foretell a new era in St. Louis politics.
"I think this is a stepping stone to something a lot bigger," Franks said on Tuesday. "Now a lot of our establishment and a lot of the entrenched politicians understand what happens when you get some grassroots organizing ... and you get the people involved."
How did he do it? Only voters in the 78th District know for sure. But here are a few takeaways from Friday night's election:
One source of political trouble for Penny Hubbard was in the boundaries of the 78th District.
Back when Rodney Hubbard Jr., was elected to the Missouri House, this district went east to west across a swath of near north St. Louis and the central corridor. This is the same part of town that first elected Penny Hubbard to the state House in 2010, which signaled that the Hubbards spent quite a bit of time and effort in politically cultivating that part of the city.
But after redistricting in 2011, Penny Hubbard competed in a district that went north to south – and included parts of St. Louis with vastly different demographics and political inclinations. You could see that vulnerability in Penny Hubbard’s 2012 re-election bid when her two Democratic opponents, Ruth Ehresman and Samuel Cummings, received more combined votes than she did in the 7th, 9th and 20th wards.
This time around, Franks won by enormous margins in those aforementioned wards. He also managed to only lose to Penny Hubbard in the 5th Ward (where that family has been based for years) by a small margin. And Franks won the small portions of the 3rd and 6th Wards that are in the 78th District without trouble.
Hubbard may have had an advantage in 2012 and 2014, because her main opponents were white and African-Americans make up a majority of the 78th District's population. More often than not, black candidates in St. Louis do better in districts with majority African-American populations. So it's fair to say that things changed dramatically when Penny Hubbard had to run against Franks, an African-American candidate who hails from a part of the district where she previously struggled.
“In 2012, we saw a couple of people run that were from close to that Downtown area. [Bruce] is the first candidate to run from directly in that South Side area around Cherokee Street – where there are plenty of great leaders,” said state Rep. Michael Butler, D-St. Louis. “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 South Side, more diverse politics that Bruce represents.”
Political dynasties have their downsides
If someone comes from a family of politicians, they start out with certain advantages. They’ll possess name recognition, an existing political organization and an advanced understanding of how politics works. And earlier this year, Rochelle Walton Gray and Steve Roberts Jr. were able to use those types of variables to their electoral advantage.
But dynasty politics also come with a big downside: The longer people in a political family are in positions of power, the most likely they are to alienate people and create political adversaries. Perhaps St. Louis Alderman Chris Carter, D-27th Ward, articulated this best before state Rep. Joshua Peters, D-St. Louis, handily defeated his father, Chris Carter Sr., in a 2014 Democratic primary.
“I remember when I first ran back in 2008 for state representative, my uncle [former Alderman Greg Carter] told me ‘Chris, watch out. Because you are going to inherit half of my friends and all of my enemies,'” Chris Carter said in 2014. “So it’s kind of a Catch 22 because you go up to some doors and people may love us. But then you go to another door and they hate us because of something that either I’ve done or Greg did or that my grandmother [former Sen. and Rep. Paula Carter] did. It’s not all peaches and cream.”
It's possible that what Carter described occurred in the special election. The Hubbards clearly built up a lot of goodwill in the 5th Ward with their political, professional and personal relationships. But a track record of taking controversial stances stoked spirited political opposition.
Speaking of which…
Broad coalitions win elections
As a backer of former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Franks was in effect running with other supporters of the Vermont senator who sought seats on the Democratic central committee during the August primary. It stands to reason that when Democratic voters in the 7th Ward or 9th Wards were voting for Marty Murray Jr. or Sara Johnson, in contested committeepeople races, they were also voting for Franks.
That gave Frank a good base going into the re-do election. Since the Franks-Hubbard race was the only thing on the ballot, all of the Sanders supporters (many of which are now part of a group called Mobilize Missouri) could devote all their energy to helping Franks. When that coalition expanded to include established political figures (like Butler, Alderman Antonio French, D-21st Ward, and state Rep.-elect Fred Wessels) with experience winning elections, Franks' campaign gained valuable and knowledgeable boots on the ground.
More than anything, Franks’ victory should provide a morale boost: When Hillary Clinton clinched the presidential nomination, many of Sanders’ Missouri supporters wanted to keep the energy of the primary season going by electing like-minded people to state and local offices. Franks’ win is tangible evidence of that strategy paying off in a Democratic primary. A greater test may be whether they can replicate that in a general election, such as a St. Charles County-based state representative race between state Rep. Chrissy Sommer, R-St. Charles, Democrat Michael Dorwart.
Political victories come in a circle, not a straight line
It would have been easy for state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal to get politically discouraged after 2014. That year, a few candidates in which she provided political and financial support lost contested Democratic primaries and general elections.
But the University City Democrat redoubled her efforts in 2016 to help other political contenders as she pursued her unsuccessful bid for Congress. Some of her supported allies lost. But others in competitive county, state legislative and local races prevailed. Franks became the latest Chappelle-Nadal-backed candidate to emerge victorious, which perhaps shows that political fortunes can change from election cycle to election cycle.
“A lot of people did not come out openly for Bruce,” said Chappelle-Nadal last Wednesday. “Just like in my race, people were scared to go against the Hubbards. I was one of those folks who said ‘I don’t care what your last name is. I don’t care how much money they have – we’re going to go through this Democratic process one way or another.’”
Besides Chappelle-Nadal, others political figures that backed Franks long before August 2 include Alderwomen Cara Spencer, D-20th Ward, and Christine Ingrassia, D-6th Ward. It’s worth noting that some traditional Hubbard allies, like St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, were mum in the run up to the special election. Franks said this week he was "happy that he stayed out of the race." "I asked a lot of people to stay out of the race," he said. "I wanted it to be a good old-fashioned fair fight in the middle of the street."
Still, this “circle not a line” adage should also provide solace to fans of the Hubbard family.
After all, Penny Hubbard’s first state representative victory came two years after Rodney Hubbard Jr. lost a close race for the state Senate. And that precedent shows that an experienced political organization can rebound from disappointment.
Sometimes, it’s all about the candidate
To be sure, district boundaries and political alliances are crucial parts to any election. But all of those things don’t mean much without a good candidate. And it's pretty clear from Franks' performance in the Aug. 2 and Sept. 16 elections that he was a very good candidate.
Franks had advantages from the start: He developed substantial professional and political ties to the 78th District through his political and anti-violence activism. And unlike other opponents who never formally challenged the Hubbards’ dominance in the absentee balloting arena, Franks was willing to fight in the courtroom to get a new election. In the process, he faciliated big changes to how St. Louis and St. Louis County administer absentee ballots.
There was plenty of evidence that politically active St. Louisans were genuinely excited about Franks’ candidacy: Look no further than his exuberant victory celebration at Yaqui’s on Cherokee Street, a place that was so packed some had to stand on chairs to get a good view of the victorious candidate.
“We had a community of people that was different,” Franks said on Friday. “No matter what your political views were. And no matter what your race was, your gender, your sexual orientation – everybody was on the same page. Because they felt like we needed something different. So you had somebody like a Fred Wessels next to people like a Michael Butler knocking doors. That’s what it’s about.”
“This is a victory for Ruth Ehresman,” he added. “This is a victory for [5th Ward Committeeman candidate Rasheen Aldridge]. This is a victory for [5th Ward Committeewoman candidate] Megan Betts. This is a victory for everybody who ran. Win or lose. Win or lose. Anybody who ran and stood up to the ‘machine?’ It’s a victory for all of us.”
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.
Follow Jason Rosenbaum on Twitter: @jrosenbaum