On the Trail: Younger aldermen starting to make changes at St. Louis City Hall | St. Louis Public Radio

On the Trail: Younger aldermen starting to make changes at St. Louis City Hall

Apr 26, 2015

On the Nine Network’s Stay Tuned a few weeks ago, I shared the oblong table with three members of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen.

Stay Tuned host Casey Nolen described the trio – Aldermen Jack Coatar, D-7th Ward, Cara Spencer, D-20th Ward, and Scott Ogilvie, D-24th Ward – as the vanguards of a City Hall youth movement. It was the type of designation that met Spencer’s approval.

“I love to be called young,” said Spencer, who upended Democrat Craig Schmid to represent the south-central ward on the Board. “I’m 36 now, so it’s certainly an honor to be considered young in any profession.”

Regardless, there’s been a noticeable influx of youthful politicos into the Board of Aldermen over the past few years – which isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. Back in the 1970s, the board received a youngish infusion with the arrival of pols like Milton Svetanics, Richard Gephardt, Vince Schoemehl, Virvus Jones, Mike Jones and Michael and Steven Roberts.

The recent election wins from aldermen like Coatar, Spencer, Ogilvie, and Megan Green, D-15th Ward, come as policymakers are trying to showcase the city as an attractive place for the younger generation. It’s a critical and perhaps difficult sales pitch, especially as the city’s population has declined over the years.

“I think that the biggest challenge that our board faces is the retention of our families,” said Green last October. “We have seen tremendous changes in our demographics over the last 10 years. A tremendous number of young families that have moved in and have kids – and those kids are approaching school age. And our number one issue is going to be retaining those families in the city.” 

Alderwoman Megan Green, D-15th Ward, pins flowers on Ben Murray.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

Other priorities for the newly elected aldermen include bolstering mass transit services, stamping out crime and vacant housing, and building on a recently passed civilian oversight board for the police department. Green said last week that the board’s younger members could bring “a different perspective to the table.”

“There are a few of us that are not only young, but we’re also transplants to St. Louis,” she said. “So we’ve had experiences in other cities that we’re hoping to bring to the board – just bring a new perspective.”

Spencer said the crop of younger aldermen could potentially band together on some issues – such as advocating for expansion of MetroLink.

“There are quite a few ‘progressives’ on the board now. But, I’m looking forward to working with everyone – whether or not I can say we can all be lumped together that’s yet to be seen,” Spencer said. “A project as big as the North-South MetroLink is something that we very much align with. So there are certainly going to be some issues that we very much agree with.”

Frayed at the edges?

In a subtle way, Spencer is touching on an important nuance. In a legislative body as factionalized as the Board of Aldermen, age is not necessarily a rallying point for unanimity.  

Spencer stands with Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed last week. The Board often divides itself based on support or opposition to Reed or St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

Case in point: During their Stay Tuned appearance, Ogilvie and Spencer raised questions about the necessity of building a riverfront football stadium. Coatar, whose ward includes Downtown St. Louis, was much more supportive of the proposal. 

It’s not that unusual for aldermen to divide up by support or opposition to Mayor Francis Slay, geography or race. And of course, unique neighborhood concerns can push aldermen into different directions.

“There are a lot of young people, but we do have very different world views and perspectives on things,” Coatar said. “But I think our age and the fact that we’re from very similar generations will naturally make us want to band together.”

So how will more seasoned members of the board react to the youth infusion? Alderman Steven Conway, D-8th Ward, may have provided a hint at trying to relate when he used the term “on fleek” while reading an excerpt from the Evening Whirl, which delighted younger colleagues such as Alderman Chris Carter, D-27th Ward. 

Alderman Tom Villa, D-11th Ward, right, talks with David Sweeney last week at the Board of Aldermen inauguration.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

Reed said he's particularly looking forward to how Spencer can handle business development along Cherokee Street. Spencer's predecessor -- Craig Schmid -- had a rocky relationship with some of the businessowners in that corridor.

"Cara, you look at her personality and everything – and how important Cherokee Street is," Reed said. "I think we’re going to see an explosion of new things happening around the Cherokee area. I think you’ll see new business growth coming." 

One of the Board’s most veteran veterans – Alderman Tom Villa, D-11th Ward – delivered a somewhat enthusiastic approval of the legislative trend.

“They appear to be very pleasant people,” said Villa, who served in the Missouri House and was Board of Aldermen president. “I think the St. Louis Board of Aldermen – and this is just my opinion – we’re not a think tank. We take care of people’s problems and usually those problems, in the big picture, are somewhat very local. Whether it be a new Dumpster or a tree being trimmed.”

“Having said that, in order for this city to make it, we’ve got to start thinking outside the box and looking at the bigger picture,” he added. “We’ve got a city where its population has been reduced by two-thirds. So, there’s plenty of room for young and energetic people.”

Room 200 shift

The youthful shift isn’t just relegated to the Board of Aldermen. A few months ago, Slay picked Mary Ellen Ponder to serve as chief of staff. He also promoted 29-year-old Patrick Brown to be his deputy chief of staff – signaling, in some respects, a generational shift to the mayor’s inner circle. 

Mary Ellen Ponder, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay's chief of staff
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

“That generational shift and focus on a younger voice in the mayor’s office has been there for quite a while,” Ponder said in a recent Politically Speaking podcast. “So you’ve seen things like the form based code or more focus on pedestrian and bicycle friendly policies. The no-smoking ban.”  

Ponder said Brown and she provide “a different perspective” of sorts from Jeff Rainford, who recently left being Slay’s chief of staff for the private sector. She quipped that she doesn’t claim her promotion brings “a different energy,” since “Jeff had so much energy – it was hard to contain.”

“The mayor has two children who are not children,” Ponder said. “They’re not far in age from me. They’re in his ear pretty frequently. Like I said, we’ve been in his ear for six years. He’s very much a willing partner. And he understands that bringing the younger or youngish population is what’s going to keep us moving forward and keeps us moving in the right direction.”

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.