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Government, Politics & Issues

Will race play a role in primary? Candidates, activists aren't sure

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 2, 2012 - For months, Missouri Democrats – white and black – have talked publicly and privately about their concerns that race could play a major role in the battle between U.S. Reps. William Lacy Clay Jr. and Russ Carnahan over the 1st congressional seat.

So far, that doesn’t appear to have happened on a major scale, in part because Clay and Carnahan each have support from prominent black and white officials.

Both candidates lately also have made not-so-subtle appeals to black voters, from Clay’s new radio ad featuring a hip-hop tune sung by him and other prominent African Americans (including Olympic champion Jackie Joyner Kersee) to Carnahan’s scheduled stops Sunday at African-American churches.

But with the primary just days away, more attention is being paid to the question of whether voter turnout in that contest – black and white – could influence the outcome of other St. Louis races with black and white candidates.

As some see it, the trickle-down effect of the 1st District turnout could have a significant impact on how many posts currently held by black Democrats could become seats held by white Democrats.

Carnahan and some other Democrats predict a potential “trickle up’’ as well, with turnout for some combative lower-level contests having an impact in the Clay-Carnahan battle.

The city treasurer’s post, for example, has been held for 31 years by Larry Williams, who is African American. Of the four major Democrats battling to succeed him, two are black and two are white.

Since the new 1st District boundaries include all of St. Louis, all of the Democratic voters for treasurer are likely to vote for the 1st District as well.

Most of the major Democratic candidates for treasurer -- Jeffrey Boyd, Brian Wahby, Fred Wessels and Tishaura Jones -- say they haven't heard much racial talk, if any, about their contest.

St. Louis Alderman Shane Cohn, D-25th Ward, says that he’s hearing more buzz in his south side ward about the treasurer’s contest than the 1st congressional district.

The battles for treasurer and the 5th state Senate district, he says, “are probably going to bring out more voters to the polls” than the 1st congressional district.

And race, he asserted, will have little to do with it.

The Clay-Carnahan fight appears to be less about race, said Cohn, and more about “a family feud’’ between two prominent Democratic dynasties.

In the 5th District

State Sen. Robin Wright-Jones, D-St. Louis, went public with the racial issue last weekend when she asserted during a candidate forum that the three-way contest in the 5th state Senate district could result in a victory by a white candidate, state Sen. Jeanette Mott Oxford, if  the African-American vote is split by Wright-Jones and Rep. Jamilah Nasheed.

Wright-Jones noted that the seat had been held by an African-American for more than a decade.

Oxford says the racial angle weighed on her mind when she contemplated her bid, but that she decided it should be her qualifications – not her skin color – that determined whether she won.

Nasheed, in turn, has pointed out that she has the support of most of the top city officials who are white, including Mayor Francis Slay and Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce.

Nasheed also has emphasized that she has been campaigning in white parts of the district, paying close attention to the Bosnians and other immigrant groups wielding more political clout as they become citizens and eligible to vote.

Oxford, meanwhile, contends that discussion of Tuesday's vote, in terms of the voters’ race, is out of step with what she’s hearing from activists on all sides.

“It’s simplistic to say there’s a ‘black vote,’ “ Oxford said. Rather, "there’s a good amount of discussion about what is good representation.”

Clay, for example, is to begin running ads over the weekend that feature Slay touting the congressman as a regional leader.

Clay also appears to be mindful of the potential “trickle-up” impact.  As first reported by political blogger David Drebes, this week’s final pre-election campaign-finance reports indicate that some of Clay’s campaign money is being directed to certain legislative candidates, presumably to help their campaigns’ turnout operations.

Allies of Carnahan, in turn, note the recent public praise he has received from state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City.

Makal Ali, head of the African-American Business and Contractors Association, also has begun circulating a string of emails critical of Clay.

In an interview, Carnahan rejected the impact of race on his race with Clay. “The real story is how people are assessing this race based on records and issues,” he said. “They’re assessing this on who can do the most for the region.”

Low turnout predicted

Carnahan added he expected the vote tallies may show “a ‘bump’ in certain parts of the district” because of competitive lower-level contests. But for all the talk, he observed, “I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a low turnout.”

A low turnout is seen by many activists as helping Carnahan because some privately suspect that lower turnout in the 1st could signal fewer voters in African-American neighborhoods where residents often aren’t used to the internal Democratic battles on all levels that they’re seeing now.

Wright-Jones said she’s concerned that could end up being the case. “I think turnout is going to be the factor here” in several contests, she said. “Traditionally in the primary, we have a low turnout.”

Wright-Jones said that as she’s campaigning, she is running into a lot of people who seem unaware of Tuesday’s primary and the offices at stake.

“When we knock on doors,” she said, “People are concerned more about the presidential race than anything else.”

Treasurer candidate Jeffrey Boyd, the 22nd Ward alderman and an African American, observed that the racial issue has generated talk in the city’s predominantly black neighborhoods, as some black voters see the possibility that white candidates may capture posts now held by African-Americans.

But Boyd added that he doesn’t see racial politics playing as much of a role as he has seen in the past. Boyd pointed out, for example, that his major campaign supporters are racially diverse.

That said, Boyd observed that he doesn’t think the Carnahan-Clay contest -- for all the media attention -- will end up being the chief attraction for St. Louis voters on Tuesday.  

“I frankly see no enthusiasm in the 1st congressional district race,’’ he said. “Unless we set a fire under voters, I don’t think you’ll see a big turnout for the 1st congressional district.”

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