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Government, Politics & Issues

Mayoral candidates see the same problems - but advocate different solutions

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 29, 2013 - On the key issues, the three Democrats competing for St. Louis mayor generally share the same views.

Crime is too high. Public schools need to be improved. Homelessness should  be addressed as a regional issue. The vacant property in north St. Louis needs to be redeveloped.

The differences among St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed and former Alderman Jimmie Matthews appear to center on how best to tackle such problems -- and whether improvements have been made during Slay’s 12-year tenure. 

That was the political portrait painted during Tuesday night’s forum before an overflow crowd at the St. Louis Public Library.

The St. Louis League of Women Voters, which moderated the event, estimated that at least 450 people showed up to listen the candidates, packing the auditorium and spilling over into two other rooms set up with closed-circuit TVs.

Green Party candidate James McNeely declined to participate, and there is no Republican contender, so the forum featured only the three Democrats competing in the March 5 primary.

Slay, who is seeking an unprecedented fourth term, portrayed himself as a mayor who has worked hard to make a difference. “I’m asking you to remember where we were 12 years ago,’’ he said, citing improvements in downtown St. Louis and elsewhere.

Slay cited the limited powers that the city charter gives a St. Louis mayor. ”Moral authority and persuasion are the mayor’s most important powers,’’ he said, adding that he offered the right temperament and "attention to detail'' needed for the job.

Reed, who has been aldermanic president since 2007, declared that “I know we can do better … St. Louis’ best days are in front of us, but we have to begin a new path.’’

Reed complained that the city has lost population and major corporations and that Lambert-St. Louis International Airport is "a shell of what it once was."

Matthews, who last served as an alderman in the 1980s, said that he could provide “a breath of fresh air.” His rivals, he contended, had failed to deliver.

At times, Matthews took on the role of comedy relief. He caught the audience's attention when he took aim at Reed, saying that he'd offered up "an excellent speech but with no substance."

Among the forum’s key topics, only crime touched off a true debate.

Slay cited the decline in the city’s crime rate over the past six years and praised the efforts of his administration and the city’s police. Reed accused Slay of trying to take credit for a national trend and contended that city police are demoralized because of a lack of resources.

Slay replied that police spending has gone up $53 million during his tenure, but that most of the additional money has had to go to the police pension system, which he said needed to be retooled if the city was going to be able to put more police on the streets.

Reed interrupted Slay a couple times to dispute his explanations but was told by the moderator to refrain from doing so. Reed said afterward that his interruptions were prompted by his passion on the issue, and he cited the shooting death of a brother in the 1980s.

“The first thing we have to do is admit we have a problem,’’ Reed said, adding that he didn’t feel safe on city streets.

Matthews told the crowd that most of the assailants were teenage youths and that more programs were needed to dissuade them from crime.

Other topics discussed during the forum included:

Public schools: The candidates agreed on the importance of strong public schools and after-school programs. Slay praised the expansion of charter schools and the performance of private and parochial schools. Reed warned that suburban schools were attracting the best city students, while Matthews said the cure was to “make our schools so great that folks can’t stay away.”

Homelessness: Reed and Slay agreed that the homelessness was a regional issue, with Slay observing that about half the people in the city’s homeless shelters were actually from around the region where there were few or no shelters. Matthews suggested that City Hall and some St. Louis schools be used to house homeless during cold spells, when no other shelter was available.

North side redevelopment: Slay said he supported the redevelopment efforts of Paul McKee, who has amassed large tracts of vacant land on the north side. Reed was concerned that McKee won’t complete his projects, leaving the city on the hook. Matthews disparaged McKee and contended the city would do better if it split the land up into “40 acres and a mule” – a reference to the Civil War promise to freed slaves.

City-county merger: Reed said that St. Louis should become part of St. Louis County only if the two are “equal partners.” He contended that some in the county were wary because the city was made up largely of Democrats. Slay said the best option was for the city to enter the county “as another municipality," a move that would eliminate redundant government costs for both parties, he said. The city’s attractions sought by the county, he added, included the airport and the Gateway Arch.

Matthews said he opposes any sort of merger, saying the result would be a local government that is too large.

Afterward, Slay said he believed he had gotten his chief points across. Reed said he still wants a real debate that features only him and Slay. Matthews said he was just glad to have been included in Tuesday’s event.

None of the three was clear as to when, or whether, they'll meet on stage again before March 5.

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