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Government, Politics & Issues

On the trail: Five things to watch for in Tuesday's mayoral primary

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: By Wednesday morning, St. Louis residents will have a pretty good idea of who the city's new mayor will be.

That’s because on Tuesday, city residents will vote in the Democratic primary for St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, St. Louis Aldermanic President President Lewis Reed or former Alderman Jimmie Matthews.

Tuesday’s primary is virtually certain to determine whether Slay becomes the city’s first chief executive to win a fourth four-year term. (The general election in April has no Republican challenger; the winner of the Democratic primary will go up against James Eldon McNeely of the Green Party.)

While Reed has been Slay’s most prominent challenger since 2001, Slay has maintained an overwhelming advantage in terms of money and endorsements. His campaign flooded the airwaves — and mailboxes — with material trumpeting Slay’s achievements and emphasizing Reed’s shortcomings.

Reed has stepped up attacks on Slay’s record in the last couple of weeks. But  he’s banking on an aggressive get-out-the-vote push in the waning hours of the campaign, a strategy he credits with propelling him to victory in 2007 over Aldermanic President Jim Shrewsbury.

Here are five things to look for in Tuesday's vote.

Will black voters turn out big again?

When U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, crushed U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, in last summer’s 1st Congressional District primary, it was largely because of the strong turnout among black voters — so strong, in fact, that it probably helped other black candidates further down the ballot.

One big question this time around is whether those voters will turn out again — and whom they will support. Will they back Reed, a resident of the Compton Heights neighborhood of south St. Louis? Or Slay, also a south-side resident, whom Clay endorsed?

Lana Stein, a retired University of Missouri-St. Louis political science professor and an expert on city politics, said a key consideration is whether "the black electorate really feels tied to Reed and will come out to vote for him."

But Reed may not replicate last summer's turnout, Stein said, because Clay possesses a stronger political organization. And in addition to Clay's endorsement, Slay has also been endorsed by other black political figures, including state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis.  

"When you get some pretty prominent black people endorsing Slay, it doesn’t help Reed," Stein said.

Alderman Antonio French — the 21st Ward alderman who is one of Reed’s strongest aldermanic supporters — doubts that Clay or Nasheed's backing will help Slay that much. He said that when Slay endorsed Clay and Nasheed last August, it "amounted to zero additional votes for them."

One potential wild card is Matthews. Will he draw votes away from Reed? It should be noted that Matthews fared poorly last year when he ran against Democrat Chris Carter in the 27th Ward aldermanic contest.

Can Reed make inroads in south St. Louis wards?

While turnout in north and central wards of the city is important, turnout in south St. Louis may spell the difference between victory and defeat.

Stein said Slay will need to have strong turnout in south St. Louis’ high-turnout areas, such as the 12th, 16th and 23rd wards. She said Slay, who lives in the city’s 12th Ward,  will also have to win votes in the city’s central corridor, which is home to many of the city’s more youthful residents.

Another potential wildcard: South St. Louis wards tend to be home to the city’s firefighters. Reed sided with the firefighters during a pension battle last year. While most labor unions are backing Slay this time around, Reed did nab the endorsement of International Association of Firefighters, Local 73.

If firefighters are energized over the pensions issue and come out to vote, it may help Reed right in Slay’s wheelhouse.

Will Republicans vote in Democratic primary?

Contrary to popular assumptions, Republicans do vote in significant numbers in the city of St. Louis. For instance, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney received more than 40 percent of the vote in the 16th Ward. And the 12th Ward had a Republican alderman until 2011.

With no GOP candidate running, Republican voters could vote in Democratic primary. If they do, they are likely to go for Slay, because Reed hasn’t done much to endear himself to Republican voters.

St. Louis mayor's race 2013

The Beacon kicked off its coverage of the St. Louis mayor's race with an overview of the race and profiles of the Democratic primary candidates: Incumbent Mayor Francis Slay, Aldermanic President Lewis Reed and former Alderman Jimmie Matthews.

The Beacon covered the "horse race," of course, but also the issues that have shaped both the campaign and the city: education, population decline, economic development, the police and crime, race, relations with St. Louis County, and health disparities, with an eye to what voters need to know.

One example: Reed has continually attacked Slay for taking "Republican money," a possible reference to hefty donations from prominent GOP donors such as financer Rex Sinquefield and Harbor Group founder Sam Fox. Missourians for Excellence in Government, a group bankrolled by Sinquefield, has given Slay's campaign $200,000 since Dec. 31, 2012. Fox gave Slay $45,000 throughout 2012.

(Reed received $60,000 from Sinquefield between 2009 to 2011, which likely helped him stave off potential primary opponents for re-election as aldermanic president.)

Whether those comments rile up GOP voters remains to be seen. Perhaps more notably, Stein pointed out that the city’s Republican voters have "been strong for Slay in the past." And if the race is close, GOP voters could be a decisive factor.

Are incumbent aldermen safe for four more years?

Seven of the 15 aldermanic seats up for election on Tuesday are contested. Some, including the 27th Ward battle between Chris Carter and Pamela Boyd, have become especially heated.

Figuring out which incumbents will be getting the boot can be tricky. But it does happen: Alderman Fred Heitert, R-12th Ward, and Alderman Bill Waterhouse, D-24th Ward, were defeated for re-election in 2011. French ousted an incumbent in 2009 to get elected to the board. Many these races have fairly low turnouts, so a 100-vote swing in either direction can be significant.

(One thing’s for sure: The 6th Ward will have a new alderman. That’s because that ward is electing a replacement for former Alderwoman Kacie Starr Triplett. Triplett stepped down to take a job working with behavioral health and homeless issues. Her new job is as a consultant with the nonprofit Behavioral Health Network of Greater St. Louis.)

There’s another reason the aldermanic races may be important, in addition to  determining the board's composition: With the exception of the south St. Louis-based 15th Ward, most contested races for aldermen are taking place in city’s north and central corridor wards. Those contests could increase turnout in parts of the city that Reed is banking on.

Does money matter?

There’s no question that Slay vastly outflanked Reed in terms of financial resources. That’s one reason Slay has stayed on network television while Reed has been relegated to cable.

Even Reed conceded at his kick-off event that he wouldn’t be able to match Slay’s financial prowess. And that probably leaves him at a disadvantage in trying to convince voters to oust an incumbent mayor.

Still, recently, some candidates — including city Treasurer Tishaura Jones and state Rep. Michael Butler — were able to defeat challengers who had more money. And Reed himself was also at a fiscal disadvantage when he defeated Shrewsbury in 2007. (Reed campaign manager Glenn Burleigh, by the way, ran Butler's successful state House bid.)

Still, Stein wonders whether Tuesday's election can match the excitement of last August’s primary. Compared to the highly charged battle between Clay and Carnahan or the rambunctious run for city treasurer, she said, the mayor’s race has had an almost "somnambulant" feel.

But even after Tuesday’s vote, voters won’t be completely out of the woods. That’s because they’ll be pushed back to the polls in April to vote on, among other things, a multi-faceted sales tax to fund area parks and the St. Louis Arch grounds.

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

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