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Government, Politics & Issues

With rough seas ahead, St. Louis voters soon to elect new navigator

Logo for 2017 St. Louis election coverage
Graphic by David Kovaluk
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St. Louis Public Radio

Most of the candidates vying to become St. Louis' first new mayor in 16 years are focusing on the city’s problems more than its successes.

Their forums frequently discuss the 253-year-old city's long-lasting crime and race issues, or how best to improve the city’s neighborhoods and bolster downtown. 

With 12 candidates from four political parties, St. Louis residents are sifting through a smorgasbord of choices to replace Mayor Francis Slay, who’s been in office since 2001 and is the city’s longest-serving mayor.

They're also deciding who's best to steer the city through rough seas. As former St. Louis Board of Alderman President Jim Shrewsbury puts it: “We’re like an old boat, a big ship, taking on water."

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“We’ve patched the hole, and we get the pumps working, and we pumped the water out," he said. "And then another leak occurs … And while we’re working on the third leak, the pumps go out.”

St. Louis voters are predominantly Democratic, which puts emphasis on the seven Democrats competing in the March 7 primary: City Treasurer Tishaura Jones, Board of Alderman President Lewis Reed and Aldermen Jeffrey Boyd, Antonio French and Lyda Krewson. Also running are former Alderman Jimmie Matthews and school board member Bill Haas.

The victor will compete against a Republican, a Libertarian and Green Party candidate in April's general election. 

Because Missouri allows open primaries, it’s expected that some non-Democrats — particularly Republicans — will cross party lines come March.

City voters are actively engaged, as shown by the crowd at a recent candidate forum at the Saint Louis University, where organizers had to turn away some people when more than 1,500 showed up.

The standing-room crowd listened closely as the contenders sparred over guns, race relations and a possible city-county merger.

Pension costs among city’s financial headaches

But on top of the usual concerns, some political veterans are calling for voters to pay more attention to other issues, chief among them money.

“The loss of population and the loss of general revenue denies us the opportunity to have the resources to solve our problems, at the same time that these problems are getting greater," Shrewsbury said.

Federal census figures show St. Louis has lost about 64 percent of its population since 1950, when it peaked at 856,796. The 2015 population estimate was 315,685. 

City budget director Paul Payne says the new mayor will likely confront a $20 million shortfall in the next budget. That’s because the city’s income has failed to keep up with its increased expenses.

Pensions are consuming much of the annual income increases. As it stands, there are more city government retirees and beneficiaries than there are city workers, largely due in part to job cuts. 

No mayoral candidate has called for pension changes, and few even mention the issue. 

Public safety a top issue for all 

The uptick in violent crimes has prompted city residents and businesses to call for more police. Others want stricter oversight of law enforcement.

Kim Robinson is a teacher who grew up in West County and now lives in St. Louis.

“I’m not used to hearing all the gunshots. That’s new for me since I moved to the city,” Gardner said. “I don’t know what the mayor, you know, can do about that.”

Many of the city’s business leaders share the sentiment.

Joe Reagan, chief executive for the St. Louis Regional Chamber, says he recognizes that addressing public safety and crime is complicated, and not all of the factors are under the control of  City Hall. But, he said, the new mayor can play a strategic role.

“The mayor is the person that brings the community together. And the mayor is the person who sets the tone for solutions," Reagan said.

Tom Irwin leads Civic Progress, which is made up of the chief executives of the region’s 32 largest companies, many of which are in the city of St. Louis. He points out that the "new urbanism" movement means public safety is key.

“ ... (Y)ou’re starting to see people come back, but when they come back, they do expect the same things as folks who live in suburbs," he said. "They expect to be safe. They want to walk their dogs. They want to take their kids out. They don’t want to be victims.”

New approach needed?

Former Mayor Vince Schoemehl, who served three terms from 1981-93, says many of the city's problems aren't new. He also dealt with public safety issues and slashed the city’s workforce by more than half during his tenure.

Schoemehl also oversaw a development boom downtown, which included construction of the convention center and the Edwards Jones Dome, restoration and expansion of Union Center and the creation of both the now-defunct downtown mall known as St. Louis Centre and what’s now the Scottrade Center. 

What’s changed since the 1980s, Schoemehl said, is that population shifts and other factors have lessened St. Louis' regional influence.

Schoemehl said the current crop of city officials and civic leaders deserve praise for confronting longstanding problems.

“I think some of the key roads to progress have been identified,” Schoemehl said. “But they still need to be paved and executed.”

Others, including former alderman Mike Jones, advocate a new path. 

“The problem with St. Louis is St. Louis is a symphonic town, or a classical music town, in a jazz world,” he said. “Jazz is about improvisation and change. Classical music is about playing it the same way, every time.”

What the city needs in its next mayor, Jones said, is someone who’s skilled in composing a new direction and can persuade the public to embrace it.

"That person is going to have to have a sense of history and understanding about cities, civilization and human development,'' Jones said. 

The next mayor also needs "navigational skills," he added, as St. Louis travels through the uncharted waters of the 21st century.

Follow Jo on Twitter: @jmannies

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