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Maida Coleman filing to challenge incumbent Francis Slay in mayor's race

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 23, 2008 - State Sen. Maida Coleman said Friday she would file papers to run in the Democratic primary for mayor of St. Louis by the 5 p.m. deadline.

Coleman, who told the Beacon in an exclusive interview last week that she planned to challenge Mayor Francis Slay's bid for a third term, said in a news release that she was seeking the post because she thinks the city needs new leadership on crime, education and what she called a "crisis of confidence."
 "Under the current administration," the statement said, "St. Louis has been named the most dangerous city in the U.S.  St. Louis Public Schools have been taken over by the state, jobs are disappearing in droves and the city has become more polarized than ever.  I believe St. Louis deserves a Mayor who wants to represent the whole community and not simply a small portion."

Besides Coleman and Slay, also on the Democratic ballot for the March 3 primary will be former Alderman Irene Smith. Winning the primary has traditionally meant winning the office of mayor in the overwhelmingly Democratic city.

Coleman was first elected to the Missouri House in 2000; a year later, she ran successfully for the 5th District Senate seat vacated by the death of Paula J. Carter. 

Political leaders willing to comment didn’t mention any problems with Coleman, but said Mayor Slay had done a good job and deserved to be re-elected.

Lyda Krewson, D-28th Ward, who supports Slay, said she saw nothing wrong with Coleman entering the race, and recalled that some people questioned Krewson’s own credentials when Krewson sought to become president of the Board of Aldermen.

“It’s her business to be in the race if she thinks she can do a better job,” Krewson said of Coleman. “That’s why most folks run and that’s democracy for us. I read some of the things she about why she’s going to run such as the state takeover of the school system.

“I think certainly those are big challenges facing us, but I don’t know that they’re solvable from the mayor’s office. You have to be in a position to control those things. I have a lot of respect for her and appreciate that she wants to be in public service.”

But Krewson said that economic conditions will make running the mayor’s office even more difficult, and that being the chief executive of St. Louis will be a lot tougher than being a state senator, the job that Coleman is leaving.

Krewson added that Slay had done a good job.

“We’ve had a lot of success under his leadership, but that’s not to say there isn’t still a lot left to be accomplished,” Krewson said.

Asked how the next mayor might bring people together, Krewson said, “Listen to all points of view, but I don’t have a real answer to that. If I were in that (mayor’s) seat, I’d talk about that a lot.”

Brian Wahby, head of Democratic Central Committee, says he’s backing Slay’s re-election. He says the committee itself takes no position on candidates during the primary but does support the Democratic victor in the primary. During the primary, he said individual committee members are free to vote for whomever they choose.

“I’ve known Maida Coleman from the very beginning of her political career, from the time she was a committeewoman to the state (Senate),” Wahby says. “But I’m strongly endorsing the re-election of Mayor Slay. I think he has done a fine job. He has political capital and is doing what’s right for the city. There is need for stable leadership in the city for the city to grow, and I think Mayor Slay is providing that leadership.”

UMSL political scientist Lana Stein thinks Coleman's candidacy is likely to make it easier for Slay to win a third term because the opposition would be split between Coleman and Smith and "there just isn't a really strong candidate in the field against him."

Stein notes that a recall effort against Slay among those who were angry at him over the controversy about Fire Chief Sherman George fell short, but the negative feelings may linger.

Overall, though, she says the sentiments about the incumbent run the gamut.

"There are people who are very strong Slay supporters," Stein said. "They think he's done a lot in housing and downtown and things are more vibrant -- at least they were until the economy plummeted.

"Others are against him for a variety of reasons, like the Barnes Hospital park lease and the Sherman George matter and an insensitivity to race."

The opposition, though, is not unified. "There are people who would say Slay is sort of good and other who would say he's sort of bad, but the alternatives would be worse."

On one of Coleman's main issues, the city schools, Stein said:

"The schools were a totally big mess. Some people attribute it to Slay and the reformers he put on the board. On the other hand, others would attribute it to the union. It's not an easy thing."

Stein said it will be difficult for Coleman to raise enough name awareness -- not to mention campaign funds -- in the two months before the primary. She noted that Slay was running for mayor for two years before he captured the office in 2001.

But, she said, the Coleman candidacy "could make a statement, if there was enough of a protest vote and if Slay's margin was smaller."

Overall, though, she said neither Slay's negatives nor the potential candidates against him are very strong.

"It's very strange to me that there aren't more viable candidates in the wings," Stein said. "I can't point to them. Maybe there is not as much talent as we would like to think there is, or at least not as much that is interested in running for office."

The Beacon sought comments from several other political and business leaders, including former mayors Vincent C. Schoemehl and Freeman Bosley Jr.; Comptroller Darlene Green and Aldermanic Board President Lewis Reed; and prominent businessmen Michael Roberts and Steven Roberts. All were unavailable for comment on Friday.

Earlier Beacon story:

State Sen. Maida Coleman said Tuesday she will file next week for the Democratic nomination for mayor of St. Louis, challenging incumbent Francis Slay's effort for a third term.

Coleman, whose career in the Legislature is being ended by term limits, said she will file on Jan. 2, the last day that candidates can get on the ballot for the March 3 primary. In addition to Slay, former Alderman Irene Smith has also filed for the Democratic nomination, which traditionally is tantamount to winning the election.

In an interview, Coleman acknowledged that she will start the race far behind Slay in terms of finances, but she said she will be able to raise the money she needs. She would not be specific about how much she feels her campaign will cost, adding:

"You need more than money to win an election. My race isn't about Francis Slay. My race is about the city of St. Louis.

"Folks really want to make St. Louis a better place to live. Unfortunately, there is so much dissension in this city, it has become so polarized under the lack of leadership under Francis Slay. That's a real disappointment to people who care about St. Louis."

Coleman said she would emphasize the need for the city to become friendlier to business. She also expressed disappointment at the state of the city schools and criticized Slay's education stance.

"I probably wouldn't even seriously have considered this race if the mayor hadn't destroyed our public school system," Coleman said. "First, he brought in the management company, the Roberti fiasco. And he ran slates of candidates for the School Board that were put in place to dismantle our school district.

"There was no community input, and the takeover of the St. Louis Public Schools by the state Board of Education really irks me. As a legislator and member of two education committees in the Missouri Senate, I knew St. Louis was not the worst school district in the state. It only became an issue when the mayor got involved in it, when it became a political issue instead of a children's issue."

In particular, Coleman criticized efforts to increase the number of students enrolled in charter schools in the city.

"You can't save some of the children by putting them into charter schools that have just as bad a record as the public schools have," she said. "You can't save the schools by pulling some children out and leaving the rest of them behind. Until there is a plan to educate all of our children, I can't be supportive of things that have been done in the past."

She also said she wants people in the city to "trust those of us who are in charge. There is way too much drama coming out of the Police Department. I want our citizens to have confidence in their police department, to once again believe in the leadership of the St. Louis Fire department. I want all of our citizens to feel they are being treated fairly."

In response to Coleman's intent to run, Jeff Rainford, who is running Slay's re-election campaign, said in an e-mail:

"St. Louis has become a far better place since Francis Slay became mayor. The city is cleaner, safer, and more fun. Downtown is coming back to life. Our neighborhoods are getting stronger. We have fewer auto thefts, burglaries, armed robberies, and assaults. We have more people, more development and less poverty.

"Mayor Slay is the first mayor in decades to spend any political effort to make better education for city children a priority. Because of the mayor's leadership, the city has expanded recreational and after school programs for kids; convinced local businesses to find summer jobs for teenagers; and expanded the supply, access to, and quality of early childhood education programs. Because of the mayor's attention, the public school district has had to face up to its failures and begin to improve; the state of Missouri has had to pay greater attention to the education of urban children; and city parents have been able to enroll their children in public charters schools that offer the promise of a quality education.

"Our City is making progress. Mayor Slay is changing St. Louis. But, change is not easy nor without its critics. If she decides to run, Ms. Coleman may appeal to those who hope to return to the old days, but I would bet that there are far fewer of them than Ms. Coleman expects."

Coleman acknowledged that with both Smith and her in the race, there is a danger of splitting the black vote. But, she added, "I'm not a candidate because I'm black. I have successfully led a senatorial district and previously been a state representative from south St. Louis.

"Irene will certainly be a factor to a small extent, but my strengths don't just lie in the fact that I'm African-American and all we're going to be seeking are African-American votes. One of things that everyone needs to consider is that this city will have the opportunity to elect its first female mayor."

One fact that often has come up in the past when Coleman's name was mentioned as a possible mayoral candidate was her personal bankruptcy. She was later sued by two lending agencies.

Coleman addressed the issue and said it could be as much of a strength as a negative.

"I filed bankruptcy in 1998 after being unemployed and becoming divorced," she said. "I think the fact that I had my bankruptcy dismissed and came back and paid off those bills is a great indication of the type of person I am.

"I know about doing without and I know about having to think long and hard about every dime that you spend and I know how to rescue my family out of a family crisis. With this housing crisis, there are great human beings who got caught in a situation that threatens their finances. I'm no different than they are. My story is a story of survival and success, and I think many people will be able to identify with that."

Coleman was first elected to the Missouri House in 2000; a year later, she ran successfully for the 5th District Senate seat vacated by the death of Paula J. Carter.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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