When Pasadena Hills Mayor Geno Salvati met with this reporter in April at the Ferguson Brewing Co., it was months before Ferguson became internationally known -- or turned into a hashtag.
Salvati spent the lunch hour talking about uphill attempts to pare down the number of St. Louis County’s municipalities. Between sips of the restaurant’s Oatmeal Stout beer, Salvati made it clear he was not a usual politician. He’s a computer programmer who did some IT-related work for his city before running for office.
When Pasadena Hills’ previous mayor decided against running for re-election, Salvati ran -- a decision spurred not by a desire for power or prestige but the simple fact that nobody else had signed up for the job.
“When I talked with the election board about what happens when nobody signs up to run for mayor, it was kind of a messy situation. It was all write-in and people could be elected mayor even if they didn’t really want to be mayor,” Salvati said in April. “That’s what prompted me to run.”
Considering all the available mayorships, city council seats and other offices in St. Louis County’s 90 municipalities, it's not that uncommon to find lots of people running unopposed in municipal elections.
That lack of participation gained more attention after Michael Brown’s death prompted a closer examination of Ferguson’s government. Many have noted the city’s dismal turnout in the last municipal election – a turnout influenced in part by the fact that Ferguson's mayor didn’t have an opponent.
It’s not just Ferguson, though. Local elected offices aren’t exactly cushy jobs especially since they offer little pay and attract heavy scrutiny. Still they’re often the elected positions that directly affect ordinary people the most.
“The things that get people interested in running for government or paying attention to their municipal government is either when something goes horribly wrong – such as the tragic situation in Ferguson – or when the government makes a decision, most often a zoning decision, that the citizens disagree” with, said Terry Jones, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “They don’t think that fits with what their community is all about.”
Knocking on the door
In the most recent April election, more than 65 percent of the races for local offices in St. Louis County were uncontested. That includes the race which Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III won without opposition. That percentage goes up to about 68 percent if contests with a qualified write-in candidate aren’t included in the final tally.
In a few cities in St. Louis County, such as Wildwood, Glen Echo Park and Wilbur Park, certain municipal offices had no filed candidates so the contest became a write-in election – the exact scenario Salvati had feared when he ran for mayor.
Things weren't that much different in earlier election cycles. If races with qualified write-in candidates are counted as opposed elections, about 63 percent of the county's municipal elections were uncontested in 2013. Roughly 64 percent of the electoral contests were uncontested in 2012.
During a forum in Ferguson organized by St. Louis Public Radio, Rita Days – the Democratic director for the St. Louis County Board of Elections – said it was “appalling that we have people who consider only the presidential election as important.”
She continued, “It takes money to run for office. It takes a collective compassion to run for office and put yourself out there. And I’m not sure a lot of people are willing to do that.”
Ferguson Township Democratic Committeewoman Patricia Bynes said one reason people don’t run for local offices is the sheer number of municipalities. With the county's 90 towns and cities, she said, it means “you’re spreading out a lot of talent and looking to fill in places in a lot of different seats.”
The other problem, she said, is the office isn’t exactly glamorous. She noted how she had to raise money and actively campaign in 2012 for her unpaid committeewoman position.
“You almost have to be crazy,” Bynes said. “You’re going to be criticized. You’re going to be talked about. And this is all in your spare time because you have to have a full-time job."
Most local officials keep their day jobs because St. Louis County’s municipal positions don’t pay very well. It’s another reason people aren’t that interested in running for office themselves.
That includes Rick Canamore, a Normandy resident demonstrating earlier this month across the street from the Ferguson Police Department.
“I haven’t,” said Canamore when asked if he thought about running for an elected position in his city. “Mainly because, I mean, they don’t pay a lot of money for one thing. And I just never thought about it.”
Ferguson resident Jeff Johnson was protesting with Canamore. He said his reason for not seeking office is more philosophical. He said he doesn’t want to be a part of what he calls a “corrupt system” where elected officials are removed from every day problems.
“Once you get to a certain position, you forget how it is out there for real,” Johnson said. “Because you don’t have to deal with everything out here that a normal, everyday person would have to deal with."
Not everyone feels that way. For instance, last week’s Ferguson City Council meeting drew hundreds of people – including a few who promised to help oust or run against the mayor or various council members.
Jones, the political science professor from UMSL, said it’s not uncommon for people to seek local office when something goes wrong like it did in Ferguson. But more often than not, people run for local offices to solve very specific problems – like fixing potholes or making city services better.
“And once they get there and maybe do solve that problem, they get fascinated by the rest of the business,” Jones said. “The other people really have a sense of community dedication and involvement and like the work. Because you have to like it, because you’re not getting paid much for it.”
Many who spoke during the council meeting’s public forum were determined to change the fact the city council is overwhelmingly white, even though Ferguson has a majority black population. Bynes said before the city council meeting that “it is very hard to recruit candidates for office, especially in the black community. Because honestly, so much of the politics is race based.”
“It’s unfortunate that people automatically assume that if you’re black, you’re going to get the black vote and to think that white people won’t vote for you," said Bynes. "It’s extremely insulting. So a lot of black people, we’d rather not deal with that. Because we are dealing with race issues in our every day life whatsoever. But when you’re in politics, it brings the race issues to the table more often than when you deal with it in your regular life.”
St. Louis Alderman Antonio French – who recently opened up an office in Ferguson aimed at increasing local electoral participation – told St. Louis Public Radio “a lot of the people that have the knowledge and experience that people need to run for office aren’t very likely to share it.” (Bynes and others have quarreled with French over his presence in Ferguson.)
“Ultimately what elections are about – and this is what young people need to understand – elections are about power,” French said. “And very few people give away power. You have to claim it. And so, what we want is for folks out here in Ferguson and then the greater St. Louis region to claim their power.”
Bynes said getting more people interested in running for office involves basic education on how cities and towns function. Voter education, she said, “is not just who to vote for but it’s how government works.”
French said one of the ways to get people more enthused about running for office is to “make them more attractive." He said “folks roll their eyes at the thought of increasing politicians’ pay,” but added “in many cases, you do get what you pay for.”
“The public should make these jobs more attractive for a more diverse group of people to be able to take them,” French said. “And so, if you have these super-low-pay mayor jobs out here in north county, then it’s only attractive to people who are either independently wealthy. It’s not attractive for a poor person to take.”
'A very bad situation'
A few months after our first conversation, Salvati and this reporter returned to the Ferguson Brewing Co. He and other mayors in north county have been monitoring the violence in Ferguson closely, especially since the city isn’t that far away from Pasadena Hills.
When asked about the many uncontested elections for St. Louis County municipal offices, Salvati said, "If the city is running smoothly, there may be circumstances where there’s a certain level of trust with whoever the elected official is and then maybe … no one is passionate about opposing them."
He said he wonders if the intense criticism directed at Ferguson’s mayor and city council members could make others hesitant to seek municipal offices.
Salvati is up for re-election next April. If chooses to seek another term, he’ll know pretty soon whether somebody will run against him. He said people like him have a duty to run for office to make their communities better.
“My impression of the people that I know from the Ferguson City Council and the mayor is these are people who have real public service idea about what they’re doing,” he said. “The current situation may make it very difficult for them to accomplish a lot.
“Everybody who’s on our council and myself included, everyone of us have a love for the city,” he added. “And we wouldn’t do it for any other reason.”