On paper, Megan Ellyia Green should have been the underdog in last week’s 15th Ward election.
After Missy Pinkerton-McDaniel snagged the Democratic nomination in the race to succeed Jennifer Florida in the south St. Louis ward, Green decided to run as an independent. Given recent history, she didn’t face particularly good odds of winning a city that almost reflexively elects identified Democrats.
But Green didn’t just break precedent — she demolished it. In a four-person race, she won last week’s election with 46 percent of the vote. Fellow independent candidate Rhonda Smythe came in second. It indicated that 15th Ward voters were willing to put aside party affiliation in deciding Florida’s successor.
"The real takeaway is I don't think anybody should be entitled to a position — there shouldn't just be a rubber stamp on who receives a nomination," Green said. "Elections matter. And we have to make sure that they're contested and we have a good, informed dialogue to really bring out the candidate that's going to represent whatever constituent base the best."
It should be noted that Green — who has been active in Democratic politics for years — would have run in a Democratic primary if she weren’t competing in a special election. But the entire episode may prompt a deeper question: Why are elections for St. Louis offices partisan anyway?
After all, the actual job of an alderman — or, for that matter, the city’s recorder of deeds or license collector — is not overtly partisan. Most bills filed throughout the board have to do with nuts and bolts constituent services, such as putting a stop sign on a road or redeveloping property.
“A lot of cities have nonpartisan elections at the local level. And I think that would make sense here,” said Alderman Scott Ogilvie, who is the only independent member of the board.
“The benefit is it makes more people interested in running. Because these jobs are not partisan jobs. At the local level, you don’t deal with the ideological issues that national-level parties deal with. So you tend to exclude people who might just be more focused on service delivery or local policy.”
Indeed, Kansas City has held nonpartisan elections for years — as do most other cities throughout Missouri. A change to a nonpartisan model would ostensibly open municipal elections to, say, Republicans or members of the Green Party. Right now, St. Louis residents who vote for those parties on a national level cast ballots in largely fruitless municipal primaries, although city Republicans might vote in Democratic primaries for mayor and aldermen anyway.
“Making an open primary that lets everybody regardless of party affiliation come vote for the same candidates means everybody gets to participate in that electoral process,” Ogilvie said. “Right now, quite frankly, we are excluding some people who would tend to vote in Republican primaries. They’re not really able to participate on whom we choose for aldermen.
“When you’ve got basically a one-party system — which is what we have now — you might as well have a no-party system and put everybody on the same ballot,” he added.
But as Ogilvie mentioned, making city elections nonpartisan could give candidates who aren’t Democrats a better chance of winning. Richard Berkley, for instance, was a Republican who served as Kansas City’s mayor for 12 years. Closer to home, James Knowles III — who has long been active in Republican politics — was elected as Ferguson’s mayor twice.
During an interview in April, Knowles threw out the idea of making elections of a merged St. Louis-St. Louis County nonpartisan. He said it was “kind of silly to have” partisan elections “where all we should be worried about is economic development and health and human services.”
“Why do we have political parties for that? I mean, it’s absurd,” Knowles said. “If somebody were to look at me and say ‘I want to meet James Knowles. Wait, he’s a Republican!’ And then instead of meeting James Knowles, we spend the entire time debating the [Affordable Care Act] or Mitch McConnell or some other ridiculous national Republican thing. If we’re talking about streets or safety and municipal issues, then let’s talk about that.”
Don’t hold your breath?
Green herself isn’t in favor of doing away with partisan elections for city offices. And, in fact, both Green and Ogilvie are planning to run next year in Democratic primaries for their respective seats.
During an episode of the Politically Speaking podcast, she said the main reason she ran as an independent was because she didn’t have the opportunity to participate in a traditional Democratic primary.
“That primary allows for most of the discussion that took place in my special election to happen during that primary,” Green said. “So I’m not sure that we really need to talk about eliminating those parties. But it does make sense to at least have the discussion.”
Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed, who backed Green in the primary, also expressed wariness about ditching partisan elections.
“The party system gives people an opportunity to understand, kind of loosely, what core values that candidate should or is professing to embody,” Reed said. “And in this case, Megan is a little bit different. Megan is currently the vice president of the Democratic Ward organization. She’s volunteered on campaigns. She was one of my volunteers. I’ve known her for years. She’s a great friend. And a hard worker. She was on Obama for America’s campaign.”
“So she had the Democratic credentials,” Reed said. “She no choice but to run as a independent because of the way the party system works.”
Alderwoman Beth Murphy, a 13th Ward Democrat who recently won a special election to the Board of Aldermen, echoed Reed’s sentiments. When she sought the Democratic nomination for the seat, she netted the endorsement of 13th Ward Committeeman Michael Dauphin. The city’s Democratic Central Committee ultimately decides on the nominee, but traditionally the committee acquiesces to whomever the ward committeepeople favor. (Murphy was serving as the 13th Ward's Democratic committeewoman at the time and had been active in volunteering throughout the ward for years.)
She told St. Louis Public Radio the party system allows voters to know “where the candidate is going.”
“We do policy — not necessarily with the stop signs issues or whatever. But we do as far as who’s going to build what. Is it going to be staffed by union people when something is built or not?” Murphy said. “Those are the kind of things that concern me. I believe the Democratic Party is important for the worker.”
“If you call yourself a Democrat or are a Democrat, your cards on the table,” she added. “And if you run in a nonpartisan election, we never really know until perhaps it’s too late.”
To be clear, it’s not likely that partisan elections in the city are going away anytime soon. That would almost certainly require wholesale changes to the city’s charter, which would require a citywide vote. And Democratic officials wouldn't sit on the sidelines on an effort that could greatly reduce their influence.
For Green’s part, she’s hoping her win shakes up the idea that a slated candidate should always win: “My end all, be all result -— I want to see good candidates elected.”
“And if that means that we do nonpartisan elections, great. If that means we keep the party system, great. What I want to see is high-quality people that feel like they can go into public service. That they can run for office and that they can win,” she said. “We need to support that whether that’s through the party system or not.”
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.