No floor filibusters, no threats to urinate in a bucket … and no city wards moved across town | St. Louis Public Radio

No floor filibusters, no threats to urinate in a bucket … and no city wards moved across town

Jun 21, 2011

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 21, 2011 - Ten years after the last redistricting battle put St. Louis reluctantly in the national spotlight, this year's redrawing of boundary lines for St. Louis' 28 wards already is known best for what it is not. St. Louis Board of Aldermen president Lewis Reed predicted that the full board will first vote on a proposed map on June 30, and he expects little fanfare. An aldermanic panel unanimously approved a proposed map last Friday.

Declared an ecstatic city Democratic Party chairman, Brian Wahby: "This is a map everybody can live with."

The peaceful process at City Hall contrasts with the contentious congressional redistricting in Jefferson City this spring, fueled by the state's loss of a congressional seat. There are also threats of discord simmering under the surface of the legislative redistricting now underway to draw new boundary lines for the state House and Senate.

In St. Louis, Reed credits a commitment by all the participants to focusing on consensus instead of controversy.

He lauded the chiefs of the aldermanic committee -- Aldermen Phyllis Young and Terry Kennedy -- with squiring a process that involved keeping in the loop all 28 aldermen and key constituency groups, such as neighborhood associations.

Reed's instruction to the leaders, regarding their fellow aldermen, was simple: "Keep them engaged, keep them involved, and don't surprise them."

Past Redistricting Fights Often Intense

Redistricting battles among city aldermen can be particularly intense, even though the board is generally all Democratic (as it is now) or close to it (as it was in 2001).

In 1981, for example, a majority of St. Louis aldermen voted for a plan that moved the 25th Ward -- then the ward covering the bulk of the Central West End -- deep into south St. Louis.

The primary reason had nothing to do with population shifts. Rather, the 25th Ward's Democratic alderman at the time -- David Pentland -- was being punished because he had publicly endorsed the idea of reducing the size of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen.

In 2001, population shifts were cited as the reason the new map called for moving the 20th Ward from north St. Louis to the near south side. The 20th Ward alderman at the time, Democrat Sharon Tyus, claimed she was being punished for various stances she had taken.

The 10th Ward, then extending along the Mississippi River in south St. Louis, was moved to the Hill --presumably to make room for the 20th.

Tyus' ally -- then-Alderman Irene Smith -- helped lead a filibuster against the 2001 map. When she was told that if she left to go to the ladies' room, the filibuster would end, Smith at one point threatened to use a bucket (she was surrounded by friends holding up a cloth barrier to block any view). She maintained later that she never actually urinated.

In any case, the incident gained national attention.

Reed attributes the 2001 fight, in part, to the philosophy of some city officials in the past to engage in redistricting negotiations only until they had the necessary 15 guaranteed votes -- often from friends -- to approve a map. "They then forgot about everybody else,'' he said.

Sacrificing Boundaries to Save a Ward

This time, Reed said that all aldermen were interviewed, as part of the remapping process, and all key groups were consulted. Reed contends that the upshot was that aldermen were open to compromise, and necessary boundary shifts they might not like, because they were participants in it.

Overall, the 2010 census showed that St. Louis had lost close to 30,000 over the past decade. While officials lament the loss, most also note that that's the city's smallest census population decline in 50 years.

A sizable chunk of the decline was in north St. Louis, reflecting the fact that the city has seen more African-Americans move out than whites. As a result, the 2010 census also saw a decline in the city's percentage of African-American residents.

Reed noted that other parts of the city also saw population drops, such as the 8th Ward on the city's near south side. The most dramatic population gains were in downtown St. Louis and nearby, spanning the 5th, 6th, 7th and 19th wards.

He and aldermen agreed that the best plan was to shift the boundaries of most wards southward, while taking care to preserve the same number of predominantly African-American wards. Reed believes that was achieved.

But such deals don't mean all is rosy.

Last Friday, an aldermanic panel unanimously approved the revised map. But since then, "tweaks'' are already being made, in response to aldermanic concerns and apparent computer glitches, Reed said. There's also concerns that the population variances between some districts may be too great, which could invite potential court challenges.

As a result, at the June 30 meeting, a slightly revised map is expected to be introduced.

But Reed promises, there will be no surprises.

St. Louis County Council is Next

Monday marked the first meeting of the 14-member commission appointed by St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley to draw new boundaries for the county's seven council seats. Because of deadlocks, judges ended up drawing the council lines after the last three censuses in 1980, 1990 and 2000.

County officials remain hopeful that, as in the city, this time may be different.