On the surface, the scramble to be the president of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen may not seem significant to people that don’t live in the city.
But looks can be deceiving. The winner of the March 5 Democratic primary, assuming they get past a Green Party candidate in April, will make seismic decisions affecting the St. Louis region’s economy and quality of life. It will also show if the city will stick with an experienced incumbent or embrace a new political path.
The three major candidates — incumbent Lewis Reed, state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed and Alderwoman Megan Green — believe they possess the leadership and vision to take on the challenge ahead. That includes fighting poverty, crime and confronting a plan to merge St. Louis and St. Louis County next year.
Also looming large is discussions over finding a private operator for St. Louis Lambert International Airport. The result of this race could determine whether that process continues or fizzles.
As Board of Aldermen president, Reed is responsible for making appointments and referring bills to committees. He can also cast votes and introduce legislation. But perhaps the most important role is serving on the Board of Estimate and Apportionment, which also includes the mayor and comptroller. E&A is responsible for making major financial decisions for the city.
Reed has served as Board of Aldermen president since 2007, when, as a then-alderman from the 6th Ward, he ousted incumbent Jim Shrewsbury. Reed has run successfully for re-election twice against marginal opposition — and unsuccessfully twice for mayor in 2013 and 2017.
This time around, Reed is touting himself as an experienced voice at the table in trying to get St. Louis’ crime under control and bring economic development to distressed areas.
“I spent my time in public office working to usher in some of those changes,” Reed said. “I see now that we’re right here on the threshold of making some major change happen. So I’m looking forward to having an opportunity to begin that work.”
In particular, Reed wants to bring what’s known as Operation Ceasefire to St. Louis. That program seeks to prevent gun violence — which has become a major problem in many parts of the city.
“There is absolutely no reason for anybody from public safety or the police department or the public safety director has to listen to us at all,” said Reed, referring to how public safety is the mayor’s responsibility. “So that’s why building those relationships and partnerships are so key in terms of advancing some of these things.”
Nasheed has served in the Missouri General Assembly for more than 12 years, spending roughly six in each legislative chamber. She’s developed a reputation for being pragmatic but also willing to use the power of the filibuster to either kill or force changes to legislation.
“When you go north of Delmar, all you see is vacant and abandoned buildings. Block after block after block,” Nasheed said. “Children walking up and down the street, and all they see is hopelessness. So what I want to be able to do is make this city work for everyone across neighborhoods no matter the ZIP code. And I don’t think that we have that in the current president of Board of Aldermen now.”
She’s hoping to use her connections in Jefferson City to deliver policy change and resources to St. Louis.
“If I have the relationships now,” Nasheed said. “I will continue to have those relationships when I’m back home. And so I can go up there and lobby for the city of St. Louis and say, 'These are the things that we need.'”
Compared to Nasheed and Reed, Green is a relative newcomer to electoral politics. Between October 2014 and April 2017, Green has run three times to represent the 15th Ward, which covers parts of the Tower Grove South and Tower Grove East neighborhoods.
“I feel like the status quo in our city is not working,” Green said. “Our city, in order to move forward, desperately needs some different leadership at the top of the board.”
Green has been a vocal critic of some of the board’s decisions, especially when it came to providing public funding to sports stadiums. She’s seeking to curb development incentives and institute stricter ethics restrictions.
“I think with anybody you look for the places where you can reach consensus,” Green said. “And also recognize that there are times where consensus cannot be reached, and there is something moving forward that is hurtful to the city… then it’s my job to represent the will of the people who put me in office to fight like hell against those things.”
Also running for the position is Jimmie Matthews, a former aldermen who has unsuccessfully sought a multitude of offices in recent years. No Republican filed for the position.
The outcome of the race could have a major impact on whether a private company operates Lambert airport.
That’s because any proposal would have to go through the Board of Estimate and Apportionment. Comptroller Darlene Green has been a major critic of airport privatization, so a ‘no’ vote from the Board of Aldermen president would effectively kill any plan.
Reed is in favor of at least exploring the idea, especially if it brings more money to redevelop distressed parts of the city.
“It’s a safe political position just to say, ‘Guess what?' I would never support it. If I’m elected, it’s guaranteed that I’d kill it,’” Reed said. “Anybody who supports [combating homelessness and crime] should have a major problem with any candidate that says ‘under no certain terms will I work to kill an airport-privatization deal.’ Because that’s where we would get the revenue to be able to address the issues of mass unemployment.”
Both Nasheed and Green have been more hostile. Green, for instance, has pledged to vote against any plan on the Board of Estimate and Apportionment
“This process from day one has been flawed,” Green said. “It’s been fraught with conflicts of interests. It’s been not transparent. The ‘polling’ that’s happened or community engagement from Grow Missouri would not pass the muster of research methods that would be required to even complete my Ph.D.”
While Nasheed has said she wouldn’t automatically vote against airport privatization on the Board of Estimate and Apportionment, she did add she wouldn’t support any plan that doesn’t go to a public vote.
“I am skeptical, because it was flawed in the beginning,” Nasheed said.
In a campaign that’s seen its share of mudslinging and testy exchanges, one thing appears to unite the three candidates: Their opposition to a proposed city-county merger plan.
During a candidate forum in St. Louis last week, all three candidates said they do not support Better Together’s proposal. Perhaps the most significant misgiving is the fact that the measure is going to statewide voters, as opposed to only city and county residents.
“Can you imagine a situation where it fails in St. Louis City and St. Louis County but passes outstate?” Reed said.
If Better Together’s plan passes, the Board of Aldermen will disappear once 2022 ends. And the president of the new 33-person council will be elected internally, as opposed to a citywide election.
The candidates have somewhat different strategies to combat Better Together’s plan. Nasheed has introduced a competing constitutional amendment that would require any merger plan to get approval from city and county voters.
“We are tired of outstate dictating to us what we should and shouldn’t do when it comes to the city of St. Louis,” she said.
Both Green and Reed believe a better strategy may be convincing voters not to sign Better Together’s petition.
“And I think that’s what we’re going to have to figure out as a region, is how do we — especially in outstate Missouri — change the narrative, so this isn’t seen as something folks are willing to impose on the city?” Green said.
As the campaign hits the home stretch, all three candidates are trying to turn out key constituencies.
Reed has support from much of the aldermanic black caucus and officials in high-voting wards in southwest St. Louis. He’s also received backing from Mayor Lyda Krewson, as well as a number of labor unions.
Nasheed has received backing from a number of elected officials — including Treasurer Tishaura Jones and state Rep. Bruce Franks, D-St. Louis.
Green is banking on support from left-of-center activists and organizations that have done well in southern and central parts of the city. She recently received the endorsement from former state Rep. Fred Wessels, who served as 13th Ward alderman for roughly 30 years.
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