The bone-chilling streets of north St. Louis were largely empty last Friday night. An icy mist brought both automobile and foot traffic on Kingshighway to a halt, with the exception of a few cars and trucks – and a governor-elect.
On pavement that at times resembled an ice skating rink, Gov.-elect Eric Greitens walked methodically through the sidewalks and on the streets with a medium-sized scrum. The Republican chief executive-to-be was out with NightLIFE, a group seeking to curb violence in Fountain Park and Lewis Place neighborhoods.
Greitens made public safety a big part of his successful campaign, with an emphasis on vigorous support for law enforcement. But after he helped hand out blankets, bottled water and sandwiches to a man near a car, Greitens said the task at hand is about more than just arresting people and throwing them in jail. It’s about dealing with deep-seated deficiencies in education and economic development, and historical racial divisions.
“We have to make sure that these young people know that they have educational opportunities, that they have economic opportunities,” Greitens said. “And we do have to have leaders who are willing to make an effort to understand, to bring people together, to start to heal and bridge these divides so that we can make a difference. We have to do different than we’ve done in the past.”
As the first governor in decades to come into office after living in St. Louis, Greitens doesn't have to look that far to see the poverty and crime that afflict his city. Just after he won his election, his wife was the victim of an armed robbery. That event prompted him to declare "if we continue down our current path, it will continue to lead to more disorder, more lawlessness, more chaos, people living farther and farther apart from each other divided by fear."
Some political and religious leaders in this heavily Democratic city are willing to give the GOP official a chance. Others, though, feel Greitens’ status as a city dweller doesn’t matter as much as the policies he pursues.
From the city to the Capitol
Greitens is a St. Louis County native who moved to St. Louis in 2008 after serving in Iraq. When he defeated Democratic gubernatorial nominee Chris Koster, Greitens became the first St. Louis resident to win the governorship in decades. According to Missouri’s Blue Book the last St. Louis governor was Frederick Gardner, who served from 1917 to 1921. (It should be noted that other chief executives who served after Gardner, like Henry Caulfield and Forrest Donnell, had significant ties to the city.)
St. Louis is heavily Democratic – as evidenced by the fact that Greitens received only 16.3 percent of the vote in the city. But officeholders from St. Louis such as Sen. Jamilah Nasheed say Greitens may have a better understanding of St. Louis’ problems than people realize.
“I think wherever you live, you’re going to tend to have a soft spot in your heart for the area in which you stay,” said Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis. “I think when you have a governor from a certain geographic area, then they tend to get it in terms of what needs to be done and how they can better serve not just that area but the area as a whole throughout the state of Missouri. But I think there will be a soft spot for the city of St. Louis, which I think is a good thing.”
U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay said he has had a relationship with Greitens for years. The University City Democrat, who used to live in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood, said Greitens often helped explain the value of the military to young constituents who were interested in going to service academies.
Before he joined Greitens on the NightLIFE walk, Clay expressed optimism that he could work with the new governor. In answering questions from a crowd gathered at Wayman A.M.E. Church, the two promised to work together on economic development projects and drug treatment programs. They also heard from people whose family members had been shot and killed.
“Here’s what my philosophy has always been. Once an election is over, then it’s time for the winners to begin to do the hard work and work on behalf of the people whether they voted for you or not,” Clay said. “It seems to me that’s the way the governor-elect is approaching the task in front of him.”
Ken McKoy is pastor at Progressive Zion AME Church who helped found NightLIFE. Even though he said he was generally leery of politicians, McKoy developed a relationship with Greitens during the campaign – and was impressed by the then-candidate’s candor and willingness to help young people turn away from violence.
“I think that it is important that he is from St. Louis,” McKoy said. “The fact that he’s from St. Louis and has paid attention to what’s going on in St. Louis, he sort of understands the work that we’re doing and why we’re doing what we’re doing. So this is certainly a step in the right direction. I don’t want to put the cart before the horse. Right now, things are looking very, very good. And this is a new kind of relationship for us.”
One of the reasons for McKoy’s "cart before the horse" comment is that he possesses profound differences with Greitens on some issues.
That became pretty obvious before the men went out on the streets. McKoy challenged Greitens’ opposition to gun control, especially since he said it’s as easy to purchase an AR-15 or an AK-47 in parts of St. Louis “as going to the local confectionery and getting a bag of chips and some Now and Laters.”
“If you want to help me do what I’m doing, help me get these guns off the streets. You don’t need a military grade weapon,” McKoy said. “And you know what an AR-15 can do. And for those of you who don’t: Once that bullet hits you, it starts spinning. And it just starts tearing stuff up. It’s terrible thing to be shot at.”
In response, Greitens, who prominently showcased his advocacy for the Second Amendment during the primary campaign, contended stricter gun laws weren’t effective in other cities.
“When we look at the governors, the mayors and the community leaders who’ve been able to turn violence around in their communities, it actually starts by what we’re doing tonight,” Greitens said. “It starts by people going out on the streets, building relationships. In order to create peace in any neighborhood, we have to understand what’s going on. People have to be able to care for kids and work with kids.”
When Rev. Christine Stancil asked if he thought expanding Medicaid could be part of any violence-prevention effort, Greitens reiterated his opposition to such a move – citing high price tags in other states.
“The costs on Medicaid are running out of control,” Greitens said. “And what’s happening is those billions of dollars have to come from somewhere.”
As soon as Greitens finished that sentence, Stancil replied: “Maybe it could come from payday lenders who are ripping our community off. … Maybe they could pay their fair share.” (Greitens said “I appreciate that” before finishing his point contending that Medicaid expansion was unaffordable and didn’t lead to fewer emergency room visits.)
These exchanges hit on a key point: Even if Greitens understands the issues in Missouri’s big cities, it doesn’t mean he’s going to embrace policy positions that are popular with local elected officials or city residents. And even if Greitens did agree with expanding Medicaid or restricting firearms, those proposals wouldn’t gain a lot of traction in a Missouri General Assembly that Republicans dominate.
“Where you come from obviously shapes your background,” said Sen.-elect John Rizzo, D-Kansas City, last month. “But I think the decisions that the Republican Party makes is going to be made as a team between the House and the Senate and the governor’s office.”
Back on the frozen streets, Greitens said he isn’t surprised that St. Louis residents differ with his politics at times. But he added he’s willing to work with people who disagree with him – especially to deal with tough, St. Louis-centric issues.
“I’m ready to be a governor for every Missourian. I was elected by the people of Missouri to serve all of the people of Missouri as governor,” Greitens said. “And I recognize that there are going to be good, strong people who disagree with me on particular issues. But what I’m committed to doing is to find ways that we can work together, find common ground and make progress.”
Greitens added that building relationships with community leaders like McKoy is crucial.
“I think what we all need to do as leaders when we look at problems of violence in our cities is that first we need to go to the front lines,” Greitens said. “We have to go and we have to listen to, we have to learn from people like Rev. McKoy who are out here saving lives. Rev. McKoy’s own son was shot four times. And he has dealt with lots of families, lots of survivors of violence. And he knows people on the streets. We have to have leaders who are willing to go to the front lines, meet with people, work with them, understand them, figure out what works.”
“For us to turn this around, there is a role that police have to play,” he added. “There’s a role that community leaders that are reverends have to play. There’s a role that our teachers have to play. There’s a role that our companies have to play. And there’s a role that I have to play as governor.”
For his part, McKoy said “I’m very committed to the work that we’re doing in terms of curbing and even ending the violence in these communities where we’re working.” And if Greitens can assist his cause in some kind of way, he said he’s “excited about that possibility.”
He went onto say that fighting violence, though, will take more than just a stronger policy presence. It will take hunkering down and formulating the right type of public policy.
“You have all these social and other issues that literally become an incubator for the kind of crime that we’re seeing,” McKoy said. “So no, we don’t favor stronger police or even a greater police presence. We favor investing in these communities and investing in the people. The best case scenario: If you have the best police force in the world, it’s going to take all of us to turn this thing around.”
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.
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