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St. Louis Progressives Aim To ‘Flip the Board’ For A New Majority

Anne Schweitzer Sheldrick Kelley Bill Stephens Tina Pihl Flip the Board
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From left, candidates Anne Schweitzer, Shedrick Kelley and Bill Stephens hope to take down incumbents on the St. Louis Board of Aldermen. Tina Pihl, far right, is part of the same slate and seeks the open seat now represented by 17th Ward Alderman Joe Roddy.

Progressives celebrated when Lewis Reed was knocked out of the St. Louis mayor’s race in the March 2 primary. Reed had the backing of the Democratic Party establishment and the St. Louis Police Officers Association — groups that formed the backbone of support for Mayors Francis Slay and Lyda Krewson. That he lost, while progressive favorites Cara Spencer and Tishaura Jones advanced to duke it out in the general election, suggested a new day in St. Louis politics.

But whichever candidate is elected mayor April 6 will still have the Democratic establishment to contend with. Lewis Reed has been president of the Board of Aldermen since 2007. He has no plans to leave.

Some progressives still see clear opportunity. Led by 15th Ward Alderwoman Megan Ellyia Green, they’ve announced intentions to “flip the board,” noting that gaining just a handful of seats on the 28-member board would be enough to change the balance of power in a body where decisions often come down to a vote or two.

“So long have decisions been held up, or have not gone a certain direction, not to the will of the people, because of disagreements,” explained Shedrick Kelley, who is challenging 7th Ward Alderman Jack Coatar. “We want to move the needle in the right direction, in the more progressive direction, for the people, the citizens of St. Louis.”

“It’s all about building coalitions,” added Anne Schweitzer, who is challenging 13th Ward Alderwoman Beth Murphy. “People are doing that, and we’re trying to do that at the board, too.”

Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air featured Schweitzer and Kelley, who are running on a slate that includes Tina Pihl (17th Ward) and Bill Stephens (12th Ward). The show also featured analysis from St. Louis Public Radio reporter Rachel Lippmann and pre-taped remarks from 13th Ward Alderwoman Beth Murphy, who hopes to fend off Schweitzer’s challenge.

Building a progressive coalition will take more than just a seat or two. Lippmann noted that the board’s 15-14 vote to bring aerial surveillance to the city came despite both Coatar and Murphy voting “no.” (The plan has since hit roadblocks and appears dead, now that the two remaining mayoral contenders are opposed.)

“You flip some other seats, and you’d have that ability [to stop the aerial surveillance plan],” Lippmann said. “Vicky Grass, for example, who’s being targeted in the 12th Ward. If you flip her seat, then maybe you flip on that issue.

“But what I think is key to remember is that these boundaries are very fluid. There is a caucus and a core group of progressives on the board, but they don’t always go in the same way. Those 14, 15 votes could look very different on another issue.”

Both Kelley and Schweitzer identified public safety as the biggest issue they’d seek to tackle if elected. But they suggested they’d approach it by addressing its root causes.

“We acknowledge the role of the traditional methods of public safety while also acknowledging that nothing is going to change if all we focus on is policing — and other ways to watch people and track people down — as opposed to tracking people down at the very beginning, and paying attention to kids, and schools and funding for our schools and opportunities for our youth,” Schweitzer explained.

Lippmann noted that more establishment-minded aldermen don’t discount the root causes. “You do hear them talk about those things,” Lippmann said. “The emphasis is just different” — with more of a focus on dealing with crime now.

As for Murphy, she said she’s not sure how she ended up a “Flip the Board” target. She said she’s been a union educator and a member of both the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, and recalled marching for the ERA back in the 1970s. She offered a word of warning to progressives.

“It’s much easier to march and make a sign than it is to govern,” Murphy said. “Once you become, in my case, the alderman, you do need to listen to all sides. And you do need to compromise on issues.”

For progressives, sometimes the disagreement comes from within the coalition. Online sniping over the mayor’s race has reached a fever pitch in recent days. But Schweitzer said she believes progressives are ready to govern. “If we just think about the issues, try not to take things personally and push forward, keep it people-focused, then we’re going to move forward,” she said. “And I think that’s what it’s all about.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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