It has never been an easy alliance. On the surface it would appear that black elected officials would find a natural ally in white elected officials who label themselves as progressives. Both sides say they support an end to systemic racism in the region and the state. Both sides say they are ready to change the “good ol’ boy” ways of St. Louis City Hall that have long seen nepotism and cronyism get in the way of progress and new ideas. But appearances (and political rhetoric) can be deceiving.
The signs of the rift have long been there. One could look at the 2015 debate to create the city’s Civilian Oversight Board to independently investigate complaints of abuse by police. As an alderman, I was the lead sponsor of that bill and after the events in Ferguson and the regional unrest in 2014, we felt that the time was right to finally get the bill passed. An attempt to pass similar legislation had failed a decade earlier when then-Mayor Francis Slay vetoed the bill. But post-Ferguson, even those who had been perpetual barriers to racial equity and progress wanted to at least appear publicly that they were now “woke,” as the kids say. So in 2015, Slay reversed course to publicly say he supported the creation of an oversight board — but only a weak one. If the Board of Aldermen adopted my amendment to add subpoena power, Slay said he would veto it again. Without the votes needed for a veto override, the weaker version of the bill is what came to the floor for a vote. But most white aldermen, even some who call themselves progressive, could still not support the bill.
Christine Ingrassia, a white progressive who represents the 6th Ward, a majority-black ward redrawn in 2011 specifically (but ultimately unsuccessfully) to maintain the board’s black representation, voted “present.” Alderman Scott Ogilvie, representing the 24th Ward who is another vocal progressive, also voted “present.” Most other white, South Side aldermen simply voted “no.” Thankfully, the bill passed anyway.
Then came Missouri’s Democratic presidential primary in March 2016. Blacks in St. Louis overwhelmingly supported Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Many young white voters who identify themselves as progressive supported Sen. Bernie Sanders. The race got nasty, especially on social media, with many of Sanders’ more aggressive supporters, dubbed “Bernie Bros,” chastising blacks for their loyalty to Clinton, whose centrist positions they viewed as an abandonment of the party’s liberal values. Clinton won anyway — by the slimmest of margins (49.6 percent to 49.4 percent for Sanders) — in large part due to her strong African-American support. But the divisions lived on, and the resentments and “what ifs” grew after the November general election, even as many Berniecrats turned their attention to local races and issues.
These rifts are nothing new. I could even go back to the divisive primary that pitted North Side Congressman Lacy Clay against South Side Congressman Russ Carnahan in August 2012. That battle, which many white Democrats felt occurred only because Clay and black Democrats cut a redistricting deal with Republicans that all but eliminated a Democratic Congressional seat, split city Democrats and left Carnahan, a white Democrat, without a seat. At the next election, in November 2012, white Democrats voted overwhelmingly for Proposition R, which after the next Census would reduce the number of wards from 28 to just 14, leaving 42 current aldermen and Democratic committee people — many of them black — without seats. North Side, majority-black wards voted against the reduction. South Side, majority-white wards voted for it. The South Side won.
That battle is now being refought at the Board of Aldermen. Board Bill 25, sponsored by a group of black, North Side aldermen, seeks to ask voters “Are you sure?” when it comes to ward reduction. But this time, instead of asking them during a high-voting presidential election such as November 2012, the aldermen want to ask during the lowest voting election, the April 2019 municipal election.
White progressive aldermen like Annie Rice, of the 8th Ward, call it a gross manipulation of the electorate. “I think it is undemocratic to put it forward on an April ballot,” she said Friday. Ogilvie, who couldn’t bring himself to support the civilian oversight bill in 2015, also opposes Bill 25. “How are we going to explain that 11,000 voters undid what 80,000 voters wanted?” he asked. “How does that square with any of the values we normally talk about?”
And therein lies the problem. Blacks and white progressives, whose stated values should align perfectly, find hypocrisy in each other’s actual politics and votes.
White progressives find it painfully ironic that black aldermen are using voter suppression tactics and procedural maneuvers to overturn, as they see it, the expressed will of the people. Meanwhile black aldermen see white progressives as indifferent to the consequences of reducing the number of black voices in City Hall and in the city’s Democratic Party, two bodies where blacks already have less than proportional representation.
To the average person, the actions of the Board of Aldermen just looks like politicians trying to save their own jobs. The reality is that the number of aldermen is less important than the opportunity for a majority of them to form a meaningful coalition to push this city forward and define what a progressive agenda actually looks like.
What matters more than the reduction of the number of wards is black leaders and white leaders being able to work together for the common good. Until we figure that out, St. Louis will continue to decline — whether there are 28 aldermen, 14 aldermen or even two.