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Buffeted by controversies and lack of a mandate, Krewson struggled to exercise power in decentralized City Hall

Buffeted by controversies and lack of a mandate, Krewson struggled to exercise power in decentralized City Hall

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ST. LOUIS — Lyda Krewson said months ago she would seek a second term as mayor, so her announcement on Wednesday that she was dropping out of next year’s city election came as a surprise to many.

But, for those watching closely, it was hardly a shocker.

Managing a global pandemic — arguably the greatest test facing leaders at all levels of government — while addressing a reinvigorated police reform movement might have been enough to convince any incumbent, especially one who just turned 68, to step aside.

Yet those challenges are only the latest for an administration buffeted by crises from the start. Almost immediately from the time she took office in the spring of 2017, Krewson has faced near constant controversies — from protests over a Confederate monument in Forest Park, to civil unrest that followed the acquittal of former police Officer Jason Stockley, to a contentious airport privatization process she inherited from her predecessor — all hampering her ability to form and execute an agenda, which some say lacked clarity to begin with.

“She definitely had to govern during a time of real civic crisis,” said Krewson’s first chief of staff, Tim O’Connell. “We have a fractious politics at the national and local level. Whoever we entrust the role to next is going to have to try and build across ideological lines.”

Even critics say she took the helm at one of the most difficult times to govern due to the political climate in the region and nationally. After largely receiving approval early on for the city’s management of the coronavirus crisis, Krewson’s administration has struggled to deal with an even deadlier public health crisis, the rising number of murders. A campaign based on public safety like the one she ran four years ago would be a tough sell with the homicide rate hitting a record.

The resurgent Black Lives Matter movement after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis ultimately led to a round of protests targeting her administration, including supporters of Treasurer Tishaura Jones, who they saw as a more progressive alternative in 2017. Many of those same activists pushed to close the city’s Medium Security Institution — better known as the workhouse — something Krewson deemed unworkable until her hand was forced by the Board of Aldermen.

Opposition to Krewson reached a fever pitch in late June after she read off the names and addresses of protesters who handed her proposed city budgets that included defunding police. Activists accused her of “doxxing” them — releasing personal information on political opponents — even though it has been traditional practice for members of the public who speak at local government meetings to provide their names and addresses.

The slogan “Resign Lyda” soon became a hashtag on social media, and a message scrawled on sidewalks, painted on Tucker Boulevard and carried by protesters who repeatedly gathered outside her Central West End home. Those protests prompted her to temporarily relocate to an apartment; they also led to the protesters’ now-infamous encounter with Mark and Patricia McCloskey, who brought St. Louis international notoriety.

“She’s probably had enough,” said Ken Warren, a political science professor at St. Louis University and a longtime observer of local politics. “It’s not a good job. I wouldn’t want it.”

‘Almost ungovernable’

St. Louis’ charter makes the mayor weak by design — a holdover from the legacy of corruption and machine politics of the last century — forcing the mayor to share power not only with the Board of Aldermen, but with an elected comptroller who holds one of three votes on the Board of Estimate and Apportionment that controls city spending.

Krewson’s relationship with St. Louis Comptroller Darlene Green has been far from smooth. And her administration’s ability to muster a majority for initiatives at the unruly 28-member St. Louis Board of Aldermen — or keep measures her administration opposed from passing — has often been lacking, observers say. Many members of Krewson’s initial team left before her first term was up.

Warren said she just didn’t have the same political experience as her predecessor, Francis Slay, the longest-serving mayor in St. Louis history. Slay came up in a family steeped in politics and served as president of the Board of Aldermen before being elected mayor. By the time he left, he made the position appear strong, but he had four terms to build power.

“The city of St. Louis is … almost ungovernable,” Warren said. “The factionalism in St. Louis is out of control. Structurally, the board of aldermen is a joke. It’s just a fragmented city with everyone hanging on to their fiefdoms.”

The city’s politics have shifted rapidly in the last decade, and the Slay coalition appeared to be crumbling by the time he announced he wouldn’t run for a fifth term in 2016. The city’s electorate has become increasingly progressive, and the old matchups that often pitted Black politicians from north St. Louis against white politicians from south city and the central corridor have given way to a voting bloc of Black St. Louisans and whites aligned with the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party.

The clearest example of that transformation was the Aug. 4 Democratic primary, in which activist Cori Bush defeated U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay in the 1st Congressional District, and Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner easily defeated a well-financed challenger.

The calculus appears to disadvantage Krewson, who positioned herself center-left on a public safety agenda in 2017. Endorsed by Slay and propelled by his longtime base of support in almost suburban southwest St. Louis, the tactic was enough to garner 32% of the vote in 2017 and edge out Jones by less than 900 votes in a seven-way race in which Krewson was the only viable white candidate.

But Jones will be on the ballot again next year, and this time, there will be an April runoff between the top two vote-getters in March under new rules approved by city voters two weeks ago.

“I have no doubt that was the capstone on the decision,” one City Hall insider familiar with the Krewson administration who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly said of the overwhelming passage of Proposition D, the election reform measure. “No one actually knows what the impact is going to be but the presumed impact is it will be favorable to a candidate like Treasurer Jones.”

Policy over politics

Krewson’s attempts to respond to pressure from constituents has likewise irked some early allies. After being endorsed by the St. Louis Police Officers Association in 2017, Krewson called for the police union’s manager, Jeff Roorda, to be fired after he made scathing remarks about her opponent, Jones. Roorda soon turned on her.

In December, her decision to kill the airport privatization process after almost three years was a blow to many of the political operatives who were close to her and ran her campaign. And it probably came too late to sway critics who thought she should have made the decision sooner.

Even some successes, like development momentum in the central corridor and higher earnings tax collections from increasingly well-paid city residents drawn to tech and hospital jobs in employment clusters like Cortex, prompted critics to complain about gentrification and a lack of focus on poorer neighborhoods.

Still, she did try to make change in the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods. She boosted funding for affordable housing, regularly committing at least $5 million annually to a fund that had largely been ignored before her tenure. Krewson also began to tackle the city’s enormous vacant property problem. She added staff focused on the issue, increased budgets for demolition and helped build the Vacancy Collaborative, a coalition of independent groups that will outlive her administration.

And after assuming office when the city faced a $17 million budget shortfall, Krewson deserves credit for shoring up the budget before COVID-19 hit and stashing away cash, O’Connell said.

“She quietly and resolutely made sure the city was on a better financial footing,” he said. “The mayor made increasing our reserves a priority. For every local government, COVID has taken a toll, but we would be in much worse shape if the mayor had not used her political capital to make correcting and fixing our reserves a priority. A crisis averted or delayed often goes unremarked.”

Krewson, observers say, was a policy person, whose career as a certified public accountant at an urban planning firm made her a stronger technocrat than a politician.

But the exercise of power in decentralized City Hall is no easy task. Part of the problem she may have faced, some suspect, was sexism. Friends and foes, those who didn’t know her personally, often referred to her as “Lyda” rather than “Mayor Krewson.”

“It’s just a really snarky time to be an elected official in general,” said the insider familiar with both her administration and Slay’s. “Part of that’s sexism too. She’s been treated less mayoral by the fact that she’s a woman.”

The center of policy gravity drifted away from the mayor’s office as a younger, scrappier group of aldermen began replacing older mainstays. Social media meant they always had access to a megaphone. And without a clear majority of voters behind her, Krewson’s opponents had room to use Twitter and Facebook as if the 2017 election never ended.

“Her opponents never gave her a chance,” said Alderman Joe Roddy, a member of the old guard who recently announced his retirement and often worked with Krewson on projects affecting their shared neighborhood.

“The division and negativism that permeates local government, government at all levels, just made the situation very difficult for her, and I think you’re seeing this in every major city in the country. Social media has made it so easy to create opposition and so difficult to do things constructively. And as a result of that, unfortunately, large cities are almost getting unmanageable.”

St. Louis mayors’ terms since 1901

Mayor Start year End year Total years
Rolla Wells 1901 1909 8
Frederick H. Kreismann 1909 1913 4
Henry Kiel 1913 1925 12
Victor J. Miller 1925 1933 8
Bernard F. Dickmann 1933 1941 8
William D. Becker 1941 1943 2
Aloys P. Kaufmann 1943 1949 6
Joseph M. Darst 1949 1953 4
Raymond Tucker 1953 1965 12
Alfonso J. Cervante 1965 1973 8
John H. Poelker 1973 1977 4
James F. Conway 1977 1981 4
Vincent C. Schoemehl 1981 1993 12
Freeman R. Bosley Jr. 1993 1997 4
Clarence Harmon 1997 2001 4
Francis G. Slay 2001 2017 16
Lyda Krewson 2017 2021 4

Jacob Barker • 314-340-8291 @jacobbarker on Twitter jbarker@post-dispatch.com

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