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Progressives see power grow after St. Louis election results, but can they stay united?

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Tishaura Jones greets voters at polling places

Tishaura Jones (left), then a candidate for St. Louis mayor, takes a selfie with Tina Pihl, then an aldermanic candidate for the 17th Ward, outside the polling place at the corner of Newstead and Laclede avenues in the Central West End on April 6, 2021. 

ST. LOUIS — The election of four aldermanic candidates backed by the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, coupled with Tishaura Jones’ historic win in the mayoral runoff, signals a big shift in the balance of power at City Hall, progressives say.

Those victories, which included unseating three moderate incumbents, gives progressives 15 votes on some issues — a majority, albeit a thin one, on the 29-member Board of Aldermen.

“There’s no way to look at it other than to say we had a really great night last night for progressive candidates in St. Louis,” Alderman Megan Green, who represents the Tower Grove South area and was a leader of the “flip the board” effort, said Wednesday. “I think it puts us squarely at 15 if we can stay together as a voting bloc.”

Yet Aldermanic President Lewis Reed, generally seen as a more centrist Democrat who has frequently clashed with the progressive flank, contends the progressives won’t have the 15 votes they claim.

“There’s only a handful, three to four of these folks, some days up to five, that want to play the politics of division,” Reed said in an interview Thursday. “It does not serve the city well.”

Regardless of the vote count, the shift appears to give the incoming mayor a board more likely to enact her agenda than the current one. That support will cross racial lines: Many of the board’s white progressives, including Green, endorsed Jones’ candidacy; many Black aldermen who don’t identify as progressives and endorsed Reed in the mayoral primary backed Jones in the runoff.

In fact, all of the city’s Black majority wards overwhelmingly supported Jones, including the 22nd, where the incumbent Jeffrey Boyd, a longtime Jones critic, backed Cara Spencer for mayor. Jones won 84% of the votes in Boyd’s ward.

“I think we are positioned and in a much better place to try and advance some people-focused change,” said Alderman Annie Rice, a Jones supporter who represents the Shaw neighborhood and is considered a progressive. “We’re going to be working closely with Mayor-elect Jones and try to make sure we have a legislative agenda that we’re working to get through the board. That’s something I think was missing a bit from the last administration.”

Reed also said he would work with Jones. “If she’s successful,” he said, “we’re successful.”

But it’s hard to say how long the détente between Reed and Jones will last. On Thursday, during an appearance on conservative talk station KFTK (97.1 FM), Reed effectively put the next mayor and her allies on notice, vowing to block any major cuts to the police budget. “As the president of the board, I carry the budget bill,” he told listeners.

Nor is it assured that aldermen who supported Jones for mayor will back her legislative agenda.

“An endorsement for a mayoral election does not equal a voting bloc,” one political insider who spoke on the condition of anonymity said. “I think she’s in a good spot initially, but that can shift real quick.”

Jones, who on April 20 becomes the city’s first Black woman mayor, didn’t reveal much about whether she thought the new board makeup gave her a comfortable voting bloc.

“You never know until they get started,” she said when asked about whether the new progressives would help advance her agenda.

How the progressives push their own agenda on the board, and what it entails, is still nebulous to some.

“If you can tell me what the progressive agenda is, I’d be thrilled to figure it out,” said Alderman Joe Vaccaro, who represents Lindenwood Park on the city’s western border and is a more centrist board member. “So far the only thing I know is it’s to get more progressives on the board.”

Green said the new board coalition will be more supportive of efforts to close the Medium Security Institution, the jail known as the workhouse. She also said the city could make further strides in tax incentive reform and expand efforts to have social workers respond to mental health emergencies.

A good portion of the agenda for the coming months will likely be spent on two issues. One immediate task will be allocating an unprecedented $517 million in federal stimulus assistance provided to the city via President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan.

Changing the rules

Looming over everything, though, is the deadline to redraw the aldermanic map and cut by half the number of wards — a measure approved by voters nearly a decade ago — while also adjusting boundaries based on new census data. The process is sure to generate plenty of political fights before all aldermen have to run again in two years to try and hold onto a seat in the shrinking number of wards.

As for other policies, Reed argued there are far more issues the board agrees on than it disagrees on, and he said he and other members not labeled “progressives” support many policies generally considered progressive.

“I don’t see any major changes in course or direction in what we’re doing at the board,” Reed said.

Vaccaro said he planned to sponsor legislation proposing a citizens oversight committee for the city’s jails, a pressing issue in the wake of a second major inmate riot at the downtown City Justice Center on Easter. That’s also an issue Rice mentioned as something the new board members could help tackle.

Reed noted that the board already passed a workhouse closure bill last year, and he said the issue will largely be in the hands of Jones, who has said she would close the jail in her first 100 days. But given recent unrest at the downtown jail, Reed cautioned against moving too quickly.

“Closing a building is not criminal justice reform,” he said.

One early indication of the progressive bloc’s increased strength could be when the board adopts its operating rules for the 2021-2022 session, which begins April 20.

Dan Guenther, a progressive who was reelected as 9th Ward alderman on Tuesday, said he expects that there will be an effort to alter the way appointments to committees are made. While seniority determines who serves as chair, current rules empower Reed to decide who serves on the committees and which committees handle bills. Under Reed, Guenther said he believes progressives like himself have been relegated to less important panels.

“We’re going to make some efforts to change things,” he said.

‘In a box’

Any such changes would need near unanimous cooperation from the progressive aldermen, and Reed argued not all of the new members elected Tuesday are as solid a vote for the progressive wing as Green and other backers claim.

“I think it’s putting some of the newer members in a box,” Reed said.

Still, three of those new members — Tina Pihl, who won the race for the seat vacated by Joe Roddy covering the Central West End and Forest Park Southeast; Bill Stephens, who ousted incumbent Vicky Grass in far south St. Louis; and Anne Schweitzer, who unseated Beth Murphy in the area north of Carondelet Park — posed with Green on election night in a victorious photo Green tweeted with the hashtag “flip the board.”

Green helped promote fundraising websites soliciting donations that were split between a slate of candidates. She said progressive groups were “intentional” in directing volunteer hours and other resources to the races of those candidates, and the work paid off.

It looked like a long-shot after the March primary, where all but one of the “flip the board” candidates finished a distant second in their respective races. By April, all but one ended up winning. Even the one who lost, Shedrick Kelley, came within five points of incumbent Jack Coatar in the ward covering downtown and Soulard despite being outspent around 10-to-1.

Though he wasn’t part of the initial “flip the board” slate, progressives also rallied behind James Page, the head of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, after he finished second in the March primary behind incumbent Tammika Hubbard in the 5th Ward. Page ended up winning Tuesday, and Green said progressives count him as part of their coalition.

“What was really great about having that March public opinion poll was it gave us a good baseline of where voters were at,” Green said. “We had a good idea of how we needed to expand the electorate in order to get the votes that we needed to get them over the finish line.”

Reed commended the winners on their races and said he’s “excited” about working with them and the diversity of experience they bring to the board.

But he said their wins reflect the fact that they were already “actively involved in their community” rather than because of the efforts of progressive backers.

“They brought their diverse network of relationships to win those races,” Reed said. “To take that victory out of their hands and somehow say it was a victory just by someone else’s doing, I think it’s a disservice to them and their hard work.”

Green, though, said the vote on Tuesday demonstrates the faction of the party has built its organizing capacity and underscores a larger shift in voter preferences, continuing a movement that saw challenger Cori Bush oust former U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay in the August Democratic primary.

“The city electorate is a lot more progressive than people have thought recently,” she said.

Reed, too, acknowledges that the left wing of the party is energized right now, a phenomena he partly attributes to a backlash to Donald Trump’s presidency.

“Across America, politics is becoming further and further left and further and further right,” he said. “All of this Trump stuff has built the appetite for a further push to the left.”

Mark Schlinkmann of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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