CLAYTON — The race to replace Hazel Erby in the St. Louis County Council’s 1st District is in chaos, with Democratic officials wrestling to control their party’s process to nominate a candidate for the Aug. 6 special election.
Two competing votes to pick a candidate are scheduled in the next nine days. One was scheduled by the county’s top Democratic official, Mary Elizabeth Dorsey, and the other by County Council member Rochelle Walton Gray, D-4th District. Each official told a reporter that she had the right to run the process.
The votes would be conducted by the same group of 16 party officials — a committeeman and committeewoman from the eight townships at least partly in the 1st District. But the outcomes might be different if some of the voters are not present. And that could make a difference in a close race.
Which is right? “Good question,” said Eric Fey, the county’s Democratic director of elections.
Fey said state statutes were not clear on that. Depending on how the votes play out, the matter could be headed for circuit court. And because the election date is just eight weeks away, any delay could postpone the election.
At a minimum, the gridlock harms a Democrat’s chances of winning the one County Council district where a Democrat is considered a lock. Uncertainty about the legitimacy of a Democratic nominee could even leave an opening for another party to compete more strongly than usual.
Struggle for control
Gray and Erby had been part of a bipartisan council alliance against former County Executive Steve Stenger. But that alliance died on April 29 when Gray backed Council Chairman Sam Page over Erby to succeed Stenger.
Erby, who had wanted the job, cast the only vote against Page. She was furious with Gray for not supporting her, but Gray said later she didn’t know Erby wanted the job. Days later, Page hired Erby as director of diversity, equity and inclusion.
That left the council with two vacancies. Under the county charter, the seats must be filled quickly in a special election, forgoing a traditional primary. Instead, party officials in each district are to select candidates. The County Council authorized a special election on Aug. 6 for both seats.
Voters haven’t heard radio ads or seen yard signs for these races. All electioneering has taken place in private communications among party officials. Republicans nominated St. Ann Alderman Amy Poelker in the 2nd District and Sarah Davoli, a University Township committeewoman, in the 1st District.
In the Democratic Party, the process for the 2nd District was relatively smooth. On Saturday, the 14 committee members — a man and a woman from each of seven townships — needed just one round of voting for a majority to select Kelli Dunaway from a field of five.
It has not been so smooth in the 1st District. For her former seat, Erby is backing former state Sen. Rita Heard Days for her former seat. Gray supports University Township committeeman James Cotter. Former state Rep. Clem Smith is also in the race, and Erby said the three are in a virtual dead heat.
Dorsey, chair of the St. Louis County Democratic Central Committee, scheduled the 1st District vote to take place on June 20. She said that’s the way the party for many years has nominated candidates for vacant council seats — with the county party chair scheduling and convening the meeting and setting the rules for the vote.
But state law is not clear about who calls the shots in a council vacancy. In general, it says the chair of a nominating committee shall call the meeting. But council nominating committees meet rarely — only when a council vacancy comes up and have no chair. Dorsey said that means that means the job goes to her.
Cotter sent Dorsey an email last week saying he did not recognize her authority to call a meeting. He attached an opinion written by lawyer Bernard Edwards — a longtime associate of Gray and her father, former Rep. Elbert Walton — that said since the 1st District nominating committee had no chairman or vice chair, the meeting could be called by any committee member.
That committee member was Gray, who scheduled a meeting for 3 p.m. Saturday, five days before Dorsey’s meeting.
Because of the way St. Louis County’s political lines are drawn, Gray, who represents the 4th District, has a significant foothold in 1st District politics. She is a Democratic committeewoman in Ferguson Township, which straddles the 1st and 4th.
Why did she intervene?
“I’m not stopping any of the committee members from scheduling a meeting, I just have a problem with (Dorsey) chairing the meeting,” Gray said.
But Dorsey said she knew several committee members would not be able to make Gray’s meeting. And she said Gray had no right to call the meeting.
“Let me be clear about something: they’re wrong,” Dorsey said in an interview. She said Gray is “trying to exert some influence on who succeeds (Erby) on the council.”
Fey said he wasn’t sure who was right. He said if Gray had at least nine members show on Saturday, they might be able to pick a candidate.
Erby blasted Gray for interfering in her district. She said Gray’s aim was to engineer a path for her chosen candidate and carve out her own faction on the council.
“This is how people react when they are losing a battle,” Erby said in an interview. “Maybe their side doesn’t have the votes.”
Gray said she thought she had enough committee members to come to her meeting and said she knew some of them did not support Cotter.
“She hasn’t been a good mentor to me,” Gray said, referring to Erby.