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Political Reform Needed in City of St. Louis

February 15, 2006 Politics/Policy 10 Comments

A year ago I was in the middle of a race to become alderman for the 25th Ward. As we gear up for elections this year it has caused me to think about the current state of local elective politics. Two things need to change to make the system more open and truly representative.

First, we need to drop the partisan elections at the local level. The current system of having Democrats and Republican’s means little at the local level. The partisan system helps keep the entrenched in their places and does nothing to improve the quality of the elected officials. Besides, local Democrats have no philosophical relationship with state or national Democrats.

The next issue is money. Lots of it.

How is it that an Alderman can take his treasury from an aldermanic account and use it to run for License Collector? I think some of our elected officials worry too much about the cash and not enough on what we need to move forward.

I propose this for local elections — limit campaign contributions to the annual compensation of the job sought. If the job pays $32K a year that is the maximum for any contested election cycle. No more of this amassing over $100K in campaigns for aldermanic races. What does the mayor make? $150K or so? Fine, that would be the ceiling on campaign contributions for mayoral candidates every four years.

And no moving money around from one campaign to another. If people donated to an aldermanic candidate then that is what that money is for, not for financing a bigger and better race later.

And while we are at it I think the campaign treasuries should go back to zero the day after the election. If a winning-candidate has $5,000 left after the race then it needs to go to a non-profit or to the city’s general revenues. That puts them back at zero. This might seem counter-productive to get them to not chase local Abramhoff’s but hear me out. If a strong candidate for alderman is either unchallenged or only marginally challenged then they have little incentive to build up to their $32K limit knowing they’d have to give it away (not back). This would hopefully level the playing field.

Without the old guard Democratic machine to keep newcomers out and a limit on simply buying into the race by intimidating potential opponents with your bank balance we have a chance to evaluate candidates on crazy criteria like performance and vision.

– Steve


Currently there are "10 comments" on this Article:

  1. Brad Mello says:

    Steve — you and your crazy ideas about making politics fair. The only thing I can see wrong with your proposal actually is that often folks who run for national office built campaign war chests while running for lesser offices. The fundraising helps them make it to the national stage and for Dem’s I think it’s important because the rich and greedy Republicans can easily finance their own campaigns. Brad

    [RPELY – My zeroing out the war chest would only apply to local races. Being DC you probably don’t realize that local St. Louis Dems really don’t go onto bigger offices. I can’t think of the last alderman or city-wide office holder to get elected to even a State Rep position much less a state-wide office. – SLP]

  2. Joe Frank says:

    Well, Dick Gephardt was 14th ward alderman and then became 3rd district congressman in 1976.

    Also a couple of the current aldermen (Troupe and Shelton) used to be state reps – kind of an oddly lateral move if you ask me.

    Anyway, I disagree that non-partisan elections would be a good idea. They don’t exactly work that well for the school board race!

    Even if you don’t have parties, you’ll still have factions. The machine-style politics is often frustrating, but I’m not sure that your suggestions are realistic.

    Also, what about campaigns that are in debt after the election? Are you suggesting they be brought up to $0 balance?

    While there’s plenty of room for campaign finance reform at the state and local level, I’m not sure these are the highest priorities.

    But let the dialogue continue; I’m sure collectively people can come up with something better than what we have now!

    [REPLY – OK, thirty years ago an alderman made the big time. Are you suggesting the school board elections would go better if they were partisan? I can’t imagine that would help.

    After you run for office and see voters going to the polls saying “I’m voting for the Democrat” then you’ll understand my frustration. This mindset is keeping out good people. Breaking up the machine is the best way to reform the system. Yes, you’ll still have factions but they will not be reliant on the Democrat label to keep them in office. – SLP]

  3. Becker says:

    I’ve always said that city politics are funny in that it is a two party system: the Democrats and the other Democrats.

    [REPLY – LOL, yes exactly. It makes no sense! – SLP]

  4. Jim Zavist says:

    Part A (capping contributions to the salary) would solve Part B (having any money left to play games with) . . . I like it!

  5. Brian says:

    So long as we have an open primary where you don’t have to be a registered partisan to vote in the primary and anyone can file for that office, then a partisan primary is still democracy open to all.

    My complaint is when there are special elections, where lacking a primary election. In such instances, the local party approves a candidate, not City voters. And in St. Louis, of course, the person lucky enough to get a “D” behind their name virtually always wins. If a contested primary, that Democratic candidate earned it. But if a special election without a primary, then the lucky D-stamped candidate was chosen by fellow partisans, a less open process indeed.

  6. jason says:

    “limit campaign contributions to the annual compensation of the job sought.”

    Does this mean that if you go into debt financing your campaign at least you can pay it off over the next year without worrying that you spent $100k running for a $32K job?

    I completely agree with the party issues, but the problem is that there are alot of neighbors out there that identify with a particular party, and its easier for them to determine how a candidate is likely to perform without having to get too far into it (not saying that this is actually what happens). I would say the average person voting spends less time researching candidates than they do in the bathroom on any given morning. If you get rid of the party lines, what are people to do? Probably not vote at all.

    [REPLY – That is part of my point. No going into debt of $100K for a $32K job because the limit would be $32K. – SLP]

  7. Becker says:

    Jason are you saying that if we eliminate party lines, those who are not very informed about the candidates won’t vote?

    Sounds like a tragedy. 🙂

    [REPLY – Withou the old reliable party line to fall back on perhaps the voters will have to look to some other criteria for whom they elect. And just maybe those that are fed up with the current system will get involved in the process. – SLP]

  8. Schaft says:

    Thanks for solving that one! (seriously) Now onto bigger issues — 1.) how do we get dead people to stop voting?
    2.) I wonder what the ratio of voter turnout for local elections versus eligble voters is? Since almost no social issues depend on it, i can’t imagine thats its alot.

    [REPLY – Voter turnout is quite low and you want to keep the dead people from voting? That will make the numbers even worse! – SLP]

  9. Dan Icolari says:

    I understand the frustration of being asked to vote for candidates who have little or nothing in common with the ideas and principles of the political parties under whose banners they run. But I think it would be a grave error to dismiss the importance of political parties, even at the aldermanic or municipal level. Here’s why (but first, a qualifier):

    Not everyone who reads or participates in this blog would be comfortable with labels such as ‘liberal’ or the currently less tainted ‘progressive.’ Still, I think it would be fair to say that these labels do represent, to varying degrees, the political outlook of most people who show up here, whether as readers or contributors. So, yes, I am speaking to those who would place themselves slightly, moderately or very much to the left of the shifting American political center.

    I believe our first task is, yes, making things better where we are. But at some point it becomes clear–as it was clear to Republicans a generation ago and to New Deal Democrats decades before–that in order to make things better as you define better, you must frame your proposals within the larger context of enduring ideas and principles; ideas and principles that can shift the focus of the political dialogue in a lasting way.

    For that reason, I believe it is a grave tactical error to promote those ideas and principles through the shifting fortunes of political candidates, no matter how progressive their positions may be. When you do that, the party never can stand for anything lasting because its character is constantly being redefined by a changing cast of candidates.

    What’s needed, instead, is a base, a platform, a political organization that stands firm on principles; that interprets events according to those ideas and principles; and that understands when to compromise, when to change, and when to stand firm–and why.

    In my opinion, the steadily declining position of the American economy will provide the popular discontent necessary to build such an organization–that, and the spinelessness and equivocation of many of the Democrats in Congress.

  10. PonyMommy says:

    St. Louis City voters could alter the municipal charter to provide for nonpartisan election of Mayor, BOA Prez, Comptroller, BOA. Under Missouri law, this would mean no primary, only a general election. A run-off election would occur only in the event of a tie.

    In the matter of county offices (assessor, auditor, circuit clerk, collector of revenue, license collector, medical examiner, public administrator, recorder of deeds, sheriff, surveyor, treasurer), where elected, Missouri law requires partisan elections with a primary and general election. To change that would require action by the Missouri General Assembly.

    It would be correct to say that some local Democrats have little philosophical relationship with some state or national Democrats. Mariano Favazza and Howard Dean have little in common other than external genitalia and gusto of speech.

    Campaign finance, statewide to local, is also regulated by Missouri law. If, however, you managed to get the Lege to impose a spending cap matching salary, uncompensated officials could spend nothing.

    It is not true that a candidate without the backing of the old guard cannot get elected in St. Louis City. Jennifer Florida and Jeanette Mott Oxford come to mind. It is also not true that the candidate with the most money always gets elected. Anthony Ribaudo’s $1 Million mayoral bid comes to mind.

    The purpose of the primary in Missouri is for each political party to choose their nominees. Filling vacancies is different matter. In the interests of filling the vacancy as quickly as possible, based on the theory that the public is best served, 1) party committees (party representatives elected by the voters) choose their nominees for a special election instead of holding a primary and, in other cases, 2) a vacancy is filled by appointment, either the state or local executive officer, depending on Missouri law. Most vacancies in county offices, including those in St. Louis City, are filled by the Guv.

    Voter turnout numbers vary greatly from ward to ward and precinct to precinct. There are wards with very high turnouts and wards with abysmal turnouts.

    Many current and past office holders have held or sought more than one elected position during their careers. Party committee slots have been important stepping stones. Here are current elected officials, and a few former ones, and some of their elected office histories.

    Former U.S. Sen. Tom Eagleton: St. Louis City Circuit Attorney, AG, Lt. Gov. Former Congressman Dick Gephardt: 14th Ward Ald, 14th Ward Dem Com, candidate for U.S. President (twice). Congressman Russ Carnahan: candidate for 8th Dist. U.S. House seat, State Rep, 6th Ward Dem Com. Former Congressman Bill Clay: 26th Ward Ald, 26th Ward Dem Com, candidate for mayor. Congressman Lacy Clay: State Rep, State Sen.

    Mayor Francis G. Slay: 23rd Ward Ald, BOA Prez. Former Mayors- Freeman Bosley Jr: Circuit Clerk, 3rd Ward Dem Com. Vince Schoemehl: 28th Ward Ald. Jim Conway: State Rep, State Sen. John Poelker: Comptroller.

    BOA Prez Jim Shrewsbury: 16th Ward Ald, candidate for Comptroller. Treasurer Larry Williams: 18th Ward Dem Com. Sheriff Jim Murphy: State Sen, 12th Ward Dem Com. Recorder Sharon Carpenter: 23rd Ward Com. Circuit Clerk Mariano Favazza: candidate for U.S. Congress.

    1st Ward Ald Charles Troupe: State Rep, 1st Ward Dem Com. 4th Ward Ald O.L. Shelton: State Rep, 4th Ward Dem Com, candidate for State Sen. 8th Ward Ald Steve Conway: candidate for State Auditor. 24th Ward Ald Bill Waterhouse: 24th Ward Dem Com. 25th Ward Ald Dorothy Kirner: 25th Ward Dem Com. 26th Ward Ald Frank Williamson: 26th Ward Dem Com. 28th Ward Ald Lyda Krewson: candidate for BOA Prez.

    State Sen Harry Kennedy: 14th Ward Dem Com, State Rep. State Sen Maida Coleman: 7th Ward Dem Com, State Rep. State Rep Tom Villa: second stint in House (was Majority Floor Leader when Dems controlled Lege), BOA Prez, State Rep, statewide candidate. Yaphett El-Amin: 1st Ward Dem Com. State Rep. Rodney Hubbard: 5th Ward Com. State Rep. Connie Johnson: 27th Ward Dem Com. State Rep. Fred Kratky: 16th Ward Dem Com.

    And there are also judges who were politicians before appointment to the bench. Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White: State Rep, Circuit Court Judge. Former Missouri Appellate Court Judge Paul Simon: 7th Ward Dem Com, State Rep, BOA Prez. Circuit Court Judge Michael David: State Rep, 7th Ward Dem Com. Circuit Court Judge Ed Sweeney: 8th Ward Dem Com.


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