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These Progressive Candidates Could Flip The Balance Of Power In St. Louis City Government

Four first-time candidates could grant progressives a majority on the Board of Alders and transform public safety and housing policy.

Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Getty Images

St Louis’s approach to public safety, housing, and other critical issues could undergo a significant overhaul if a new campaign to shift the balance of power in the city’s Board of Alders is successful at the polls on Tuesday. 

The “Flip the Board” campaign is challenging entrenched establishment candidates, including three incumbents, in favor of four first-time candidates: Shedrick Kelley, 40, facing two-term incumbent Jack Coatar in Ward 7; Bill Stephens, 27, seeking to unseat  Ward 12’s Vicky Grass, who is running for her first full four-year term; Anne Schweitzer, 33, whose Ward 13 opponent Beth Murphy is seeking a third term; and Tina “Sweet-T” Pihl, 50, who hopes to win in Ward 17 against fellow first-time candidate Michelle Sherod

Alderperson Megan Green, a two-term progressive on the 29-member board, came up with the campaign after years of frustration with the policy priorities of those in power in city government. Green told The Appeal she wants to see more solutions that address the city’s problems in a way that makes meaningful change for all residents.

“Right now we have 11 solid progressive votes and oftentimes can get a couple of other people over to our side,” said Green. “So if we get these four people elected, I think that puts us squarely at 15, which is what we need to have a majority.

The four Flip the Board candidates are running on similar platforms of change, campaigning on public safety reform, sustainable economic development, and housing reform but bring with them different life experiences. Kelley, an emcee who goes by the stage name Nato Caliph, is a business analyst for Wells Fargo and a community activist. Pihl is an economic development and housing expert who has worked for local and national nonprofits. Schweitzer is a community organizer and publicist. Stephens is a St. Louis Public Library employee who celebrates being an openly gay man on his campaign site.

“The thing about the four people is the diversity we have in terms of race, age, and gender,” Pihl told The Appeal. “I mean, it’s just amazing. If you look at our backgrounds, it’s quite rich in terms of that. I think it’s phenomenal.”

St. Louis is still in the throes of a political upheaval that is rooted in the last decade of social and political change. Nearby Ferguson, where Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in 2014, was the catalyst for some of the most intense Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the Obama years. U.S. Representative Cori Bush, whose district includes St. Louis, was one of those protesters and organizers and is today a new member of the “Squad” of young Democrats pushing for change in Congress. 

Although all members of St. Louis’s current Board of Alders are Democrats, the municipal government can be hostile to policies that put working people first, such as allocating federal funding for the city and ensuring public safety is taken care of in an equitable manner, Green said. She cited the fight this year over police use of spy planes that roiled the board—it voted 15-14 to give preliminary approval to the deal—as an example of how close the margins are. (The plan didn’t move forward in part because of a failure to secure funding.) Green also said the resistance to the board’s more left-leaning members’ agenda that centers city residents comes even as voters increasingly support federal candidates that back similar policies. That means the future is bright for ideas about city government that put people first, she told The Appeal.

“Whether it is this election cycle or the next election cycle, I think that time is on our side as progressives,” Green said.

The openness to debating spy planes, which would have allowed city police to keep an eye on residents for up to 18 hours a day, is just one example of what the slate hopes to change about the board’s approach to governing St. Louis. Green, along with some fellow alderpeople, has fought multiple attempts to privatize the city’s airport and advocated for closing the notorious Workhouse, the medium security detention facility in the city that mostly holds individuals awaiting trial. With more progressively minded members, she said, they could take more decisive action. To the Flip the Board slate, the city’s prior approaches to issues like policing, public safety, and economic development are not workable.

“We’ve neglected to see real change or any type of progress in a lot of areas such as crime, child poverty, or housing insecurity,” Stephens said. “We cannot expect our city to grow if we don’t address these fundamental issues first.”

The four candidates are instead focusing on expansive reform.

“We need to do some things differently,” Schweitzer told The Appeal. “We must end cash bail, which is justice only for people with home equity, and end the incarceration for offenders who aren’t threats to themselves or to others. We must address the root causes of crime and reinvest money into neighborhoods we have allowed to deteriorate. We must prioritize affordable housing, affordable healthcare, safe neighborhoods, good schools, jobs that pay well and a good way to get to them, and adopt a citywide tenants’ bill of rights.”

Respecting the basic humanity of residents is essential for handling public safety, said Kelley, who describes the city as being “at a serious crossroads” in how local government works. 

“The city can no longer afford the indecisive and reactionary leadership that it has endured for far too long,” Kelley said.

Key to reforming public safety, said Kelley, is closing the Workhouse. The jail’s conditions and upkeep have long been the subject of citywide criticism and anger. But despite the board last year unanimously passing legislation to close it before the end of 2020, the debate on how to do so drags on.  

The city also needs to invest resources in its Civilian Oversight Board, said Kelley, and investigate police behavior. According to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight and the Marshall Project, St. Louis paid out more than $3.1 million between 2015 and 2019 in police misconduct settlements

“Studies (and real-life examples) from around the nation, and the world, have shown that policies that are ‘smart on crime’ show much better results than ones that focus on being ‘tough on crime,’” said Kelley in an email to The Appeal. ” We cannot out-police our issues with crime, we instead need to reevaluate and reallocate funds away from a system that clearly isn’t working, and try a new bold path forward.”

Stephens told The Appeal that he sees addressing the underlying, systemic issues that lead to poverty and crime as essential to dealing with the city’s issues. 

“We must give every person in this city the opportunity to succeed,” said Stephens. “We aren’t doing that right now and, without it, we won’t be able to course-correct our current path.”

When it comes to housing, Pihl said her time with the Anti-Displacement Working Group would allow her to teach the board about the best approach to the city’s housing concerns. 

“We are looking at policies that can keep people in place in their homes, in the community, and that targets the same thing with evictions, with COVID-19 and everything else,” Pihl said. 

Those ideas, Pihl said, include helping fund home repairs and keeping property taxes low in neighborhoods with high displacement. With the loss of jobs and income during the pandemic, she said, those solutions are more important than ever.

St. Louis residents appear to want change, and the city government is in a moment of upheaval. Two major figures—Mayor Lyda Krewson and Alderperson Joe Roddy, who represents Ward 17 and is the board’s longest-serving member—decided not to run for re-election. Board of Alders President Lewis Reed failed to carry a single ward in the mayoral primary, shutting him out of the citywide contest in April. No matter how the votes come in next month, the city’s new leader will be a break from the status quo

On March 2, St. Louis used for the first time “approval voting,” which allows voters to select more than one candidate; the two candidates in each contest with the highest number of votes are proceeding to Tuesday’s general election. All of the Flip the Board slate advanced, and Schweitzer topped the Ward 13 incumbent Beth Murphy, 68.7 percent to 38.8 percent. 

Schweitzer told The Appeal that relentless campaigning door to door paid electoral dividends. 

When I’ve been knocking on doors, people often tell me that I’m the first person who has ever come by to talk about a campaign, and certainly the first candidate to have done so,” Schweitzer said.

The rest of the slate still faces a fight. Kelley, in Ward 7, received 45.2 percent to incumbent Jack Coatar’s 58.9 percent; in Ward 12, Stephens had 36.1 percent to incumbent Vicky Grass’s 48.6 percent; and in Ward 17, Pihl took 46.2 percent to Michelle Sherod’s 69.0 percent. 

Though three Flip the Board candidates fell short of their opponents in the primary, Green believes there’s a good shot to get voters on board for the general through superior organizing and spurring enthusiasm leading up to Tuesday. And once the public sees what the new group does in office, she believes, it’s more likely than not they’ll stick with the progressive slate in future elections—Green outpolled her opponent Jennifer Florida, a former alderperson, 74.3 percent to 30.7 percent in March. 

“There’s a lot of volunteer energy that’s going into these three candidates’ campaigns at the moment, and that’s what’s going to carry them over,” said Green. “I know that they have people that are donating to them, not just in their wards, but from across the city, because they understand what having a progressive board will do for the entire city of St. Louis.”