Thursday, December 6, 2018

Who’s the Best Candidate in the President of the Board of Aldermen Race? Inquiring Minds Need to Know






“What do you do when two of your friends run against each other in a major local election?”

That question, posted on Facebook by Treasurer, Tishaura Jones, resonated with me. She was alluding to the upcoming President of the Board Aldermen’s race. I assume Jones was talking about candidates, state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed (D-St. Louis) and Alderwoman Megan Green (D-15th Ward). Since the mayoral campaign last year, it seems she and Lewis Reed, the current board president, aren’t on the best of terms, politically.
I share Ms. Jones conundrum, except I know and like all three candidates. They’re personable, professional and have solid followings.  Therefore. I’m voting based on what I think needs to happen in this city and in local body politic in general.
Let’s start with an analysis of the role, power and responsibilities of the board president: Arguably, the President of the Aldermanic Board holds the second highest position in city government. Along with the comptroller and Mayor he/she sits on the powerful Estimate and Apportionment board which essentially decides where taxpayer’s money go. The president of the board of aldermen leads the legislative body of the city. She/he decides what legislation or “board bills” go to what committees, who sits on those committees and what bills go to the mayor to be signed into law.  
Additionally, the President of the board of aldermen is supposed to serve in a “check & balance” position, making sure the mayor doesn’t just dominate the legislative process. Accordingly, she/he oversees the city’s budget process, set goals and monitors a variety of issues, including land-use, which happens to be of importance to me.
If you’ve read my commentaries, you know I’ve been very critical of the board of aldermen, especially black politicians. For the most part, as a collective, they seem weak and vision-less. I simply can’t understand how, for at least the past 20 years, they’ve approved and allowed taxpayer dollars to go to wealthy developers and majority stable, white neighborhoods. All this while the wards they serve remain mostly fallow, underdeveloped and under-served. Let me be clear, my criticism isn’t just relegated to the board of aldermen. As far as I’m concerned, elected officials on the state and national levels have also come up short in their roles as “black leaders.”
Still, some recently elected young, progressive politicians give me hope. I’m looking for the candidates who boldly demonstrates they can corral, motivate, inspire and move the board in a more positive, inclusive and racially-equitable direction.  

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To be honest, all three candidates demonstrate weaknesses in the areas I outline. I also understand that whites outvote blacks in all local and national elections. From Obama on down the line, there is a tendency to downplay outright appeals to black voters out of fear of alienating white voters. However, in this era of dynamic, outspoken political leaders like Cong. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and our very own, Tishaura Jones, it’s time out for timid, racially-wary, appeasing politicians.   
It’s in this arena where current board president, Lewis Reed, gets the most scrutiny from me simply because he’s held the office for the past 11 years.
On his and the city’s websites, Reed boasts of his accomplishments as the 6th Ward aldermen in the Lafayette Square neighborhood. The revitalization and redevelopment work, which he says resulted in $1.7 billion in new development in the 6th Ward and on Washington Ave., is indeed laudable. However, after all those years in office, I expected evidence of how he’s worked with the aldermen he leads. What specific legislation has he championed for North St. Louis? He states no history or vision of what explicit initiatives he would pursue if reelected.
The election is in March. I suppose there’s enough time to make a better case for black leadership. I hope he does.
I’ve known Jamilah Nasheed, who was elected to the Missouri House of Representatives in 2006, ever since she opened an inner-city bookstore at the tinder age of 19. I respect her and do not doubt her passion or commitment towards her African American constituents. Her accomplishments outlined on her website and in a recent St. Louis American article are impressive.
Nasheed says, “I’m proud of my work giving a voice to the voiceless on issues like civil rights, women’s health and a living wage, fighting to improve our schools and stop crime, all the while bringing millions of dollars back home to serve our communities.”
 Great. But she doesn’t give us any examples of how she convinced other state legislators to follow her lead. I left her site wanting more evidence that she can indeed work with a diverse and difficult board of aldermen. What “board bills” will she adopt, pass onto committees and how will she persuade the mayor to sign them into law?
Ironically, it was 15th Ward Alderwoman, Meghan Green, the lone white candidate, who came closest to defining my idea of a aldermanic leader:
"The board lacks a legislative agenda…" Green told the Riverfront Times. “The petty politics, backroom deals, that's what's been dominating the board. We have to have somebody in that position who hasn't been playing the insider game and who hasn't been afraid to stand up to the status quo. That needs to the be the role of the president, to set that standard..."
Green, elected in 2014, is considered one of the most progressive members of the Aldermanic Board. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch highlighted, she’s been a vocal critic of tax incentives, expressed her desire to make City Hall more transparent and she wants to reform how St. Louis approaches public safety and economic development.
Green says she’s already “played a major role in driving the legislative agenda at the Board, by introducing bills governing community benefits agreements, marijuana decriminalization and police reform.”
Good stuff. But “driving legislation” that some colleagues may like is far different from seeking compromise, cajoling or convincing those who may disagree with her as president of the board. I’m a big fan but, as a “progressive” politician, I’ve yet to see how she’s been a “leader” among her black colleagues. She doesn’t mention the number of their bills she’s supported or how she helped them become law.
Are there any? I shouldn’t have to guess.
Let’s be real, the city is still racially and politically-divided. The president of the board must demonstrate that he/she has the juice to effectively wade into those divisive waters and make a “progressive difference.” Green doesn’t make a convincing argument in what I’ve read on her website or articles written so far.

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Who will truly serve as the check & balance mechanism against the status quo? I didn’t see where any of the candidates addressed this efficiently.  Yes, Reed was there for the budgets approved under his tenure. But, considering that those city budgets, approved over the past 20 years have led to the enrichment of developers in stable, majority white-populated neighborhoods while leaving majority black North St. Louis wards high and dry isn’t particularly brag-worthy.
He cites that he founded Bike St. Louis and the online community platform Nextdoor. He also says he’s “a proud partner of the LGBTQ community and established the city’s first dog park. All good things but, seriously, how much opposition did Reed really have on these issues?
To be fair, on his website, Reed does cite examples of fighting “with the administration.” He says he had to “push good legislation” aimed at raising the minimum wage. He fought to introduce legislation that required developers to include community benefits agreements. He also says he developed “joint partnerships” that included “academia, nonprofit, clergy, business leaders, city services, the police and more” to work together on crime reduction efforts.  
“The relationships she’s built in Jefferson City will be an advantage over her opponents in the race,” Nasheed told the Post-Dispatch. Her work on the state level to “improve education, reduce incarceration and end human trafficking,” are examples of her ability to collaborate with fellow legislators.
I absolutely love Jamillah, but I’d be remiss not to mention her abrupt turn-around from avid critic of former Mayor Francis Slay to becoming one of his most prominent supporters. Reed, drilled down on this in an interview with the St. Louis American:
“Considering the fact that the soon to be termed out State Senator Nasheed was a hard-core supporter of and contributed money to former Mayor Francis Slay when I ran against him in 2013…I believe voters will easily see through her announcement statement as empty rhetoric and know that her true motives are not what’s good for the community, but only what’s good for her own personal benefit.”
Sour grapes? Perhaps. But it’s hard for me to get over her support of a mayor who did absolutely nothing to improve black neighborhoods throughout his 16 years in office.   
Nasheed says she’s “locked in over $6 million in the state budget for job and career training programs,” which include pre-apprenticeship programs for women and minorities and additional funding for nonprofits that support children and families. She also introduced and got Senate Bill 731 passed which was designed to help “preserve” St. Louis neighborhoods by going after absentee landlords who allow vacant properties to devalue neighbors. All wonderful but not exactly revolutionary ideas.
Nasheed accurately says “St. Louis has lived a tale of two cities, for far too long.” She’s vowed to bridge “the Delmar Divide,” address gun violence, the lack of opportunity for communities that have not seen growth or development and have “been left behind.”
Good words, but how exactly will she uplift those “left behind” communities? I saw no concrete platform, bold agenda or detailed explanation for economic investment in disadvantaged, black neighborhoods. Would saying so turn white voters off?
Mayor Lyda Krewson and some black aldermen have endorsed the idea or introduced legislation aimed at reducing the number of abandoned buildings or putting vacant buildings and land in the hands of low-income residents. So far, Nasheed has missed a golden opportunity to detail how she, as board president, will turn these ambitious wishes and proposed bills into concrete realities.
Green, on her website, takes a more direct, albeit equally-vague approach:
We can have a City that stops giving away money to developers who don’t qualify and gives everyday people a say in the development decisions that impact them.”
Under one of her “Boldly Forward” categories, Green says she will challenge the city system that doled out $700 million in tax revenues, TIFs and tax-abatements to “the wealthiest wards in the City and resulted in the significant displacement of low-income African Americans from these areas.”
I agree with her assessment that “the City should be more responsible” and limit questionable subsidies without community benefit. But, as they say, the devil is in the details. The RFT article also noted that some of Green’s colleagues on the board “see her as a show-off more interested in playing to her progressive base than getting things done.” Can she be effective with those outside her fan base? How will she wane other less trusting aldermen off the tax-supported subsidy nipple and into an environment where investments in less affluent neighborhoods and poorer people are a priority?
Voters need to know.
Since the mid-1990s, African Americans have held at least two of these authoritative seats. Green’s candidacy threatens to upset that ratio. Now, considering how little black neighborhoods and residents have benefited from having “black faces in high places,” a shake-up might be warranted.
Still, with a white mayor and a white candidate who’s yet to show how “progressive” she can really be with African-American legislators, Green’s candidacy comes with a risk.

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Green, Nasheed and Reed all support the city-wide use of community benefit agreements that work with residents to determine which projects should receive tax subsidies. Oh, there’s plenty of nit-picking among them. Nasheed says Reed didn’t push hard enough for community benefits in exchange for tax subsidies. Reed and Green both introduced community benefit agreements bills last year. Both had differences regarding who would negotiate what deals: the aldermen, a committee of ward residents or some combination of both. Neither bill got enough votes for passage however.
All the candidates share a desire to direct city funds toward crime reduction. But, it’s in this arena where the two black candidates have given me the willies.
Earlier this year, Nasheed sent a letter to Gov. Mike Parson asking him to declare a state of emergency in the city. Her argument, according to media accounts, was if we spend billions fighting the Taliban, why can’t we spend a fraction of that money combating drug dealers and street gangs in St. Louis.
Reed has latched onto Operation Ceasefire, a 1990s Boston-born initiative that saw a 63 percent reduction in youth homicides two years after it was implemented. The program includes a strategy in which police, prosecutors, community leaders and service providers engage with reputed gang members. If they fail to stem violent behavior suspected perpetrators will be targeted for arrests, prosecution and stiffer penalties.
I have nothing against efforts to reduce crime, but we already suffer from police brutality, unarmed shootings of black people, prosecutorial misconduct, race-based stops and sentencing. Just because the program has been universally praised in the media and appeals to insensitive and unconnected white voters doesn’t mean it will work in St. Louis. I’m skeptical of any effort designed to empower law enforcement to target minorities. Additionally, dozens of cities have adopted Boston’s cease fire program with spotty results. Some, like Chicago, still have disproportionate murder and crime rates.
I’m biased, but I sincerely believe solutions for crime reduction are already in our midst. I believe we will never stem disproportionate rates of crime or murder until we do the hard work of eradicating poverty, investing in poor neighborhoods and empowering residents to control their own social and economic futures. 
Besides, there are dozens of nonprofits like Better Family Life, Beloved Streets of America, the Sweet Potato Project and many more working on affordable housing, urban entrepreneurism and economic development in poor, high-crime areas. Who will lead the charge in investing city funds into local efforts?
Once again, Green’s approach seems more practical but short on specifics:
“For too long, St. Louis has invested in an “arrest and incarcerate” model that strains the relationship between police and the community while failing to address the root causes of crime in our community.  We can’t make the city safer without addressing poverty, the lack of opportunity, mental health, and drug addiction.”
Unlike Reed, Green isn’t just looking outside St. Louis for solutions. She vows to use the Ferguson Commission Report, Washington University’s “For Sake of All Report and recommendations from Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, and Campaign Zero “as blueprints as we re-envision public safety to invest in people.”
The cease-fire approach comes with the scary possibilities aligned with increasing police and the courts power, but it also includes working with a network of nonprofits and social agencies. It’s here where Reed needs to provide clarity and specifics that explain how black leaders and organizations can significantly increase their roles in public safety and crime prevention while avoiding the racist “war on drugs” legacy that has historically targeted, prosecuted and persecuted black people while crippling black communities.

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It may seem like I’m leaning toward Green in the upcoming race. I’m not, at least not at this point. My wish is that the candidates consider this commentary a request for lucidity, specifics and a solid agenda, not simple soundbites and feel-good rhetoric.
Last year, we blew a historic opportunity to elect Tishaura Jones, a young, refreshing mayoral candidate who spooked the status quo and specifically spoke to an equitable agenda for all St. Louisans. Across the country, recently elected bold, articulate and dynamic minority and female candidates are poised for great change in our nation.
This is not the time for lackluster leadership in our region. St. Louis is still overwhelmingly stale, stuck in the past, void of leadership and overall vision-less. Candidates for the powerful president of the board of aldermen seat can better explain their qualifications and expectations for this role.
My hope, as we move closer to March, is that they will update their websites, speak publicly or simply show voters how they, without a doubt, will lead the board of aldermen and the city into a new era of progressive, inclusive and equitable governance for all.