August primary may be decisive contest for some House rep races
For many candidates, the August primary is just a winnowing process setting up the November election. But for several state legislative contests in the St. Louis area, the August primary may prove decisive.
That's because state House districts in St. Louis and parts of St. Louis County are overwhelming Democratic, meaning the winner of the Democratic primary will almost certainly be sworn in next January.
Because of redistricting and term limits, some contests are especially competitive this year. In some instances, incumbents are being challenged by energetic newcomers. In others cases, districts became open game after sitting legislators moved on to another office or were forced out due to term limits.
Below are profiles of contests that could decide who represent parts of the St. Louis area in the Missouri House next year. The Beacon will profile several state Senate race primaries later this week.
Although Kim Gardner lost badly against Jamilah Nasheed in 2008 for the 60th District house seat, Gardner said she's ready to take another stab at running for public office.
This time, it's the 77th District, and she's up against Chris Elliott, a political newcomer who received his master’s degree in social work from Saint Louis University, and McFarlane Duncan, another political newcomer who worked three years for the city's license collector's office.
"Even though I lost, I'm smarter and understand the process better. I feel like I have the skills that help set me apart from the other candidates," said Gardner, a lawyer and a former assistant circuit attorney for the city.
But Elliot said he's more prepared for public office than his opponents.
As of this month, Elliott has raised $7,000, with about $796.30 cash on hand; Duncan has raised $6,070 with $799 cash on hand. Gardner has raised $3,410 and has $1,398.68 cash on hand.
Gardner received most of the endorsements from her district, including the 3rd, 4th, 17th, 18th, 21st and 28th wards. Elliott has received endorsements from Planned Parenthood, Missouri ProVote, Greater St. Louis Labor Council and Sierra-Club Eastern Missouri Group. Duncan has received endorsements from the city's License Collector Michael McMillan, 19th Ward Alderwoman Marlene Davis, 4th Ward Alderman Sam Moore and the Saint Louis Police Officers Association.
As a former prosecutor, Gardner said she understands the importance of crime prevention, which helps keep juvenile offenders from leading dangerous, violent lives of crime. She added that although programs are available to help juveniles who have already been arrested, we need more preventive programs to keep them from ever reaching that point.
"To stop a crime from growing in the area, you have to have education," she said.
At the same time, Gardner said fairness and justice must be in balance. There will be cases in which "swift and active justice" is needed when a person continually preys on a community.
With a master’s degree in nursing from Saint Louis University, Gardner said she's a strong supporter of implementing the Affordable Health Care Act. That experience will help her figure out how to make the act work on a state and local level, which is the next question, she said.
Raised in the Walnut Park neighborhood, Elliott attended St. Louis public schools until his junior year, when he participated in the desegregation program and graduated from Parkway West High in 1990.
He noted the diversity of the 77th District, which includes parts of Central West End, Tower Grove and north St. Louis.
But, he said, the one consistent problem across the district deals with educational disparities, especially the public schools' lack of accreditation. As a state legislator, Elliott said he vows to fight for the 77th District's and the city's fair share of resources to ensure public schools regain accreditation.
"Education is the primary route out of poverty," he said. This will allow "our children to have a fair chance to provide for their families once they are of age ... just trying to break that cycle in our community."
In May, the Missouri House passed a bill authorizing the expansion of charter schools in Missouri -- an unwise decision, Elliott said.
"Charter schools are not held to the same standards as public schools and not quite proven yet. We have to really focus our attention figuring out 'what is the problem with this system and how do we fix the system?'" he said.
Elliott said while it's been a challenge to raise money for his campaign, he's been knocking on doors every day to build a relationship with the community.
Duncan has lived in the Benton Park area for the last decade and has been able to witness the district's ups and downs. He supports funding after-school programs, which he says lowers crime rates in the area. It keeps kids in school and off the streets longer, he said.
"When you see kids are engaged in more positive activities, crime will go down," he said.
Supporting small businesses with the resources needed to thrive will only help the district and the city, too, he said.
The race for the Democratic nomination for new 78th District state House seat race pits three very different candidates together: state Rep. Penny Hubbard, who has represented the 58th House District since 2011; Ruth Ehresman, the former director of budget policy for the Missouri Budget Project; and Samuel Cummings III, a software developer and Saint Louis University graduate with no electoral experience.
As of this month, Ehresman has raised a little over $30,000, with about $12,485.40 cash on hand; Cummings has raised $17,051.18, with $1,895.22 cash on hand; and Hubbard has raised $45,673.41, with $992.55 cash on hand.
The district is a narrow, north-to-south stretch that includes sections of Soulard, Benton Park, Gravois Park, downtown, downtown and old north St. Louis. About one-third of the new district’s northern-most portion includes Rep. Hubbard’s 58th District. The new district is the most eastern district in St. Louis, with 62 percent of the residents African American.
Ehresman, who has lived in Benton Park since 1979, said she hopes people avoid looking at this district’s race through a racial lens.
"I think that's a real mistake,” she said. “The question people should be asking is ‘who will best represent this district in Jefferson City?’ and “who has the values consistent with mine?’”
Before running, Ehresman spent six years with the Missouri Budget Project, a nonprofit public policy analysis organization that works to improve economic opportunities statewide, particularly for low- and middle-income families. Before that, she worked as the policy director for Citizens for Missouri’s Children for 11 years.
Ehresman said she is focused on creating jobs, making college more affordable for students from lower- to middle-income families, and implementing the Affordable Care Act, something she's been pushing for quite some time.
“With the Supreme Court’s decision, this state has a real opportunity to take a step forward in offering insurance to people who currently don’t have it,” she said.
Cummings, who sits on the consulting boards for Center of Advancement for African American Businesses and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said the 78th District's geographically new boundaries creates a fairly diverse group of people, making it difficult to narrow down key issues.
"It's a challenge," he said. "But being able to have such a diverse district is an opportunity to bring together many different people and make some changes. It's the heart (of St. Louis.) If this district does well, St. Louis does well," he said.
After knocking on hundreds of doors to gain some perspective, Cummings said three things echoed among those he spoke to: job creation, neighborhood stabilization, and improving education. Cummings studied business administration at St. Louis University, concentrating on entrepreneurship and information technology management.
Hubbard did not respond to the Beacon's request for an interview. According to the Missouri House of Representatives’ website, she was on the Board of Probation and Parole from 2004 through 2010.
Hubbard was one of four Democratic state reps who voted to override the governor's veto of a Republican redistricting map. Her son Rodney Hubbard, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for state Senate in 2008, was fined more than $300,000 in 2010 in connection with campaign finance violations in that 2008 campaign.
Two Democratic candidates are waging energetic efforts to represent a district fusing north and south areas of St. Louis, with both candidates promising to be pragmatic advocates for an area bedeviled by crime and education struggles.
Democrats Martin Casas and Michael Butler say they’ve been pounding the pavement to gather support of the district, which includes city neighborhoods such as Tower Grove East, Compton Heights, Lafayette Square, Hyde Park, Grand Center and Jeff Vander Lou.
Casas is the owner of Frontyard Features, a company that shows films outdoors. He campaigned for Mayor Francis Slay’s re-election and has been involved in the state’s Young Democrats group.
Although he sees himself as a progressive, Casas said he wants to be a pragmatic legislator who can work with Republicans on issues to help St. Louis.
“There are fights that we are not going to back down on,” said Casas, pointing to his work with groups such as MoveOn.org and Americans for Democratic Action. “But the issues where we need to get things done for the city, we’re going to have to work with Republicans. And I’m going to do it. Because I’ve got too much at stake here to just sit back and let something fall to the wayside because of petty politics.”
Before diving into electoral politics, Butler served as a legislative aide to state Rep. Mary Still, D-Columbia, and state Sen. Robin Wright-Jones, D-St. Louis. Because of that experience in the Capitol, the 26-year-old Butler said there won’t be a learning curve if he’s elected to office.
“I’m a solutions guy,” Butler said. “I know a lot of people come to Jefferson City just to complain. I’m all about creating solutions and bringing money back to our city. I’ve been in Jefferson City. I know how things work. People are trying to paint me as too young, but of course I’m the more experienced candidate.”
Both candidates said they want to direct resources to assist the district. One of Butler's goals is building police substations, which he said is an inexpensive – but achievable – way to reduce crime. Casas, whose car was stolen, said he wants to use state incentives to cultivate manufacturing facilities, which he says would stimulate economic activity.
The two have different views though on how to improve education in St. Louis. Casas said he is a supporter of "education reform," a term sometimes used by advocates of school vouchers and charter schools.
“If they want to send their kid to a charter school, they should be allowed to,” said Casas, when asked what he meant about "expanding educational options." “They need to be able to send their kids to the best type of school that they think will get their kids the best education possible. We can’t keep jamming kids into public schools thinking that it’s going to solve all the problems.”
“The school district has been unaccredited for seven years. Kids don’t wait on budgets. They don’t wait on teachers that aren’t performing to get better. Kids need to get the best education possible now,” he added. “And if parents decide that their kids aren’t getting the best education at that school, they need to send their kid to a school where they think they can get one.”
Butler said he’s opposed to expanding charter schools or funneling state money to private schools. He said he would increase teacher salaries, implement districtwide development courses and cultivate after-school programs.
“My opponent’s education reform is going to increase the educational sinkhole that we have in city of St. Louis,” said Butler, who was endorsed by the Missouri National Eduation Association. “I am proposing we reinvest that money back into public schools and we cycle that investment into creating a competitive teacher’s salary. One of the biggest issues with city schools is that we have a human resources issue where our teachers start out getting paid $36,000, the lowest starting pay in the entire surrounding area. Everywhere else you can start out making at least $42,000. We have a human resources issue where we can’t hire or retain teachers.”
“We’ve got to increase parent involvement,” he added. “We’ve got to increase programs that get the teachers during the summer to make the relationships with the parents. We can no longer wait for the parents to come to us – it just doesn’t work.”
The two have both won notable endorsements for the contest. Casas received backing from Slay, former Gov. Bob Holden, several labor organizations and state legislators. Butler has the backing of state Reps. Chris Carter, D-St. Louis, Steve Webb, D-Florissant, and Genise Montecillo, D-St. Louis.
Casas raised $15,650 during the last fundraising quarter and has $12,607.50 of cash on hand, according to the latest campaign finance reports. Butler raised $5,916 during the same time period and has $1,213.02 of cash on hand.
Colona has been the state representative for the 67th District since 2008. Tower Grove South -- a fairly progressive, vibrant neighborhood -- takes up most of his current district.
Vitale is funding his own campaign. He said he's received about $4,000 in campaign funding from family and friends and spent a little under $20,000 of his own money so far. He doesn't plan to exceed $30,000.
While Colona has raised about $229,000 since he ran in 2008, he said his funds have also been spent to help Democratic candidates get elected and to fund the Missouri House Democratic Campaign Committee. As of April, the latest figures available, Colona has $32,744.83 cash on hand.
Vitale serves as the associate vice president business systems analyst at Wells-Fargo. He said this makes him the best representative for the new 80th District, which now includes neighborhoods such as Shaw, West Gardens, Kingshighway Hills, Tower Grove South and the Hill.
Vitale recently moved to the Hill, an historically Italian-American neighborhood, with his wife.
"As for my opponent, I see him not so multi-dimensional as myself," Vitale said. "He knows Tower Grove extremely well ... I think he fits in much more in that tight-knit community of Tower Grove and not completely representative of the entire (new) district."
He said the additions of those neighborhoods will work to his advantage because many in the new district have never seen his opponent's name on a ballot.
The race, Vitale said, "is much more than 'the Hill versus Tower Grove.'"
But Colona, who also serves as the minority whip for House Democrats, said about two-thirds of the district he currently represents is included in the new 80th District.
Colona, who is openly gay, doesn't think his sexual orientation will be an issue on the Hill. While Colona has been fighting to expand workplace protections for gays and lesbians, he said he has other priorities, too. If re-elected, Colona said he plans to fight for state law enforcement and to earmark new funding for an increase in police officers, training and equipment.
He also voted for the "Justice Reinvestment Act," which Gov. Jay Nixon signed into law July 7. The act is designed to improve public safety while cutting corrections cost. It also places more money and resources into drug and alcohol treatment, with the hopes of minimizing recidivism and continued addiction.
"So instead of locking people up and letting them out after their sentence, we know have more tools available to get people off of drugs and to keep them off of drugs," he said.
In May, Colona was one of 99 other state reps to vote to authorize the expansion of charter schools in Missouri.
As an incumbent, Colona has received 29 endorsements -- including the support of Slay, the Missouri State Council of Firefighters and the St. Louis Police Officers Association.
While Vitale is the newcomer in the race, he says he understands the issues at the forefront, including accreditation of city schools.
Vitale also says he understands how to strengthen economic development. It begins by establishing an educated workforce, and then providing incentives -- mainly job opportunities -- for that workforce to stay in the area, he said.
"We need to recognize what business brings to the table," he said.
One of the more unusual state House contests features a current lawmaker, a former legislator and a prominent journalist-turned attorney.
The battle for the St. Louis-based 84th District pits Rep. Karla May, D-St. Louis, against Hope Whitehead and Mike Owens. May and Whitehead both have served in the Missouri House, while Owens – who for years was a KSDK reporter – is an electoral newcomer.
May and Whitehead are longtime rivals. After former state Rep. T.D. El-Amin resigned after pleading guilty to bribery, Whitehead got the Democratic nomination in the 57th District to replace him over May. May ran as an independent, but lost to Whitehead in a special election.
In 2010, May – with the backing of St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay – narrowly defeated Whitehead. Now, the two have been drawn into a district that incorporates Academy, Dogtown, the Central West End and Skinker-DeBaliviere.
But Owens – the husband of Alderwoman Lyda Krewson – may prove to be the wildcard in the contest. Owens attended St. Louis University School of Law while working full-time at KSDK and eventually joined Pleban & Petruska Law.
Even though May and Whitehead have won state House seats before, Owens managed to raise substantially more money than both of them. Owens raised $49,308 in the most recent fundraising quarter, which exceeds the $15,060 May received and the $5,105 Whitehead took in.
The three candidates met last Thursday at a forum organized by the Skinker DeBaliviere Community Council at the Grace United Methodist Church Fellowship Hall. Owens said he wanted to form coalitions with Kansas City lawmakers to provide a united front for urban areas of the state. He also said he has a proven record of helping ordinary people both as a journalist and as an attorney.
Karla May, Hope Whitehead and Mike Owens discuss the previous legislative session.
“I was a reporter at Channel 5 and KMOX radio for about 30 years in St. Louis, and during that time I was often a voice for the voiceless,” Owens said. “I would often do stories of the fellow who was fired from his job wrongfully or the parent of the child who was bullied at school or even a subdivision that was facing bulldozers so they could put up another shopping center. I want to be a voice for you in Jefferson City.”
May – the daughter of former St. Louis Alderwoman Parrie May – cited her longtime interest and involvement in city politics as a way she’s connected with constituents.
“I made a commitment to run and represent the people,” May said. “And the reason I did that was because I understood that the people need to hire someone who’s going to put their best interests first. And that’s why I became a candidate. Because I understood that we’re all from different walks of life. We may be nurses, we may be doctors, we may be plumbers, we may be electricians. But we’re all important.”
Whitehead, an attorney, previously served as an associate administrative law judge for the Division of Workers’ Compensation and as the director of the Division of Liquor Control. She said she was running to be an independent voice for the residents, not necessarily beholden to the governor or the mayor.
“I believe ever since I’ve been running for office that Hope stands for helping our people every day,” Whitehead said. “I’m very committed to that. I started my career at Washington University Law School. But before that, I’m a product of public schools. And I like to tell people that I’m what happens when you fully invest in public schools.”
During this year’s legislative session, May sponsored a bill to alter criminal nonsupport laws and allow for expungement of a person’s record under certain conditions. She voted against legislation expanding charter schools across the state and opposed a bill that would have altered teacher tenure.
All three candidates want to expand funding for early childhood education. Whitehead said she was disappointed by the failure of an incentives package to entice international trade to Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.
May voted for local control of St. Louis Police Department. Owens said he is supports a ballot initiative to achieve that while Whitehead – who is supportive of the idea of “local control” – wrote in response to a Beyond November question that she does not “support the current ballot initiative because it does not give the citizens enough input and control and it lacks transparency.”
During the quarter, May received a contribution from Slay’s campaign committee. She’s also received financial support from some labor unions, such as the Communications Workers of America.
Whitehead lists endorsements from state Rep. Susan Carlson, D-University City, St. Louis Alderman Frank Williamson and former Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White. Owens received endorsements from Holden, St. Louis Alderman Scott Ogilvie and former St. Louis Mayor James Conway.
But perhaps the strangest primary is unfolding in the 93rd District in parts of south county and south city.
Two Democrats with ties to south county politics – Joe Montecillo and Bob Burns – are running a in a district that became open when Rep. Scott Sifton, D-Affton, chose to run for Senate. Joe Montecillo is the ex-husband of state Rep. Genise Montecillo, D-St. Louis, who is seeking the nearby 92nd District seat.
Since both the 92nd and 93rd Districts lean Democratic, the two ex-spouses will serve together if Joe Montecillo wins the primary.
The backstory of the race is complicated: Sifton was expected to run for re-election in the 93rd District, which includes parts of Lemay, Mehlville and the southern tip of the city. But after the 1st senatorial district became more Democratic, Sifton decided to run against state Sen. Jim Lembke, R-Lemay.
Montecillo filed before Sifton withdrew. And soon afterward, Burns – who narrowly lost to Lembke in 2006 – filed at the encouragement of Democratic lawmakers in the state House.
[The Riverfront Times reported last week about how Joe Montecillo and Genise Montecillo filed orders of protection against each other over the past year. Both of the matters were eventually dropped, according to the publication.]
“They asked me because this situation with Rep. Montecillo and her ex-husband to settle things down,” said Burns in a phone interview. “I got so many calls asking me to please run for this to help the settle down the Democratic Party in Jefferson City. And so I did. I got involved."
In a phone interview, Montecillo acknowledged that the situation is unusual. And while he said he doesn’t begrudge Burns, Montecillo sais he’s more in touch with people in the district.
“I do think (Burns is) doing what’s good to make peace and everything,” Montecillo said. “But on the other hand, I’ve had people who’ve said ‘wait a minute, that’s good and well. But the people that are telling him to make peace are not really our people.’”
Genise Montecillo, who has endorsed Burns, declined to comment on the race.
Both candidates have raised roughly the same amount of money and some notable endorsements. Burns, for instance, received the support of several state representatives – including Genise Montecillo – and labor groups. Montecillo’s backing includes former state Rep. Joan Barry, D-Oakville, St. Louis Collector of Revenue Gregory F.X. Daly and Alderman Larry Arnowitz, D-12th Ward.
Burns – who worked for several decades in the brewery industry – served as staff member to former U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-St. Louis, and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. Burns played a major role in the disincorporation of St. George, a tiny municipality in south St. Louis County.
Burns also noted his involvement in a commission examining development in St. Louis County’s 6th District and his efforts to bring a casino to Lemay. He said if he’s elected, his wife – a former St. George alderwoman – will serve an important volunteer adviser. And he said he will try to work together with a likely Republican majority.
“My goal is not to come there and fight,” Burns said. “My goal is to work together toward the greater good. And if we can do, I have no problem working across the aisle with the Republican Party if we can agree on some issues."
A graduate of Washington University’s law school, Montecillo worked as an assistant counselor in St. Louis. An attorney with Klar, Izsak & Stenger, Montecillo served as president of the Progressive Democrats of Lemay Township and is a member of Project Lemay.
Like Burns, Montecillo said he'd be supportive of issues that organized labor cares about if he’s elected. He also said his ties with the city will help bridge a long-standing divide between the city and county.
“Particularly with my background as kind of a city-county guy, I can bridge that,” Montecillo said. “Because there’s always been a lot of competition there – and there still is. But I think with the city getting behind me … they feel comfortable with me as much as Joan Barry does. So I’m pretty pleased with that.”
Both Montecillo and Burns said that County Councilman Steve Stenger – who is facing his own re-election campaign this fall – is staying neutral in the contest.