This debate was put on by several non-profit (and progressive) organizations around the city, including the amazing folks at Arch City Defenders, Empower Missouri, Hands Up United, and the St. Louis Action Council. (See the full list of sponsors here). The debate as a whole was amazingly well organized and focused, and I was very impressed. It was also well attended, with standing room only even after an entire row of extra chairs was added. (I heard someone say they estimated 1500 people). They also provided a very detail map of endorsements and campaign funding sources for the candidates (which doesn't view well on a phone, by the way). Finally, they provided a pre-debate survey with detailed responses from all participants.
The participants did not include all of the many people running for mayor, but it did include the frontrunners. We heard from Antonio French, Tishaura Jones, Lyda Krewson, Lewis Reed, and Jeff Boyd.
My overall impression of the debate performances is pretty much summed up in this tweet:
I have some more personal reactions to the candidates and, though I entered an undecided voter, I exited with my mind made up. Before I get to that, here are some highlights from the issues discussed.My reaction to #wokevoterstl debate: @AntonioFrench and @tishaura won. @LydaKrewson survived. @PresReed stumbled. @JeffBoyd4Mayor was there.— Tony Messenger (@tonymess) January 29, 2017
Addressing the problem of homelessness came up in a couple of different points of the debate through a few different lenses. Reed was asked early on to clarify his pre-debate survey response in which he was critical of the current efforts to address homelessness but offered no concrete policies of his own. He mentioned better understanding the population to address causes of homelessness in a more focused way, but the specific policy was still lacking. Immediately after that Boyd was asked about whether he supported more police training to handle addiction with more sensitivity, and he said we should find additional resources to do so, but didn't offer where they might come from.
Krewson was hit with some questions about previous support to criminalize panhandling (which included a fine and jail time). She defended her action as having been part of the Real Change Program, which was put in place in conjunction with well-known organizations that help the homeless. Similarly, she countered criticism over wanting to shut down downtown shelter NLEC by pointing out that they don't provide continuous care and put people out on the sidewalk with no real resources. (This debate has been covered with some differing viewpoints here and here).
Jones and French sparred a bit over minimum wage. Jones proudly boasts of having protested alongside Fight for 15 activists and cited her own role as a single mother to be a primary motivator for her passion on the topic. French said that he supported a state-level minimum wage increase but did not want to disadvantage the city by making increasing the wage city-wide only to have businesses flee. He then took a jab at Jones by saying that her staff in the Treasurer's office wasn't paid $15 an hour. She shot back that she immediately gave her staff a raise upon entering her position and pays all of her campaign staff $15 an hour.
Elsewhere in the evening, minimum wage was discussed because both Boyd and Krewson were absent (in their roles as alderman and alderwoman) when the city-wide increase to $11 was implemented. Krewson noted that it was her amendment they were voting on, and she was there for the perfection vote, just not the final vote. Boyd first insisted that he was present for the vote, but the moderator insisted he was not. (I looked when I got home, and the record says he was there. I let the organizers know that, and they responded back that they got their information from this article, which lists him among the absent voters.) He then said he would have voted yes and voted yes on the perfection vote. (French voted against it).
Cash Bail and Jail Conditions
Jones made it clear that she wanted to end the cash bail system and proposed payment plans and community service alternatives as possible solutions that would keep people out of jails and from the snowballing issue of losing jobs, disrupting lives, etc. due to incarceration over minor offenses. She even said that people had taken their own lives because of the impact of the cash bail system.
Boyd also stated his support for ending it, but his solution is ankle bracelets. The audience was vocally opposed, and the moderator followed up to ask if he was concerned about whether that was a liberty issue for someone who had committed a minor offense. He doubled down saying, "I'm not saying they have to wear short pants!" as if it is the visibility of the monitor and not its tracking mechanism that makes it invasive. It was a disturbing answer.
On a somewhat related note, there was a question involving "The Workhouse," the medium security prison located in the city. Both French and Reed responded that it should not be closed. French pointed out that closing it would further overcrowd the jail; instead, he wants to issue a bond to raise funds for improvements like air conditioning. Reed said it should not be closed and that we should instead focus on prevention and treatment instead of incarceration. He did not, however, address the current conditions of the prison.
City Development and Stadiums
Development was a topic that wound its way through the debate consistently and often as a supplemental topic to unrelated questions. It seemed obvious that all of the candidates want their stance on development front and center and understand it to be an important drive for the campaign as a whole.
Jones was very critical of TIF money and its past use and passionately laid out a plan to ensure development would be routed out of the central corridor and into the mostly-ignored north and south parts of the city. She also said that any development plan would have to have community benefit and living wage agreements and anything that didn't would be vetoed.
Krewson also talked about her past experience in helping to develop The Loop area, specifically mentioning driving around with developers to show them potential properties they might not have considered on their own. She said that any development she approved would have to provide neighborhood services and meet minority participation requirements.
The potential funding for a MLS stadium was discussed. Jones and French were both adamantly against it, both citing the myriad of other funding needs the city has. Reed was questioned somewhat critically for voting to put the MLS funding on the ballot, but he insisted that he didn't support the funds; he supported the voters having a say. He said he was always on the side of voter empowerment. He was then questioned over the (non-voter approved) use of $4 million for Scott Trade Center, but he didn't provide a real justification for that beyond the explanation that it was "different" from the MLS issue.
Jones voiced support for putting a city-county merger on the ballot and said that she personally would vote for it, but she also acknowledged that a lot of financial housekeeping had to take place before that vote would be feasible.
French somewhat flippantly said that the county doesn't need a "91st municipality" and said that he had no interest in a merger, explaining there were other ways to cooperate without joining a county that hasn't shown progress on important issues like addressing inequality.
All of the candidates voiced support for decriminalizing marijuana. French went further by saying that he would love to see it made legal in the state, and Jones--speaking immediately after him--took it up a notch by calling for taxation like Colorado to get tax revenue.
Notably, Krewson added the phrase "of small amounts" to her statement to decriminalize it, and the audience noticed (and boo'ed).
All of the candidates were adamant that St. Louis should be sanctuary city. French mentioned his involvement in the airport protest that sprung up this weekend following Trump's immigration ban. He said that we needed to be prepared to resist the Trump administration at this and other turns.
Jones mentioned that she had been in touch with New York on the topic.
Krewson was questioned about her statement in the pre-debate survey that she wouldn't risk federal funds to maintain status as a sanctuary city. She was pressed hard on it, and tried to wiggle out of it by saying, "but we shouldn't have to give up those funds to be a sanctuary city." Ultimately, she said that we should fight to keep the funds and the status, but she never gave a clear answer on which she would choose if both were not an option.
Policing and Police Shootings
I saved this one for last because it was by far the biggest issue. It came up in different ways, and it was also the elephant in the room because--for the first half-hour or so of the debate (until they were told to stop, I assume)--there was a group of people who held up signs like this every time Krewson spoke.
Beyond the signs, the boos and cheers in the room showed a clear issue with the fact that Krewson received the endorsement of the SLPOA. The issue hung in the air for most of the debate, and Krewson fielded questions about policing by repeatedly focusing on funding for training. She also said that we need more police officers, saying that we need at least 1300 and only have about 1200. She connected training with staffing by saying training couldn't take place if everyone was overworked. When asked explicitly if training would include implicit bias training, she said yes. She also acknowledged her own white privilege and said "Black lives absolutely do matter."
Later, though, her ties to the SLPOA were brought up more explicitly. She said that though she did not support Roorda, whose comments she admitted were racist, she did support the police officers. She said, "I can't control who they hire." When asked if she would ask Roorda to step down, she said that wasn't within her control. The audience booed loudly.
For contrast, Jones was asked why she didn't meet with SLPOA (the only candidate present who didn't), and she said it was because she had no interest in their endorsement or having anything to do with Roorda. She also demonstrated a difference with Krewson by saying that she would focus on placing social workers on staff to work with police instead of hiring more officers.
Tef Poe, local musician and activist, mocked Krewson's call for "training," a theme that French picked up on when he said that the people weren't asking for better training; they were asking for accountability. He said that there would not be trust between the citizens and the police until accountability was obvious. He also said that he supported community policing practices and wanted to move away from military tactical style training, a training style Reed also condemned. French also made it clear that firing police chief Sam Dotson would be a priority on "day one."
Boyd cited several times that his own relative who was killed by police, but he also talked about black-on-black crime and the community needing to "take responsibility" for the shootings.
Another point about policing was French's support for security cameras around the city, something he helped implant in his own North City ward. He emphasized that as a citizen, he wanted there to be footage to help solve crimes, and cited that 60% of the cities homicides go unsolved. He also mentioned that there are plenty of cameras downtown in areas that attract tourists; he believes neighborhoods should have the same security measures. He frequently mentioned a disparity between the midtown area and areas north and south, and this was another place where he sees that divide. Response times, he says, are slower to areas outside of midtown, and it needs to be corrected.
Some Other Stuff
Of mention are some issues that were more personal and less policy-driven.
Reed fired some nasty shots at both Jones and Boyd while trying to cast himself as the anti-Slay candidate. He said that he was the only one who had been brave enough to run against Slay in the past, and then he accused Jones of hiring Slay's campaign team (and why wouldn't she? After all, they ran a winning campaign.) before getting really angry with Boyd for handing out campaign literature supporting Slay during the previous election.
Jones responded that her father runs her campaign, and then Boyd shot back with a fiery "how dare you tell me who to support" before calling out Reed for not having integrity and lying to the alderman board. The two men duked it out for a bit, and though it was fiery and passionate, it seemed to be getting into the weeds in what they did or didn't do for one another in their professional relationship rather than stick to an issue the voters should be concerned with. It did make for an entertaining couple minutes, though.
Jones was asked about the controversy surrounding her use of funds for travel and a city-issued vehicle. She explained that she traveled to trainings that allowed her to make direct changes to the city. She also said that she had saved the city $5 million dollars (I think in conjunction with her implementation of the parking meters, but I'm not certain) because of the things she had learned. She said that she would "take advantage of every perk" offered with her position as long as it allowed her to do a good job.
Krewson was obviously in front of a hostile crowd. She is the least progressive candidate in a room filled with progressive voters. She tried to address the issue a few times, but it often fell flat. She insisted we were in "Missour-ah" drawing out the alternate pronunciation intentionally. To what end? I can't say because it certainly felt divisive. She also answered a heckling "Can I live on your street?!" with a folksy "You betcha" that didn't help the tension. While she did directly acknowledge her racial privilege, the room as a whole did not seem satisfied, and I often felt like she was giving her answers with a remote audience in mind rather than trying to win the votes in front of her.
It's no secret that I am progressive and want progressive policies in my city. Going into this debate, I was undecided. Jones and French were at the top of my list, but I hadn't ruled out voting for someone else. I was particularly interested in hearing from Krewson because she is the best funded and the frontrunner.
After reading the pre-debate responses and listening to this debate, I am voting for Jones.
Boyd doesn't seem to be a serious candidate, and he answered too many questions with platitudes. He was even asked a question that was basically "You've lost three city-wide races already and are only polling at 5%. Why not drop out instead of taking votes away from someone else?" and responded with "Quitters never win and winners never quit." Perhaps, but he's not winning. Nothing he said tonight made me think otherwise.
Reed gave some good answers, but I think his attack of Boyd and Jones over their relationship to Slay made him look insecure and petty. It wasn't a focused moment. Generally, his best answers were only equally good as another candidates, and his worst answers were, well, worse. Nothing he said made him stand out to me as a particularly good choice. He also did not adequately address his controversy over the sexist comments against alderwoman Megan Green.
Krewson seemed to be, as I mentioned earlier, addressing a different audience. She did not handle the questions about her police endorsement well, and she certainly had to know they were coming considering who sponsored this event. I was disappointed in how she handled it. I also wanted a stronger answer from her about the sanctuary city status, especially considering she was giving this response today, immediately following Trump's horrendous anti-immigrant actions.
French gave a lot of good answers, and I like his policies. He, however, doubled down on his cocky response that he "regrets nothing" he's ever done in his political career, which was off putting.
French and Jones share a lot of the same ideology and plans, but Jones was much clearer and more focused when it came to implementation. She had detailed plans for every initiative, and she handled herself like someone with experience and political skills. She seemed confident, passionate, and clear. I got the impression that she would step into the role of mayor with an immediate and actionable plan for the city, and I liked it.
That's why she is going to get my vote.
The bottom line, though, is that I was thrilled to see such a big turnout, and I hope we pack the polling stations in March.