There's something about the logo of the new 15th Ward Democrats: the way the donkey is rolling up his sleeves, yes, but also how he's looking you square in the eye, eyebrow slightly raised, one hand curled into a fist. Is this donkey itching for a fight?
Not necessarily. "We are looking for a new era for politics for the 15th ward," said Jan O'Leary, the group's president. "Our relationship with the old ward organization is that we really haven't dealt with them at all...but of course, there hasn't been an election yet."
Welcome to ward politics in St. Louis, the most local of all local political intrigue. Ward organizations and their attendant committeeman and committeewoman positions serve as the most grassroots level of the political parties, existing to educate voters within a ward about issues and candidates, to encourage voter participation in elections and to endorse candidates for office each election cycle. However, beyond those basic guidelines, ward organizations can vary widely in character.
What O'Leary and the other members of the new 15th ward group found out last year about the existing ward organization didn't fit their ideas of what ward politics should be like.
"Last election cycle, when Jennifer Florida was looking into running for the 15th ward aldermanic spot, those of us working on her campaign started finding out about the ward organization and what it does," O'Leary said. "What we found was what's called a closed ward organization, meaning that all the endorsement decisions are made by just two people, the elected committeeman and committeewoman. That didn't seem right or participatory to us, and it seemed very open to the influence of personal opinion, rather than the best interests of the constituents."
In many wards across the city (although not the 15th), it's common to find the spouse of the current alderman serving in one of the two committee positions. This lends to the appearance, if not the existence, of a potential conflict of interest.
According to O'Leary, the new 15th Ward Democrats aren't necessarily opposed to the politics of the older ward organization; they just want to see more openness in the process.
"I don't really know how they make their endorsement decisions," she said. "But the way we've set ourselves up, we will function as an open ward organization, which means anyone who wants to pay annual dues [$10 a year] can join and vote. Our members will vote on who they want to endorse in every single position on the ballot, and that's how our ward organization will determine its support of candidates and issues."
Although still in its infancy during the last aldermanic election cycle, the 15th Ward Democrats put out a sample ballot endorsing candidates, including the endorsement of Jennifer Florida for alderman. It was the major difference between their ballot and the sample ballot circulated by the Democrats of the 15th Ward (the older group), who came down on the side of opponent Mike Daus. This first foray and the fact that their candidate won, albeit by 21 votes certainly brought the 15th Ward Democrats to the attention of the other group.
"Well, they did put out a brochure within the ward, telling people that there was another group out there calling themselves the 15th Ward Democrats who were putting out a sample ballot trying to trick people," laughed O'Leary. "I'm sure they're not that happy about us forming, because now they're going to have to really run for their seats."
When the next ward committee elections are held, both groups are expected to field candidates, putting the two groups squarely in opposition for the legitimacy that comes with committee control. O'Leary is optimistic about her group's chances.
"You know, it's not just about endorsements; we have a group of people who are very involved in their community some who were already involved in politics and some who are brand new to it but all of whom are excited about the chance to affect the future of our neighborhood."
For more information about the 15th Ward Democrats, including an upcoming general meeting in March, contact Jan O'Leary at firstname.lastname@example.org.