From the Editor

Search this site:

The Commonspace

Jan 2002 / from the editor :: email this story to a friend

The Aldermanic Shuffle
By Brian H. Marston

The political landscape of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen is generally rather odd. The aldermen are charged with being the legislative branch of city government. It's an important job. Yet it pays like a part-time job, and aldermen are often elected based on whether they promise people that their garbage will be picked up on time. Add to this some standard personality conflicts and omnipresent racial tension, and you're in for a fun time.

Given the general background weirdness of the Board, the specific weirdness involved in redistricting should come as no surprise. According to conventional wisdom, redistricting is mostly a matter of race, a mathematical game played with lines on a map, in which the object is to get the right number of the right color people in each ward. While that's true, it misses an important subtext to the story that calls into question how decisions were made about which way specific ward boundaries will zig and zag.

ward map

The Board of Aldermen operates on a wolf pack mentality. The aldermen are more beholden to each other to advance their careers than they are to their own constituents. Those who go along to get along with their fellow aldermen and don't make trouble come out ahead. Those who make waves get voted off the island.

To compound the problem, the system of checks and balances that's so important to any democratic process is virtually non-existent when it comes to the Board of Aldermen because of the Golden Rule of aldermanic courtesy — if you rubberstamp my legislation for my ward, I'll rubberstamp your legislation for your ward. As a result, an alderman has relatively broad power to do whatever he wants in his ward, with or without the support of his constituents.

Of course, the way it's supposed to work is that aldermen who make their constituents angry pay the price at the polls the next time an election rolls around. However, thanks to redistricting, aldermen who play by the rules of the political game are given a chance every ten years to tidy up the boundaries of their wards by excising the voters they've pissed off.

For example, Alderman Steve Conway (D-8th) backed a plan to bulldoze a large part of the McRee Town neighborhood and replace it with suburban-style housing for people in the upper income tax brackets. This plan flies in the face of a community-based plan that was 18 months in the making, which called for ample public green space, urban-style housing, generous relocation assistance for those evicted from their homes and a percentage of the development set aside for low income families.

Conway's stance has angered a lot of people, especially those who are concerned about social justice. Luckily for him, according to the new map, McRee Town is no longer in the 8th ward. Rather than sticking around to deal with the resulting fallout, Conway managed to slide out the back door without a scratch.

Meanwhile, Alderman Kenny Ortmann (D-9th) alienated almost everyone who lives in the first two blocks east of the South Grand Business District by doggedly pursuing the demolition of two hundred-year-old homes to add 20 parking spaces to the lot behind the strip mall at Grand and Arsenal. Ortmann turned a deaf ear to the loud outcry from his own constituents who live on those blocks, probably because he knew he wouldn't be their alderman for much longer. If they don't like it, what are they going to do? Not vote for him? Ironically, Conway will now be taking over the blocks in question, dividing up the Tower Grove East neighborhood with four other aldermen.

In addition to rewarding some aldermen with an escape hatch, redistricting also punishes those who find themselves outside of the huddle by moving their wards across town. Alderman Sharon Tyus (D-20th) and Alderman Craig Schmid (D-10th) are well liked by the people they represent. However, that won't be enough to keep them in office. Tyus is definitely the flashier of the two. She and her supporters have grabbed the headlines with public (and literal) pissing matches. Unfortunately, her "Nazi this and fascist that" rhetoric obscures the good points she does have in her favor and makes her easy to write off as a nutcase. It certainly seems like the reason her north city ward was singled out for exile to South St. Louis was because she committed the cardinal sin of getting under the mayor's skin. Don't expect her to go quietly, though. If Sharon ain't happy, ain't nobody happy.

Although you don't hear as much about him, Schmid is the redistricting victim most worthy of sympathy. He's the only alderman you'll ever see picking up trash by himself on the side of the road. Unlike a lot of other aldermen, Schmid doesn't moonlight; he treats being a public servant as a full-time job. He votes based on convictions rather than factions, and that makes him vulnerable at a time when everyone else is choosing sides.

Redistricting is necessary to properly tune our representative form of government. However, it has an unfortunate side effect of undermining accountability by switching some people's representatives midterm without an election. Churchill was right when he said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms.

Church and State | Games | Expatriates | Communities | From the Source
It's All Happening | Young Minds | The Ordinary Eye | Elsewhere
Sights and Sounds | Media Shoegaze | A Day's Work | From the Editor

© 2002 The Commonspace