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May 2005 / church and state :: email this story to a friend

Disturbing the Comfortable
By Steve Patterson

"Why are you doing this to her?" was the question I was asked by 15th Ward alderwoman Jennifer Florida a week after I filed to run for alderman in the 25th Ward against incumbent Dorothy Kirner. "She's a widow; she is doing a good job," Florida continued to me. St. Louis ward politics is so backwards some incumbents actually think if they are unchallenged everyone likes them and if someone challenges them it is a personal matter. I was simply running because I thought I could do a better job as alderman. Apparently that is not how the game is played.

In the game of "St. Louis Ward Monopoly," you are supposed to work your way up the system through the Democratic clubs in each ward, all of which are part of the Democratic Central Committee. The entire system is essentially a small group of people trying desperately to hold on to vestiges of power. Part of maintaining power is spreading the illusion that challenging an incumbent with name recognition and the backing of big money is a waste of time. Discouraging challengers is step one in maintaining the status quo.

Steve Patterson Another strategy is to convince potential challengers the best thing to do is to be a part of the ward club and wait dutifully until the incumbent decides it is time to pass the baton onto the next person. This grooming of the next alderman is how good people are brainwashed into believing in the system. These would-be aldermen are almost guaranteed of walking into a position of power when the time is right. Being outspoken and a free thinker will get you removed from the line of succession.

Ignoring conventions of St. Louis' political scene, I decided to run for the Board of Aldermen on the very last day of filing, January 7, 2005. The election was less than nine weeks away. I had no political experience, no campaign team and no strategy. The odds were against me for many reasons.

My opponent, Dorothy Kirner, was elected to office in June 2004 by a vote of 363-93 over Republican challenger Francis Wildhaber. The seat was vacated when her husband, alderman Dan Kirner, passed away a few months earlier. Dan Kirner, a retired police officer, was first elected to the Board of Aldermen in a special election in 1999. He was unchallenged in his bid for re-election in 2001. Dan Kirner had served as 25th Ward committeeman for many years and Dorothy Kirner had served as committeewoman for twenty years. To say they were well established is an understatement.

A Carl Coats had filed to run for the seat on November 29th. I was content allowing Dorothy Kirner to win, knowing that at least she was opposed in the primary. However, days before the filing deadline Mr. Coats withdrew from the race. It was only by accident that I happened to be looking at the St. Louis Board of Elections website the day before the filing deadline. Discovering this fact I wrote on my blog, "Unless someone files tomorrow Dorothy Kirner will win by default. This is my ward — I was hoping someone would mount a good challenge to Kirner." I had no idea at that point that less than 24 hours later that person would be me.

Driving to an evening board meeting of the St. Louis Regional Bike Federation, I began thinking about the idea of running for alderman myself. It was a scary thought. What would be my chances of winning? Would I be running just to keep Kirner from winning by default or could I mount a serious campaign? How would I raise money?

That evening I called my college friend Brad in Washington, D.C. Brad, a Ph D. in communications, is a trusted friend. We talked through the issues and he was very supportive. Could I really be about to enter politics? Calls to a few other friends locally ranged from support to discouragement at challenging the system. I slept very little that night.

Friday morning, the last day to file, I was still undecided. A few more calls convinced me running was a worthwhile pursuit. At 9:56 a.m. I became a candidate for the St. Louis Board of Alderman. An hour and a half later I publicly declared my candidacy on my website. Although scared, I was beaming with civic pride.

One of the first calls to come in was from a recent acquaintance, attorney Michael Kime. Mike was a regular reader of Urban Review — St. Louis and we had met for lunch once in November. Mike is a committed environmentalist. Just days before we discussed my election we had an email conversation with the subject line "Bio-diesel and Willie Nelson." Mike had worked on the campaigns of Howard Dean and Jeff Smith.

The "to-do" list was daunting: find someone to be the campaign treasurer, file the paperwork to organize the committee, start a campaign website, begin raising funds, recruit volunteers, outline the issues and develop a strategy. In the first few days my mood changed from a great sense of civic pride to denial at what I started. Am I really doing this?

By January 12th I had convinced former 3rd district Congressional candidate Corey Mohn to join the campaign as treasurer. I had met Corey once during his race for Congress. The fact we had many similar views and that he was also a 25th ward resident made him a perfect fit for the campaign. Mike Kime and Corey Mohn were the key team. We were on our way with lots remaining to be done. Starting from zero I could only gain ground.

I attended my first neighborhood meeting as a candidate a week after filing. I had an initial flyer to start working on getting my basic message out — change, new ideas and a promise to be responsive. I walked into the meeting not knowing what I was doing and what kind of reaction I would get. I passed out the flyers prior to the meeting, had a nice conversation with Dorothy Kirner, talked with some neighbors I've known for many years as well as met new people. All in all it went really well.

Over the next two weeks I attended meetings, talked with many people and worked on my flyer and website. A friend created a logo for use on the flyers and web. The pieces were all coming together. On January 21st the website debuted and the next day we had the campaign blog in place. Three of our eight weeks had passed and we had only begun to reach the voting public. Time was flying by way too quickly.

When we reached the four-week mark we had our signs ready to go in the yards. I had developed a short list of people who wanted a sign but it was nowhere near the 200 signs I had ordered. Would I end up with 150 unused signs? Despite my concerns about not having enough yards for the signs it was thrilling to see my name on a campaign sign. Having my campaign website prominent on the sign was part of the strategy to get the message out, knowing I would most likely not have the funds to do a mailing.

The first weekend in February was Mardi Gras so we decided to work on some background stuff rather than try to drag volunteers away from the festivities in Soulard. This meant we had only four weekends left to get the message out to the voters. Not having funds for mailings we would rely on volunteers to distribute flyers to voters in the Ward. But would I have enough volunteers?

Throughout February everything began to fall into place as we had hoped. Contributions began to come in at a steady rate, including online contributions through PayPal. Meet and greets events in other areas of the city and in the ward helped me gain money, volunteers and voters. I received endorsements from Arch City Chronicle editor Dave Drebes, State Representative Jeanette Mott Oxford and former 3rd district Congressional candidate Jeffrey Smith. Neighborhood organizations began planning a public debate.

Mayor Slay was inadvertently helpful to our campaign. On February 9th we discovered the Mayor's re-election campaign website and investment numbers broken down ward-by-ward. Unfortunately, the 25th Ward came in last over the last four years. We had what would be the pivotal issue in the campaign. This information would become the basis for our second flyer, "The Numbers Tell the Story."

The race was not without issues. Signs for Kirner appeared days after I filed for office. These signs were from a June 2004 special election and were paid for by the 25th Ward Regular Democratic Club (of which I am a member). I feel the signs misled voters into thinking the ward club had already endorsed Kirner. 25th Ward committeeman Norman Sutterer said Kirner was simply being frugal by reusing old signs and that voters were not being misled. Six weeks into the campaign the ward club voted 26-4 to endorse Kirner.

On February 15th Kirner debuted her first website. It would be completely redesigned before the election. I believe it is safe to say that Kirner would not have had a website if I didn't first. During the campaign Kirner mailed at least five glossy mailings to registered voters. The 25th ward club spent nearly a thousand dollars on phone solicitations to voters.

Tuesday March 1st was our debate. Attendance was mostly decided voters (for both of us), as well as a number of observers, including a couple of other aldermen and Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce. I don't think anyone would disagree that I handily won the debate. My only regret is that I didn't get it on video.

By the time the final weekend arrived we had nearly all of our signs out throughout the ward including an excellent showing on Grand. We had a surplus of funds due to conservative spending and excellent fundraising efforts, so we did a last-minute mailing to 600 voters between the ages of 25-35.

The two precincts west of Grand voted at Scruggs School and Resurrection School. We decided my time was best spent at Cleveland High School, where the two precincts from east of Grand voted. I would spend the entire day at Cleveland greeting voters from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. I couldn't sleep the night before.

Election day was long but encouraging. I can tell you this was the most exciting time I have ever voted — being able to vote for myself in an election was thrilling. One by one I greeted voters going to the polls, asking them to vote for me. Many gave me the thumbs-up as they passed by. Others I had talked to or emailed with, and we finally got a chance to meet in person. It was nice to connect with so many people. My voters represented a cross section of the ward in terms of age and race.

As the day progressed I began to get convinced we were going to win. Exclusive of absentee ballots, I won the 1st precinct 143-129 and the 4th precinct 125-99. The numbers confirm what we sensed on election day: east of Grand, strong support. Kirner garnered more absentee voters than I did but in the end I received 52% of the vote east of Grand. Kirner's backyard — west of Grand — was a different story.

In the two precincts west of Grand I ended up with a very respectable 35% of the vote. Not bad considering all the obstacles I faced, challenging an incumbent who is so well known. Overall I received 44.1% of the vote.

Would I do it again? Yes! Will I do it again? Most likely; we will see what the next four years bring. I would certainly encourage others to run for office. It is a character-building experience. And as the numbers show, with very little time and money you can come close. More time and money could very well have resulted in a victory for me.

The future of our great city is much too important to elect officials by default. The issues raised and the involvement of many people would not have been present in the 25th ward had I not run for the seat. Dorothy Kirner will be a better public servant as a result of having to earn the position.

I challenge everyone in the city to make sure all future aldermanic races are contested. I pledge to help make that a reality. The even numbered wards are up for re-election in March 2007. Now is the time to start planning. Trust me: don't wait until the last day of filing.

Steve Patterson is a REALTOR® with Schaller Realty on South Broadway. He also writes the Urban Review - St. Louis blog and a blog devoted to the 25th Ward.

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