Thoughts on the 2023 St. Louis General Municipal Election

On Tuesday, April 4th, St. Louis has completed a long-overdue right-sizing of the wards that comprise the Board of Aldermen, shrinking the city’s legislative branch from 28 members to 14. This week’s election was “Aldergeddon”—an unforgiving set of showdowns between groups of incumbent aldermen who were redrawn into the same ward, in addition to the usual contests between incumbents and prospective newcomers. Few had the fortune to avoid a challenge in the most consequential aldermanic election in the city’s modern history.

Despite being a consistently deep-blue spot in state and national elections, St. Louis has a complex internal political dynamic. The highly-segregated city resembles Chicago and other Rust Belt municipialities except without a sizable Hispanic population. The white (South City) and black (North City) parts of town tend to support different candidates, with some cross-pollination along ideological lines (i.e., conservative Democrat vs. moderate Democrat). For example, in 2021, incumbent mayor Tishuara Jones built a winning coalition by securing the black vote and the white progressive vote—enough to put her over 50% in a city where the more conservative south side has higher voter turnout.

Tuesday’s results are a continuation of the city’s leftward trend. Progressive candidates defeated their moderate or conservative challengers in nearly all contested races, granting the board’s progressive President, Megan Green, an ideological majority for the first time. Eroded by scandals and defeats, the moderate-conservative consensus that has governed the city for decades no longer controls the levers of policy and administration.

How I voted in Ward 5

The new Ward 5’s race was between longtime incumbent Joe Vollmer and local businessowner Helen Petty. Vollmer was alderman for Ward 10 for 20 years and is firmly rooted in The Hill, where he owns the popular Milo’s Bocce Garden. Hailing from an earlier era of St. Louis politics, Vollmer embodies The Hill’s Italian-American conservatism: he prioritizes constituent service and public safety issues, and he doesn’t engage in lofty rhetoric around equity and the culture war.

Working with progressive political consulting firm [Missouri Political Consulting](Helen Petty — MO Political Consulting, Petty positioned herself as a modern liberal alternative to Vollmer’s old-fashioned retail politics. Her website emphasizes reforming development subsidies, tenant rights, supporting the homeless, and trans inclusivity. There are platitudes about providing good constituent services, yes—but it’s clear that Petty, like her progressive peers, sees the Board as an agent of change in St. Louis, one that can’t remain disconnected from broader debates about policing, education reform, and civil rights.

When I first encountered Petty’s campaign, I was a feeling a bit grouchy about municipal progressive politics. I haven’t been impressed by Mayor Jones’s leadership; the city continues to struggle to provide basic services while she focuses on national debates that have little bearing on day-to-day life in St. Louis. I think the city’s progressives are flat-out wrong on tax abatement, which they inaccurately describe as a cash handout to developers. And beyond Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner’s obvious issues, crime continues to be a serious problem, and I worry the progressive movement is too beholden to police abolitionists who believe that any amount of enforcement (even automated traffic cameras) is inequitable.

I find the property tax abatement debate particularly aggravating as it’s clear that many St. Louis progressives are either ignorant or willfuly deceptive about how the system works. Petty and others claim abatement has robbed the city’s schools of millions—but they omit the fact that abatement is a discount on future taxes, not a cash subsidy, that serves as a catalyst for development that would otherwise be far less likely to happen. You can’t claim you’ve been “robbed” of money that never existed in the first place! Abated developments are still revenue-positive for the city because development is not a zero sum game. If a vacant lot that pays $5k a year in property taxes is developed into an apartment building that would pay $50k without abatement, and it’s abated at 50% for 10 years, then it’ll still be paying $30K, or six times more than it does today! Not to mention the additional income and sales taxes paid by the building’s new residents.

My gut instinct was to project these frustrations onto the aldermanic race, but the more I thought about the race, the less I could stomach the idea of voting for Vollmer. The Hill is an insular, cliquey neighborhood, and Vollmer is firmly embedded in it. Petty’s criticism of Vollmer’s abuse of abatement to award his neighbors tax breaks was particularly resonant. Meanwhile, Petty lives around the corner from me, a world away from the traditionalist mores of The Hill. Who was more likely to prioritize my interests? The answer was obvious.

Beyond cultural compatibility, I also realized Vollmer has no vision for St. Louis beyond maintaining the status quo in his ward. He stated this plainly in an interview on election night, saying he wants to “make sure the ward stays like it was” because “people like it here and they want to protect it.” I do think this ward provides a good quality of life, but there are things that should change—the area’s dangerous, unpleasant arterial roads, lack of reliable public transit, and auto-centric land use immediately come to mind. Petty is far more attuned to these issues; I don’t think Vollmer is likely to prioritize them.

Ward 9 and the role of the alderman

I was also invested in the election results in other wards, because my experience of living in St. Louis doesn’t end at Interstate 44. In the new 9th Ward, where I lived from 2019 to 2021, I was glad to see Michael Browning win in a landslide victory over incumbent Tina Pihl. I voted for Pihl in the 2021 election—and even met and talked with her while she was canvassing—because I figured she could bring a progressive, transparent approach to a ward that had long been controlled by business-friendly alderman Joe Roddy. Her wealth of experience as an urban planner seemed obviously relevant to municipal government.

Unfortunately, once on the job, Pihl administered her office poorly and acted as an anti-development zealot. She stymied progress at Cortex, protested a revenue-positive landmark apartment building, and even pushed back against the construction of a new Ronald McDonald House. In the final weeks of this year’s campaign, she pivoted to a tough-on-crime message that felt bizarrely out of step with her progressive bona fides—almost like a desparate last-ditch attempt to regain lost ground against Browning.

I was only so invested in the 9th Ward race because aldermen wield significant powers within their wards that have implications for the entire city. Development projects live or die at the hand of the presiding alderman. Aldermen have sizable capital funds that they can deploy for infrastructure improvements at their discretion. Their role is not merely legislative.

These semi-executive functions are a relic of a past way of life. A century ago, when St. Louis was three times denser and comprised two-thirds of the metropolitan area’s population, it was practical to delegate some executive authority to smaller geographic units. Today, the city makes up just one tenth of the metro area’s population, and the combination of concentrated poverty and severe depopulation have left it struggling to provide services and maintain infrastructure. In this context, we all have a stake in attracting new residents and investment, and hyperlocal ward-level governance is a luxury. Aldermanic prerogative allows spoilers like Pihl to jeopardize the economic recovery of the entire city, something that Mayor Jones quietly acknowledged when she overrode Pihl to continue incentives for Cortex.

The automobile has also radically expanded the number of wards we traverse regularly. A century ago, the daily life of a St. Louisan was concentrated in a smaller area; people simply spent less time in other wards and had a smaller stake in the condition of their infrastructure. The habitual trips we make across the city today—like going from the CWE to St. Louis Hills to get Ted Drewes—were far more arduous and infrequent a century ago. We spend time in a lot of wards, and we’re more affected when some of them have poor or dangerous infrastructure.

It’s about time we fully centralized executive functions in the mayor’s administration and relegated aldermen to a purely legislative role. It’s absurd that a single alderman, accountable only to the residents of their ward, can quash new development or refuse to implement infrastructure improvements that would benefit all St. Louisans. It’s an internal replication of our balkanized suburbs, where dozens of exclusionary municipalities absolve themselves of any obligation to the broader metropolitan area through exclusionary zoning and a stubborn refusal to contribute to shared services.

How much does it really matter?

A big part of the messaging of the local progressive movement is that St. Louis hasn’t really improved under the leadership of the moderate-conservative coalition. The city’s population continues to decline, services and infrastructure are still mediocre. Interrogating whether the average resident’s quality of life has improved under the status quo is one of the most basic rhetorical tactics in politics.

I generally think local commentators, both progressive and conservative, overweigh the local government’s contribution to the city’s socioeconomic situation. The long decline of St. Louis is not an aberration; it’s part of a well-documented regional trend that’s over half a century old. The city’s present situation—population growth in a narrow gentifying belt; continued rapid depopulation of historically black neighborhoods; challenges with antisocial behavior—can be found in most major American cities. Most of the factors that govern whether metropolitan St. Louis grows or shrinks—trade policy, globalization, federal investment, climate, etc.—are well beyond the influence of the Mayor and Board of Aldermen.

The BoA does have the power to shift the city’s situation at the margins, and good policy will have compounding effects. It seems likely that the city’s population will “bottom out” in the next couple of decades, and local government can influence when it happens and how quickly we see growth afterward.

My biggest concern with the city’s new progressive coalition is that they’ll pull policy levers in the wrong direction and delay a return to net population growth. The city has moderated its rate of population decline over the past couple of decades through strong growth in the Central Corridor, offseting the continued flight of black residents from North City. Growth in the Central Corridor has been supported by policies and tools—e.g., tax abatement, tax increment financing, infrastructure improvements—that have promoted the construction of new housing and office space, creating an attractive urban environment that can’t be found elsewhere in the region.

Kneecapping growth in the Central Corridor would have a debilitating impact on the city. St. Louis needs a strong tax base to finance improved services and infrastructure, and the higher-income residents and employees of the Central Corridor are a big part of that. Every childless, high-salary, apartment-dwelling young urban professional that moves to St. Louis is a massive boon to the city’s resources—they consume few services, utilize little infrastructure, and pay more than average into the city’s coffers through earnings, sales, and property taxes. We should be doing all we can to encourage more of them to move to the city while capturing as much of that upside as possible.

The fact that many local progressives fail to recognize the relationship between attracting high-income transplants and achieving their lofty policy goals is endlessly frustrating. I’m sure much of it is driven by a poorly-reasoned, evidence-light theory of gentrification that blames transplants for “displacement” and resents the aesthetics of change. I’m sorry if you hate rich people, but you need their tax revenue to fund progressive initiatives—and it doesn’t help anyone if they choose to move to Maplewood or Clayton.