Some sparks fly virtually as Clergy Coalition hosts candidate forum

It turns out that sparks can fly at a candidate forum conducted over Zoom, even when conducted by clergy who declare to the candidates that they “will not tolerate character attacks” or “any messiness in this forum.” That was the warning given by the Rev. Darryl Gray, political advisor to the St. Louis Metropolitan Clergy Coalition, who moderated the forum on Thursday, June 18.

The most sparks flew between St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner and Mary Pat Carl, her challenger in the August 4 Democratic primary. Carl prosecuted cases in the office for many years, mostly under Jennifer Joyce.

Gardner came out swinging – not against her challenger but against the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which has published a jeremiad of critical news reports and editorials at Gardner’s expense. Though Carl’s opening statement was a positive statement of personal resilience, she soon followed with criticisms of Gardner covered in Post reporting and editorials: namely, that Gardner has failed to retain staff, take cases from the police and prosecute cases successfully.

Gardner responded that change agents tend to lose status quo staff, who “go onto better, more high-paying jobs like Mary Pat.” Gardner cited a surprising statistic – that “less than 4%” of a prosecutor’s work is spent in trials; securing pleas and seeking alternative resolutions form most of the work. She claimed her office has “a 97% felony conviction rate” for those cases it does try.

Gardner tried to associate Carl with Jeff Roorda, controversial business agent of the St. Louis Police Officers Association (POA). Carl responded by pointing out that Gardner served alongside Roorda in the Missouri House of Representatives. More recently, Roorda and Gardner have clashed; Gardner named Roorda in a suit she filed using the Ku Klux Klan Act. However, Roorda told The American that the POA has not endorsed in the race.

The St. Louis County executive forum also drew some heat, though only from one source. Jake Zimmerman, one of three candidates challenging incumbent Dr. Sam Page in the August 4 Democratic primary, directed nearly every one of his statements at Page as an attack on the subject of race. Zimmerman blamed Page for the county being slow to provide COVID-19 test sites in North County, where the majority of cases have clustered, and for grooming a police board that hired a police chief, Mary Barton, who claimed there is no racism in the St. Louis County Police Department.

Page said he is “disappointed there is so much negative campaigning” without directly answering Zimmerman’s attacks. Page did assert that “equity is the bedrock” of his administration and pointed out that he had appointed Jason Purnell, lead author of the landmark “For the Sake of All” 2013 report on racial disparities in St. Louis, to advise on the county’s COVID-19 response. And he said that he had “asked the police chief to review” all department policies in light of the recent high-profile killings of black people by police officers.

Mark Mantovani, who also is challenging Page, kept a low temperature while arguing that his proven abilities as a business leader are what the county needs. “If we don’t create economic growth,” he said, “we won’t have the resources” needed to make change. He also positioned himself as a centrist who can convene “a big tent of engaged citizens.”

Zimmerman’s attempt to slam Page as status quo on police reform was diminished by Mantovani talking about his police union endorsement. “I don’t want to fight with cops,” Mantovani said, “but I did ask them one thing: be open to change.”

Jamie Tolliver, who also filed for county executive as a Democrat, did not join the forum.

The Democratic primary for St. Louis treasurer featured two familiar adversaries, incumbent Treasurer Tishaura O. Jones and Alderman Jeffrey Boyd. Jones has defeated Boyd twice at the polls, once for treasurer and once for mayor (in an election they both lost to Mayor Lyda Krewson).

Boyd sounded familiar themes – mainly, that the treasurer should relinquish its City Charter-established control of the Parking Division and parking revenues, letting the city accrue those revenues in its general fund.

Jones focused on what she has been able to achieve with the office as the City Charter established it. She said she has improved and upgraded parking operations, increased staff wages and contributed more revenue to the city’s general revenue, while writing fewer tickets and investing $1.1 million in more than 16,000 child savings accounts in the city.

The three candidates to replace the term-limited Jamilah Nasheed as state senator in the 5th District presented completely different qualifications and offered no criticisms of one another.

Alderwoman Megan Ellyia Green presented herself as a progressive who has been active on the ground from the beginning on fights to raise the minimum wage and close the Workhouse, as well as protecting the abortion option and supporting victims of sexual assault. “I have stood on the front lines with social movements,” Green said, “and I have never taken an endorsement or check from the POA. I am not their friend, and that’s a good thing in this environment.”

State Rep. Steven Roberts presented himself as the candidate who already is in the thick of the fight in the Missouri Legislature as chair of the Black Caucus and one of the most effective Democrats in moving legislation (mostly, as amendments) under Republican control. His degree of awareness of the current status of progressive policy initiatives – on criminal justice reform, voting access, anti-poverty programs – in the Legislature was impressive for its minuteness of detail. However, he was the only candidate for the seat who did not oppose airport privatization. “It depends,” he said.

Michelle Sherod spoke more about her high-profile endorsements – Nasheed and former U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, whose St. Louis regional office Sherod ran – than her relevant qualifications or policy proposals. She was the only candidate for the seat who opposed closing the Workhouse. “It’s an easy phrase,” she said, “but we have to understand why it exists. We need a facility to house those individuals to keep the streets safe. To close it without a plan in place is premature.”

The Clergy Coalition also provided a forum for the two candidates for St. Louis sheriff, Alfred Montgomery and the incumbent, Vernon Betts.

Montgomery presented himself as a millennial, former deputy sheriff and former police officer who would improve professional certification, “eliminate patronage hiring” and restore “transparency and integrity” to the office.

Betts did not defend himself against the implicit claims that he lacks transparency and integrity and practices patronage hiring. He pointed that he is working to improve professional certification in the office, that no one was injured during Stockley verdict protests in the buildings guarded by his deputies, and that he had raised staff wages. “All my guys are working secondary jobs,” Betts said. “They work like Hebrew slaves.”

Bishop Elijah Hankerson, president of the clergy coalition, presided over the forum and introduced it. “We are in the second wave of the Civil Rights Movement,” Hankerson said, while also dealing with a pandemic, the U.S. Census and violent crime.

“We do not endorse, but we do inform,” Hankerson said. “You need to register to vote.”

The last date to register for the August 4 primary is July 8.