Valley Park to Mexican immigrants: "Adios, illegals!"

A small-town mayor's plan creates one big controversy.

Stephanie Reynolds vividly remembers her friend, Florence Streeter, and the puzzled look she flashed when the immigration law passed on July 17. "Florence whispered to me: 'Hmm, I wonder what that's all about?' I said, 'Florence, I'll tell you what that is. That's them fixing our asses.'"

Reynolds is one of the largest landlords in the Lower End, with 28 properties in her portfolio plus the Valley Deli mini-mart. The immigration ordinance, she says, has been bad for business.

Mayor Whitteaker concocted the immigration law, Stephanie Reynolds argues, to settle a personal vendetta against her.
Jennifer Silverberg
Mayor Whitteaker concocted the immigration law, Stephanie Reynolds argues, to settle a personal vendetta against her.
Valley Park's first Hispanic alderman? Martha Rodriguez hopes to smash this municipality's glass ceiling.
Jennifer Silverberg
Valley Park's first Hispanic alderman? Martha Rodriguez hopes to smash this municipality's glass ceiling.

For one thing, it has cost her tenants. And, adds Reynolds, ever since she filed her lawsuit against the city, longtime deli patrons — people like Mike Sweet, who ate breakfast and shopped at the mini-mart every day for ten years — have disappeared.

"I love the food," Sweet says, "but I can't stand the politics."

Reynolds is 36 and a fourth-generation Valley Park resident. The youngest of nine children, she grew up in a big two-story home across the street from her present Lower End dwelling. A former heavy-equipment operator for various St. Louis contractors, she does her own handy-work — roofing, plumbing, dry wall — and spends weekends on her Warrenton farm cooking up venison and chasing coyotes.

She's long been known as the town gossip. As Ray Thompson, the tree-service owner puts it: "Stephanie's got more nerve than anyone."

Since the ordinance passed, Reynolds has taken on the role of city watchdog. Her office contains boxes overflowing with copies of city documents. In the birdfeeder overlooking the city-hall parking lot, she keeps a camera at the ready to videotape comings and goings of city employees. "I see a lot," she says coyly.

She refers to the aldermen and the mayor as "a band of rebels" who are up to no good.

The ordinance, Reynolds claims, was a vendetta — Whitteaker's way of "fixing her ass" for botching a massive real estate deal in the Lower End. It was a redevelopment project that would have remade the entire 200-acre area. Sansone Group, the St. Louis-based developer, was the marquee outfit city officials had in mind when they set the plan in motion several years ago.

Reynolds thought the project was deeply flawed. "They don't care about family businesses," she says. "All they wanted were Moto-marts and QuikTrips."

Reynolds and fellow landlord Florence Streeter, along with a dozen other residents, formed the Old Town Neighborhood Association to leverage their bargaining power and avoid having their property taken by eminent domain. Their efforts paid off. On July 14, 2006 — three days before Whitteaker's ordinance was enacted — Sansone abruptly backed out of the venture.

"I want you to notice the dates," stresses Martha Rodriguez, the Hispanic aldermanic candidate. "The board realized that the same people who wouldn't sell their homes rented to Hispanics and hired Hispanics, so they passed an ordinance and scared the Hispanics all off — not because they were doing anything wrong. The aldermen passed it just to get back at the people who didn't want the redevelopment."

Says Reynolds, "The mayor told me, 'Since the redevelopment fell through, we're going to clean up this town.' They cited me and Florence for code violations — but clean the town of Hispanics is what he meant."

The mayor laughs off Reynolds' accusations and claims she's spreading lies about his personal life. Last month he pulled her aside in the parking lot after the board meeting and wagged his finger in her face. "Quit telling people I'm getting blowjobs in my office!" he scolded her. "I hear you're telling that to everybody that comes in the deli!"

The pissing match between Whitteaker and Reynolds has folks like Ed Sidwell worried about the unwelcome attention the ordinance has brought to Valley Park. Still, the former Valley Park cop, who fancies himself the Lower End's elder statesman, reluctantly endorses the law.

"I just wish there'd been a more compassionate way to go about it," he says, suggesting that the city could have hired a Spanish-speaking liaison to help those who desired to become U.S. citizens.

"I'd rather see a hangman about to yank on the pulley with terror in his eye," adds Sidwell, "than I would a smile on his face — which is what we have here when it comes to this ordinance."

Whitteaker is only first-generation Valley Park, but he's spent all his life here. He met his wife, also from Valley Park, over a CB radio and married her when they were seventeen and fifteen, respectively. "Shotgun wedding," he says over beers at Fandango's.

The father of four girls, Whitteaker had plenty to keep him busy when he first ran for alderman in the early 1990s. He got into politics, in part, because that's what the elder gentlemen he grew up around always did.

"My dad was on the planning and zoning board, and then ran for alderman and lost by three votes. What's funny is the guy that beat my dad was the guy I ran against for alderman years later — and beat. Ha!"

Operating on a full tank of hubris, Whitteaker drives a one-ton Dodge diesel pickup and a red 2002 Corvette. There's a swagger to his step and a hungry timbre rolling off his tongue. He repeatedly tells a reporter she's "one good-lookin' blonde."

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