In Circuit Attorney Race, Four Candidates Vie for St. Louis' Toughest Job

Candidates make their pitch at a recent debate.
Candidates make their pitch at a recent debate. PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI

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Of the four candidates running in the Democratic primary, two currently work for Joyce. Since St. Louis tends to lean hard to the left, the winner of the primary vote on August 2 will almost certainly become Joyce's successor.

Mary Pat Carl, the lead homicide prosecutor in the Circuit Attorney's Office, has been endorsed by Joyce and has the double-edged sword of being her heir apparent. Patrick Hamacher, a prosecutor in the Circuit Attorney's Office, has five years' experience under his belt and seeks to position himself as an idealistic (yet capable) alternative to the establishment Carl.

State Representative Kimberly Gardner is a black former prosecutor and nurse who left the Circuit Attorney's Office in 2008 to pursue politics in the state legislature. The true outlier is Steve Harmon, a former metro police officer and son of St. Louis' first black police chief (and later mayor), Clarence Harmon.

All four are licensed attorneys, though two — Harmon and Gardner — have never prosecuted a murder case. Harmon is the only one who has never worked for Joyce.

As outsider candidates, Harmon and Gardner took the hardest lines on Joyce. They needled at her office's lack of diversity and faulted her leadership for failing to engage minority communities. Unsurprisingly, Carl and Hamacher shied away from directly bashing their current boss, but both argued the office should do more than simply lock people up.

"I respect her office, but at the same time the challenges of yesteryear are not the challenges going forth," Gardner said in an early moment of the debate. "When you talk about how we move forward, that's about building trust, and I'm the only candidate on this stage who is able to do that."

In a debate full of tough questions and implied comparisons to Joyce, the candidates did their damnedest to stand out. After Gardner's opening salvo about how she was "the only candidate" who could return trust to the Circuit Attorney's Office, the others leapt to add their own self-declared superlatives.

"I'm the only candidate with managerial and administrative experience," Harmon said, touting his lengthy career as a homicide detective and police commander.

"I'm the only candidate who as a prosecutor has successfully diverted non-violent individuals out of the criminal justice system," said Hamacher. He launched into a stump-speech anecdote about a seventeen-year-old he'd personally mentored through probation, avoiding a life-altering conviction that could have saddled the youth with a felony conviction.

Carl took a somewhat different approach. Battle-tested over thirteen years, she rose through the ranks of the Circuit Attorney's Office while handling domestic abuse and other special victims' cases, including 36 rape trials. In speeches, she likes to point out that she has more years of prosecutorial experience than the other three candidates — combined.

"Being tough on crime, that alone isn't enough. We have to be smart on crime," Carl told the audience. "I'm the only one in this race that has the experience and the know-how to know the difference."

Considering her links to Joyce, Carl should have been the candidate on the hot seat in this particular debate. And most of the time, she was, though she handled herself with aplomb. When her opponents offered rambling tangents, Carl spouted off paragraphs of detail without as much as an "um" to interrupt her argument.

And at the conclusion of the debate's first round, it was Harmon who managed to irk the audience.

The former cop is nobody's apologist. He wears a chunky gold ring with the emblem of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department on his right ring finger. Back in 2005, he reported a detective to Internal Affairs after watching the officer abuse a prisoner with a stun gun. He retired from the force two years later, though he says the two events were unrelated.

But an outsider black candidate like Harmon should have been ready for the final question of the debate's first round. Instead, he stumbled.

Addressing all four candidates, Reed asked them to explain answers they'd provided to a pre-debate survey. The survey had asked them to choose among four statements: "Black Lives Matter," "All Lives Matter," "We Must Stop Killing Each Other" or "I'd rather not say."

Of the four, three candidates had picked Black Lives Matter.

Carl answered first. "Though it is true that all lives matter, right now we need to concentrate that black lives matter because they're not mattering enough."

"Of course black lives matter," followed Gardner. "I'd like to say I live a black life. So I understand the issues in terms of how African Americans are treated in the criminal justice system."

Hamacher offered a slightly different take. "To me, Black Lives Matter stands for a movement," he said, noting that it was the movement that focused awareness on police shootings.

Then came Harmon. "I answered All Lives Matter," he said.

The crowd was silent.

"I was raised in a Christian household," he continued. "As a former St. Louis police officer, I've treated all people the same, regardless of their race, ethnicity, their background, where they lived, their sexual orientation. I believed that everyone's life is equal and all lives matter."

It was not the message this audience wanted to hear. And from his seat in the audience, Rasheen Aldridge cringed.

The Ferguson protester had served on the Ferguson Commission, met President Barack Obama and is now part of a wave of young activists entering the political arena, running for committeeman in the 5th Ward.

"Being a protester, what shocked me was when Harmon said All Lives Matter," Aldridge later explained. "The movement has fought on this over and over. It's not about all lives, not about black lives. It's about how people of color are being locked out of opportunities."

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