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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On a muggy weeknight days after the debate, a St. Louis Hills neighborhood meeting opens with a special ceremony. Carrying the gravitas of a kindergarten graduation, a representative of the St. Louis Grand Jury Association presents a middle-aged woman with a certificate and a medal. Her heroic act? Calling 911 on a man stealing copper wiring.

"This wasn't rescuing a family from a burning building," she acknowledges, accepting the gifts. "What I did is something very simple that any of you could have done. I looked out of my kitchen window, and I used my voice to call the police."

Hamacher joins the modest crowd — 35 sweating attendees, all white — in a round of applause. Since launching his campaign, he's attended four or five neighborhood meetings every week, all over the city. This one, in one of the city's safest areas, is just one of many.

After the neighborhood's regular business concludes, Hamacher is provided a few minutes to pitch his candidacy for circuit attorney. He opens by congratulating the night's honoree.

"I know we wish that we had more witnesses and victims just like yourself," he says. Meaning: The kind who aren't afraid to call the police.

He launches into one of his stump speeches.

"I was about fourteen years old when I knew I wanted to be prosecutor," he begins. "I used to love shows like Dateline and 20/20. I used to watch them with my mom. I was really interested in the stories they would tell, but especially the prosecutors in those cases."

Born in Brentwood, the DeSmet grad attended Loyola before studying law at Mizzou and getting a chance to live his teenaged prosecutorial dream while interning in the Cook County prosecutor's office in Chicago. After he passed the bar, Joyce hired him to join her office in St. Louis.

"We have some really big problems," Hamacher tells the room. "We have some violent crime issues here in our city. Distrust in the criminal justice system. We really need someone as the next circuit attorney who has the leadership ability to really bring people together to address these issues."

So far, Hamacher's youth and idealism has worked on the campaign trail. His emphasis on diversion programs and the need for special prosecutors to investigate police shootings has won him allies with activists and an endorsement from the Ethical Society of Police, the St. Louis equivalent of a black police union.

But he's also struggled in head-to-head comparisons with his co-worker, Mary Pat Carl. The office's Lead Homicide Prosecutor, Carl has tried eight murder cases and oversaw several additional trials while training other prosecutors. Hamacher has tried just one murder case. And at 31, he'll have to work overtime to persuade voters he's not too young for such a big job.

Hamacher isn't the only one struggling to outshine Carl. Like Hamacher, Kimberly Gardner also spent about five years as a St. Louis prosecutor, handling misdemeanors and some felony cases, but no murders.

But Gardner's lack of big-case experience isn't something to overcome in her telling; in fact, it's part of her sales pitch.

"As one of the rare minority prosecutors, I felt there was not a lot of opportunity for me to move up within that organization," Gardner says during an interview in her campaign office. "That's why I only stayed there for a certain amount of time. As a lawyer you want to expand yourself. You don't want to be limited by duties or functions of the office. They need to do a better job of retaining good talent and diverse culture."

For Gardner, the race is about more than prosecutorial experience. She notes that the violence that continues to bloody the streets in north St. Louis neighborhoods — where most of the city's murders take place — has roots in poverty, over-policing and longstanding imbalances in education and transportation. The residents there are disheartened, says Gardner. Where she's from, witnesses and victims are afraid to call 911.

"It's the system where they feel like they have no voice. No one can identify with the struggles in some of these hard-hit, economically depressed areas. I think I can go in and bridge the gap."

Gardner is attempting to walk a narrow line here: Sure, she doesn't have Carl's career chops as prosecutor — but she also embodies why young black lawyers seem to keep leaving the Circuit Attorney's Office for other pastures.

"I know a lot of lawyers who would love to have the opportunity to work in the prosecutor's office," she says. "But opportunities are limited. Space is limited. This idea we cannot have a diverse prosecutor's office — that's not true."

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