Inside the Progressives' Not-So-Secret Plot to Take Over St. Louis' Democratic Party

Inside the Progressives' Not-So-Secret Plot to Take Over St. Louis' Democratic Party

On the morning of July 16, in a south city bar, the youngest member of the Democratic City Central Committee raises her hand to address her colleagues — at least, the half that has bothered to show up.

It's Lori Lamprich, a tattooed 33-year-old dubbed the "Hipster Committeewoman" by some older members. While a handful of attendees linger over the steaming breakfast buffet, Lamprich announces that her constituents want Hillary Clinton yard signs. She asks the executive board: Is there any budget for that?

The answer, as she hears it, is a lukewarm "maybe."

"It's frustrating," she says afterwards. "I was trying to proactively do something to help the party, and I felt like nobody else wanted to do it."

It's that feeling of helplessness that has a group of young Democratic Party activists plotting a committee takeover on August 2. If the old guard can't be more proactive, they suggest, maybe it's time for voters to show them the door.

The city of St. Louis is still a stalwart island of blue in the Midwest's sea of Republican red. Metropolitan voters have stacked City Hall with Democrats for decades, and majorities reliably pick liberal candidates for state and federal office.

Yet for all their political loyalty, voters don't know much about their party's formal apparatus here: the "central committee." Nor could they easily learn about it, for it has no working website.

Now a loose coalition of like-minded young lefties, many of them fired up by Bernie Sanders and the Black Lives Matter movement, are storming the gates at levels unseen in 30 years.

Under Missouri law, political parties must keep a committee in each county, with members drawn from that county's building blocks, called "townships." The city of St. Louis isn't a county per se, but gets treated like one in state statute, so it must have a committee, too — only its building blocks are called "wards."

So in the city's 28 wards, residents head to the polls every four years to pick one man and one woman (and yes, those gender quotas are dictated by statute) in the August state primary to represent their ward on the committee. The next time they do it will be next Tuesday.

Typically, primary turnout is low, and most candidates glide into office unopposed. Not this year. Of the 56 committee seats, 28 are being contested by a combined 87 candidates — the highest level of participation since 1984, according to a Riverfront Times analysis of election data.

Why all this jockeying? After all, the job is unpaid. And the law only endows it with a handful of duties. Perhaps the most consequential: In the rare case that certain state and municipal Democrats resign from office, committee members get to pick the new candidate — which usually means, in this Democratic stronghold, that they anoint the successor.

But it's precisely this low-level politicking that excites the first-time candidates, most of them under 40. They want more zeal and transparency. They want, in 2016, a website. And they yearn to serve as the official Democratic foot soldiers on the sidewalks, front porches and polling floors of their wards.

The central committee's handbook urges this. It calls on every member to be "a 'walking encyclopedia' of political facts," a Democrat who canvasses, educates voters, visits them personally once a year, registers new ones, converts young people to liberal thought and shepherds everyone to the polls on election day. "Being a good committeeperson," the handbook reads, "is a 365 day-a-year commitment." To the insurgents, the sitting committee has simply dropped the ball. And for these Berniecrats, the critique isn't just about logistical effectiveness. It's also about ideological purity. They wish to challenge the city's DINOs, a.k.a. Democrats-in-name-only.

"Some days, we [as a city] are very progressive, flying the transgender flag over City Hall," says Tony Zebrowski, a candidate for Eighth Ward committeeman. "But other days, we're giving out huge tax breaks while our schools go unfunded. I want people to feel like being a Democrat means something."

Mike Kelley, a political consultant and former chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party, says it's still unclear whether the insurgents are running further to the left than St. Louisans are willing to go.

"More people wanting to fight for progressive causes is a good thing," he says. "The big question is: Can they succeed? The proof will be in these upcoming elections."

click to enlarge Rachel Johns, who is running in the 27th Ward, is one of an unprecedented number of challengers vying for Democratic Party committee seats. - PHOTO BY HOLLY RAVAZZOLO
Rachel Johns, who is running in the 27th Ward, is one of an unprecedented number of challengers vying for Democratic Party committee seats.
click to enlarge Inside the Progressives' Not-So-Secret Plot to Take Over St. Louis' Democratic Party

Eighty years ago, during the Great Depression, the guy with the real juice in any city ward was not the alderman. It was the Democratic committeeman. He was the point man for city services, the deliverer of Christmas baskets, and most importantly: He could get you a job.

If a position opened up at a nearby factory, on a New Deal project, or at City Hall, which then employed 7,000 people, he would find out at once and place you in it. You would thank him by donating ten percent of your salary (called "the lug") to his ward organization, and you'd vote for all the candidates he endorsed. Thus churned St. Louis's political machine and its basic quid pro quo: jobs for votes.

However, as Lana Stein observed in her history, St. Louis Politics: The Triumph of Tradition, the committeeman soon lost clout. His pool of jobs drained in 1941 when civil service reform cut him off from many openings at City Hall. It shrunk again when factories closed down and folks fled for the suburbs. As buildings and infrastructure decayed, redevelopment became urgent. This required legislative action from the aldermen, who stepped to the fore in ward affairs. Meanwhile, a committeeman's endorsements faded in importance because candidates started knocking on doors themselves, bypassing the middleman.

That's not to say that the committee spot is a worthless relic. City elections are typically low-information contests, meaning voters don't base their preferences on policy so much as on names they recognize. A committee seat offers name recognition, so it can serve as a springboard to higher office.

And then there are those political vacancies: If an alderman, state rep or state senator leaves office early, the committee persons confer among themselves to select the new Democratic nominee, who usually wins.

Although even that is no longer a guarantee. In July 2014, the 15th Ward's Jennifer Florida left her seat on the Board of Aldermen to serve as Recorder of Deeds. As a result, the ward's committeewoman, Missy Pinkerton-McDaniel, wanted to nominate herself as the Democratic nominee in the special election. She persuaded her male counterpart to support her, and the central committee approved their joint decision (the body as a whole has customarily deferred to the wishes of individual members affected by a vacancy).

However, Pinkerton-McDaniel failed to consult the 15th Ward's grassroots network of Dems. That group's activist vice president, Megan Ellyia Green, decided to defy the central committee's candidate by running as an independent. In September 2014, Green won, then immediately switched back to the Democratic fold. And for better or for worse, she has been shaking up the old alliances at City Hall ever since.

Did Green's displeasure with the central committee's vacancy-filling process also inspire her to mastermind the progressive onslaught against it? That's definitely one of the rumors in Democratic Party circles. Asked directly, Green says she felt "flattered" to be credited with that kind of pull. In reality, she says, the movement arose organically in the partisan froth of the Bernie Sanders campaign.

In April 2015, right after Sanders declared his candidacy for President of the United States, his supporters in St. Louis quickly connected with each other online. Some rolled up to Iowa to knock on doors for him there.

These activists also began to huddle over beers on Monday evenings at 7 p.m. at the Tick Tock Tavern in the Tower Grove East neighborhood. In chats that sometimes stretched deep into the night, they agreed on the need to plant some of Bernie's national revolution on their home soil.

"The infrastructure of the party here in Missouri is basically non-existent," says Adam Kustra, a realtor and activist who attended those gatherings and then served as political director of the Sanders campaign in Missouri. "If you go to the Democratic headquarters in Jefferson City, the office is in obvious disrepair, for lack of funding. It's not a well-organized machine. And we've become a much more red state because of that."

(That's not just through neglect; blame Missouri's 2008 repeal of contribution limits to individual candidates. Donors who used to send cash to the Democratic Party are now more likely to send it directly to candidates, thus starving the party of funds.)

click to enlarge Adam Kustra, Bernie Sanders' political director in Missouri, is running in the 11th Ward. - PHOTO BY HOLLY RAVAZZOLO
Adam Kustra, Bernie Sanders' political director in Missouri, is running in the 11th Ward.

Kustra believes a concentrated bloc of progressives in St. Louis could sway the Missouri party as a whole by flexing its muscles on the party platform, as well as at the ballot box. "In the long run, we want to start shifting elections back to the left on a state level," says Kustra, who is running for state rep in the 81st District.

He's also running for committeeman in the 11th Ward, where turnout in the crucial municipal primary of 2013 was 20.44 percent.

"It's sad the low numbers we have," he says. "It's the job of the central committee to get people out to vote and to get people informed, and most of us just feel they've been not doing that."

Tony Zebrowski concurs. A 36-year-old tree care consultant living in the Shaw neighborhood, he too joined the Sanders crowd at the Tick Tock. He ultimately decided to run for Eighth Ward committeeman — and, with input from Green, tried to summon a citywide army to join him.

"Upon realizing it would be pointless to run for committee on my own, I went out and recruited some people," he says.

click to enlarge Tony Zebrowski is running for committeeman in the 8th Ward. - PHOTO BY HOLLY RAVAZZOLO
Tony Zebrowski is running for committeeman in the 8th Ward.

In late February, Zebrowski attended a workshop at the Workers Education Society, a left-leaning community center tied to labor unions. It was entitled, "How to Run for Committee Woman/Man." According to the organizers, about twenty people showed up for two separate seminar-style events that offered practical advice, such as how to file as a candidate.

As it turns out, another attendee of the workshop was Paul Fehler, who's now running against Zebrowski in the Eighth Ward. Fehler, 38, has his own progressive bona fides. He is a political data analyst who in 2011 produced the documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth. Last April, he caucused for Bernie Sanders at the meeting of the Eighth Ward Independent Democrats. He has attended their meetings for years and also won their endorsement.

Zebrowski, on the other hand, has raised more money as of July 15 — $5,204 to Fehler's $1,136.

Their 8th Ward committee matchup, pitting one first-time progressive candidate against another, shows that these races do not exist in a vacuum, and aren't always as simple as young Berniecrats versus old-guard moderates. To some degree, they carry over from earlier Democratic in-fighting. For example, in the March 2015 municipal primary, Fehler backed sitting alderman Stephen Conway, while Zebrowski supported insurgent Kevin McKinney.

"These feuds are sometimes focused through the lens of Bernie and Black Lives Matter, but in some ways this is just the old story of people duking it out in the primaries," says Ben Murray, a Democratic activist and himself a state rep candidate in Missouri's 80th district. "Some of this is the same kind of personality politics that have dogged city races since time immemorial."

And certain races look like outright proxy wars. For example, in the 20th Ward, one pair of first-time candidates is endorsed by Alderwoman Cara Spencer while the incumbent pair has the support of Stephen Jehle, the independent candidate she bested last year after a heated battle for the board seat.

Mayor Francis Slay, for his part, has donated to three committee candidates. He recently wrote a $250 check to Alison Dreith, the executive director of Missouri's NARAL chapter who is running for a committee seat in the 6th Ward. Perhaps it's no coincidence that she is going up against former city judge Mary Entrup, who also happens to be the wife of Slay's perennial rival, board president Lewis Reed.

State Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal of University City has also joined the fray. She is currently challenging William "Lacy" Clay for his seat in Congress. In practical terms, she is barred by federal rules from using her state war chest to fund her campaign against Clay.

But since January, she has given a total of $16,000 to nine separate central committee candidates, according to state records, all of whom are running within the boundaries of his district, which encompasses the city.

Asked if she expects anything in return, she tells RFT, "My whole purpose is to have good government. I've got to get rid of my money somehow because I won't run for the Senate again, so I'd like to give it to people who are progressive and young."

click to enlarge Matt Carroll-Schmidt, a candidate in the 6th Ward. - PHOTO BY HOLLY RAVAZZOLO
Matt Carroll-Schmidt, a candidate in the 6th Ward.
click to enlarge Rasheen Aldridge and Megan Betts are both running in the 5th Ward. - PHOTO BY HOLLY RAVAZZOLO
Rasheen Aldridge and Megan Betts are both running in the 5th Ward.

After teenager Mike Brown was fatally shot by police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014, Rasheen Aldridge, a twenty-year-old community organizer from the city's north side, rushed to the streets of Ferguson to protest.

Two years later, Aldridge has served on the Ferguson Commission, met President Obama, and is now running for 5th Ward democratic committeeman. And his outlook has evolved.

"We made progress with the protests," he says, "but at the end of the day, it's policy and laws and regulations that are justifying the conditions we live in."

Aldridge wants his neighbors to take charge of their ward. He recognizes that committeemen don't enact policy, but they can pressure aldermen to adopt it. For example, he wants to see participatory budgeting, a policy already being tried in the 6th Ward, where residents vote directly on how to spend ward capital funds instead of deferring to the alderman.

"It gets the community more invested," he says.

Aldridge is running alongside Megan Betts, 37, a transplant from rural Kansas who in 2013 moved with her husband and kids to the St. Louis Place neighborhood — three blocks from the footprint of the proposed site of a new National Geospatial Agency complex. One of her relatives owned property in the footprint, and she opposed the NGA's arrival. Now that it's inevitable, she wants to ensure that it will benefit residents who already live nearby.

Her experience during the NGA battle convinced Betts that the current alderwoman and committee members — all three members of the Hubbard political dynasty — haven't been accessible and responsive to residents.

"These are elected representatives, and you should be able to find them with ease," she says. "I think a lot people don't know them."

Betts and Aldridge have not shied from attacking the Hubbards, suggesting in a blistering letter to the board of elections that they have manipulated absentee ballots to win elections. State representative and committeewoman Penny Hubbard dismisses that notion as a "slanderous" distraction.

Meanwhile, down in the Ninth Ward, a different veteran incumbent is facing her own challenge for the first time. Pat Ortmann — wife of alderman Ken Ortmann — has served as committeewoman for 22 years, and at age 56, is one of its more active members. With an unofficial headquarters at her family's bar, the Cat's Meow in Soulard, she has run unopposed for five elections in a row, and communicates the old-fashioned way: On the phone and in person. In the 2012 general election, she printed a mailer and a sample ballot, but has set up no website nor Twitter account to communicate with fellow Dems.

click to enlarge Sara Johnson is running for 9th Ward Committeewoman - PHOTO BY HOLLY RAVAZZOLO
Sara Johnson is running for 9th Ward Committeewoman

In June, however, she opened a Facebook page for the first time, perhaps because at last, she has an opponent: Sara Johnson, a 33-year-old social worker in Benton Park West. Johnson occasionally works out of Nebula, the co-working space that acts as a hub for the new denizens of Cherokee Street, many of whom are progressive millennials accustomed to getting information online.

The Ortmanns don't publicize the monthly meetings they hold for 9th Ward Democrats. Pat says attendance is sparse — especially when it's not election time.

"I feel people are tired of going to so many meetings," she says. She may have a point: There are at least six monthly gatherings in the greater Cherokee neighborhood.

On the other hand, none of these meetings is dedicated to political organizing. Bryan Walsh, another first-time candidate in the ward who is running unopposed, wants to attract those who don't go.

"There are at least as many people, if not more, who are not aware of the meetings, and don't feel like that venue is appropriate and welcoming to their voice and their ideas," he says.

Walsh and Johnson want to rally area Dems in open, public and quirky spaces so neighbors could stumble upon them and get involved.

"We want to do things differently in the 9th Ward," he says.

click to enlarge Marty Murray Jr. is running in the 7th Ward. - PHOTO BY HOLLY RAVAZZOLO
Marty Murray Jr. is running in the 7th Ward.

After the central committee's July meeting, chairman Bob Hilgemann expresses his excitement to RFT about the upstarts vying to join the club.

"You've got to encourage these young people to get involved and take on the system," he says.

It's been a long road for Hilgemann, who is 66. In the '80s, he failed to garner any support among Central West End Democrats, but in 1997 was finally elected state rep for the 64th district and served four terms. He's been on the committee since 2004, and was elected chairman in 2014.

His interview with a reporter is interrupted by a young man in a suit and bowtie. Marty Murray, Jr., is the 27-year-old running for committeeman in the 7th Ward. Murray, who has published a book on how to dress like a gentleman, is a project manager at a Fortune 500 company in St. Louis.

He exemplifies the diversity of the committee insurgents: He did not arrive at politics through the Bernie Sanders campaign or Black Lives Matter, but rather through the more traditional route of volunteering for Tishaura Jones, the current city treasurer and mayoral hopeful.

Murray will be fighting an uphill battle: He's running against Brian Wahby, who chaired the central committee for eight years before stepping down in 2012. Now an at-large member of the Democratic National Committee, Wahby has a long history of championing the party, a knack for fundraising and solid name recognition in his ward, not to mention citywide.

Murray doesn't fancy himself a giant-slayer, but rather a young man who tried to find information online and couldn't.

"I'm not in some big conspiracy to dethrone people," he says later in a phone interview. "I actually like politics, and I had the toughest time trying to find info about Democratic organizing in the city. Not having a website didn't help."

That morning of the central committee meeting, Murray introduces himself to Hilgemann, shakes his hand, slips a reporter his business card and then excuses himself.

A wry smile crosses Hilgemann's lips.

"You know, I was an upstart, years ago."

click to enlarge Paul Fehler, a candidate in the 8th Ward. - PHOTO BY HOLLY RAVAZZOLO
Paul Fehler, a candidate in the 8th Ward.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story provided the wrong district info for Ben Murray. He is in the 80th district, not the 81st.
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