If St. Louis government were a game of chess, the president of the Board of Aldermen would be the queen. It is a unique position: Empowered in both the city's legislative and executive branches, the board president can wield power both in offense and defense. It's equally capable of holding its own in a fight or just holding ground against an advancing opponent.
It's a position Lewis Reed has held for twelve years.
In reality, there's almost no game at St. Louis City Hall that a board president can't win. Unlike the mayor, he can vote on and sponsor bills. He can also shuffle legislative committees at whim and set the pace of the lawmaking process. In the city's most powerful executive body, the Board of Estimate and Apportionment — through which all budget and contract decisions are approved — the president holds one of three critical votes.
Granted, if St. Louis government were a game of chess, it would be a psychotic's version; the players would include 28 aldermen as potential allies or opponents, plus the mayor and comptroller, who when allied together can make even the president seem irrelevant.
It would also be a terribly difficult game to win. The president isn't elected by those in a position to judge his effectiveness; instead, he runs in a citywide popularity contest every four years, vying for votes from an electorate with little knowledge of aldermanic machinations.
After beating then-board president Jim Shrewsbury in 2007, Reed cruised through two more elections without a single challenge to his presidency from inside City Hall. But this year's Democratic primary is different. He faces two major challengers: Alderwoman Megan Green and state Senator Jamilah Nasheed (D-St. Louis). Both charge that Reed has played the pawn to the forces of privatization and business interests, and that he's isolated himself from the other branches of city government at a time when cooperation and leadership are in dire need. Both say that if you're unhappy with the status quo in St. Louis, your best move is to vote against Reed.
The election's timing couldn't be more impactful. The next board president will preside over efforts to win an MLS soccer team, ongoing steps to privatize St. Louis' airport (or halt it), an epically contentious proposal for a city-county merger — and on top of all that, oversee the Board of Aldermen's controversial reduction to fourteen seats by 2023. All of that is in addition to the usual challenges inherent to a city like St. Louis.
With the city's Democratic Party increasingly split into two, if not more, factions, voters are left with three strong candidates providing competing visions for what St. Louis should be, and how it should be governed.
"At the Board of Aldermen we run a very wide gamut of what it means to be a Democrat on an ideological spectrum," Green points out. "There is often an assumption that all Democrats think and feel the same. I don't think that's necessarily true."
Megan Green joined the Board of Aldermen in 2014. All it took to get there was bucking the local Democratic committee, running as an independent and winning a special election as an underdog in a four-way race.
In Green's favor, though, was an endorsement from the board president. A former city public school teacher, Green had volunteered her support on Reed's unsuccessful mayoral run in 2013, and Reed had in turn backed her against the Democratic nominee. After Green won another election to hold her seat a year later, Reed was among the first to congratulate her, calling her a "hard worker," and "a great friend" to St. Louis Public Radio. Five years and several feuds later, Green is running to replace him.
The Green campaign headquarters is in what used to be a pub in Tower Grove South. Much of the "office space" is occupied by a full-sized pool table converted into a work surface for various notes and laptops. The landlord's conditions for renting the office, Green explains, included a stipulation that the table had to stay.
When Green first took office, she found St. Louis government cluttered by dubious traditions. She was outraged by the presence of lobbyists on the floor of the legislative chamber, as well as "aldermanic courtesy," which essentially allows members to dole out tax abatements inside their wards — just as long as the "courteous" lawmaker defers when colleagues seek to do the same.
While she's soft-spoken and measured in conversation, Green is not a politician of courtesy or half-measures. She's fond of the term "fundamental change" when describing her vision for St. Louis. In her time as alderwoman, Green has sponsored some of most ambitious legislation the city has seen in years. To the chamber's Old Guard, she's perceived as a maverick and a grandstander.
Outside City Hall, Green is suing the city for violating protesters' rights during the Stockley verdict demonstrations in 2017. (She alleges her group was tear-gassed in retaliation for protesting in the street.) Months before those protests, she smuggled journalists (including this reporter) posing as graduate students on a tour of the much-maligned medium-security prison known as the Workhouse.
Those stunts haven't made Green many friends at City Hall.
"Even knowing that these things have political repercussions for me, when the community asked, I came," Green says. "I think that's what most folks will say about me, that when I'm asked, I show up. Even when I'm not asked, I show up."
As an alderwoman, Green is the closest thing local politics has to a Bernie Sanders-style Democrat, someone who talks easily about "workers' rights" and isn't reticent to identify as a democratic socialist.
Her agenda, and her brand of progressivism, brought her into conflict with Reed. In 2015, the president refused to call a special session on a minimum-wage-increase bill that Green supported. The delay threatened to kill the proposal, which needed to pass before a Republican-supported bill in the state legislature could block the city's efforts.
Eventually, Reed did call the special session. (Even so, three months later, the state assembly successfully reversed the wage increase.)
Green says she came away from the experience frustrated by Reed's maneuvering. "It started to become very clear to me that this person that I thought was progressive on a lot of issues, perhaps wasn't," she says.
From that first "falling out," says Green, her friendship with Reed began to crumble. Over the last four years, the two have clashed repeatedly at Board of Aldermen hearings. The confrontations have reflected not just their contrasting philosophies of city governance but barely restrained mutual dislike.
In 2015, with the NFL's Rams poised to leave the city, the Board of Aldermen prepared to endorse a $150 million payment to help build the team a $1 billion new stadium. On Twitter, Green alleged the deal was rotten. "I've had loved ones offered bribes for my support," she wrote, claiming that fellow Alderman Sam Moore had also reported being approached with gifts in exchange for his stadium vote. She described the process as "legalized bribery."
Green's allegations were met with outrage from fellow board members, with Reed telling the St. Louis Post-Dispatch "she clearly has lied about this" and demanding she apologize and face consequences. And indeed, when a police investigation turned up no evidence of a criminal bribery scheme, Green did apologize — but only for her comments about Moore.
Asked about the incident now, Green says, "Maybe I didn't handle it in the best way that I could have," but she still stands by her claim that the board's process of funding stadiums is beset with at least the appearance of corruption. Green blames Reed for his role in that dynamic, pointing out his tendency to flip major votes in the wake of campaign donations, as he did in 2017 when his vote to fund Scottrade Center renovations went from yes to no, and then back to yes.
In 2016, the public sparring between the two took a turn for the offensive when Reed appeared on the AM radio show hosted by the self-proclaimed "Grim Reaper of St. Louis radio," Bob Romanik.
Romanik, who donated heavily to Reed's 2013 mayoral campaign, has earned a reputation locally as a racist shock-jock spewing the n-word. That day's show would become a benchmark for Romanik's brand of vitriol. And Green was the target.
On air, Romanik launched into a diatribe against the alderwoman, calling her an "alderbitch" and "a low-life, no-account good-for-nothing skanky bitch" who made the shock jock "ashamed to be white." As Romanik piled insults on Green — including the suggestion that her lies would cause her to be violated by Pinocchio's growing nose — Reed could be heard awkwardly laughing in the background.
Reed later apologized and claimed he'd tried to hush Romanik during the diatribe, but the incident turned the conflicts between Reed and Green into a public scandal wrapped in a jabbering display of misogyny.
Green still hasn't forgiven Reed. She bristles that Reed's apology minimized his inaction in the face of Romanik's ugly tirade. "I got an apology for his friend's behavior," she says, "not for his behavior."
The bribery controversy and the Romanik incident crumbled what was left of Reed and Green's relationship, she says. There wasn't much to say after Reed shared airtime with a man calling her an alderbitch. "I had pretty much given up on a relationship with the president," she says.
And now she's trying to take his job. But if observers expected that Green and Reed would use a debate at Harris-Stowe State University to air their hostilities, those expectations would be broken almost immediately.
The debate would feature plenty of bickering, name-calling and allegations of corruption and deceit. But this time it wasn't Green sparring with Reed.
On January 26, a Saturday, an audience of about 200 settles in a Harris-Stowe theater. It's the #WokeVoterSTL debate — a forum for the aldermanic presidential contenders sponsored by a handful of activist groups.
In the center of the table on stage sits Green, the youngest candidate with the shortest political resume. She's coordinated her look with her last name, opting for a green turtleneck to match the dark green polish on her nails.
To Green's left, the board president is wearing his usual ensemble, a dark suit, white dress shirt and colorful tie, which today is orange. Reed peers at the notes through square glasses, which he will soon remove (along with his suit jacket) after the first salvo of insults is hurled his way.
On Green's right sits Senator Nasheed, a veteran lawmaker whose career in the statehouse started in 2007, the same year Reed was elected board president. As the crowd quiets, Nasheed waves stage right and pops a thousand-watt smile at some supporters in the seats.
Nasheed starts the opening statements. It's verbal right hook to Reed's legacy.
"For far too long, the Board of Aldermen has been broken under the leadership of Lewis Reed," she begins. "I am that leader that's going to bring results."
And with that, the two St. Louis politicians are unloading decade-old political baggage at each other before the intermittently gasping crowd. Nasheed, Reed says, "has been one of the worst people in terms of helping advance our community that we have ever seen," a line that raises murmurs in the audience. He presses on, changing subjects to mock Nasheed's support for reelecting incumbent mayor Francis Slay in 2013.
"She ran around with Francis Slay stickers on her face!" Reed says, disdain in his voice. "And I told her directly, I said, 'His wife wouldn't even do that for him, so please take the stickers off your face.'"
A moderator barely has time to announce Nasheed's rebuttal before she hits right back at him. "Lewis Reed is laughable," Nasheed snipes.
On it goes. When Reed cites bills where she voted with Republicans in the state assembly, Nasheed uses her rebuttal time to call him a liar. And when she stumbles explaining her past vote against a campaign finance reform, Reed elevates the debate to a playground fight, retorting, "You just heard from Double Agent Nasheed!"
There are gasps and titters as he continues, accusing Nasheed of being in the pocket of the billionaire philanthropist funding the city's exploration of airport privatization.
"You just met with Rex Sinquefield two weeks ago and you told him that you would support the airport privatization 100 percent if you become president of the BOA," Reed charges, raising his voice. "Stop being a double agent!"
This time, Nasheed restrains herself from talking over the moderator. In a deadpan, she responds, "It's unfortunate that we have a Lyin' Lewis who lies all the time," netting her own share of gasps. Nasheed then denies ever pledging allegiance to Sinquefield or airport privatization.
"No, no, no," she says. "I don't know where he got that lie from."
After the debate, Nasheed's spokeswoman reiterates that no such meeting took place, saying Reed simply made it up. And unlike Reed, Nasheed has signed a pledge to oppose any deal to lease St. Louis Lambert International Airport. (Green signed the pledge as well.)
Setting aside their public fireworks, it's worth noting that Nasheed and Reed broadly agree on the challenges facing the city: At the debate, they each opine on the intolerable, bombed-out conditions in parts of north city, the need for economic development outside the central corridor and the pressing need for strong leadership in the board. The difference is what they'd do about it.
Reed tells the audience that his twelve years in office made the city better. He touts his accomplishments, including establishing an affordable housing trust fund, giving the Civilian Oversight Board subpoena powers and attaining full accreditation in the public school system.
In Nasheed's closing statement, she praises city developments like IKEA and Cortex, projects planned and completed under Reed's tenure. But she argues that desolate stretches of north city hold the potential for success stories as well. Why hasn't it happened under Reed?
"We need someone to look at the city as a whole," Nasheed tells the audience. "Our image has been tainted, and the only way we can change it is we have to change the status quo. The status quo is Lewis Reed, and he has to go."
Green arguably comes off best at the debate. While her opponents slug it out, she recites her answers free from the pressure to incorporate a damaging nickname or a Francis Slay-related burn. She speaks at length about her most ambitious policy ideas, including closing the Workhouse and legalizing recreational marijuana.
But with Green lagging far behind the other two candidates in fundraising, some observers fear that any success she has in winning votes could result in the very outcome she's running against: reelecting Reed.
Nasheed, for one, would like Green's base to worry about just that.
Two weeks before the #WokeVotersSTL debate, at a candidate forum hosted by the St. Louis Young Democrats, Jamilah Nasheed seemed to come a hair's breadth from simply telling Green to give up her campaign for president for the sake of the city's black political representation. That is, for the sake of Nasheed.
The moment followed a somewhat rambling question posed to Nasheed and Green. A committeeman asked them how each, as board president, would shape progressive outreach to parts of the city that may not feel included in the movement's vision for changing the city through challenging the established Democratic political machine.
Green, in her answer, dove into her ward's policy of participatory budgeting, suggesting that other parts of city governance could benefit from similar strategies. As President Green, she could help residents engage in making policy for their own communities.
But Nasheed perceived, perhaps, the other issue lurking in the roots of the question.
"We all know that we have a polarized city, and we have a polarized progressive movement here right now," Nasheed said.
Though she didn't specify "white progressives" or direct her statement at Green, the white progressive standing just feet away, her conclusion drove at that very point. "If you really care about black representation," Nasheed said, "you wouldn't try to dilute it."
Nasheed's campaign office occupies a storefront just down the street from Crown Candy Kitchen in Old North. The street runs south to a clear view of the Arch. If you squint, the landmark seems to hover above the roof of the Dome at America's Center. The view could be a metaphor for the north-city experience — with the majority black neighborhoods north of Delmar watching their resources floating to the whiter middle of the city.
Asked to elaborate in an interview on her comments about progressivism, Nasheed starts by noting that in Missouri, black people are at "the bottom of the totem pole."
"We have little to no representation when it comes to political power," she says. "If you truly say that you are tired of inequities that exist for people of color, I don't think you try to subtract when it comes to black elected officials. If you are a friend, you don't want to subtract. I think you work to multiply."
Nasheed's point echoes the sentiment of her biggest endorser, St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones.
In 2017, Nasheed dropped out of the St. Louis mayor's race and endorsed Jones. In the five-way race, which also featured Reed and three sitting aldermen, Jones ultimately lost to Lyda Krewson, the south-side establishment candidate, by fewer than 1,000 votes.
The upcoming primary poses another election that could split the anti-establishment vote, with Green and Nasheed competing to unseat Reed.
In Jones' statement endorsing Nasheed, she suggests that, despite her affinity for Green, a Nasheed win would add to the progressive total on the board. ("By my math," Jones explained, "putting Nasheed on the board with Green would be a vote closer to fifteen" — the majority needed to enact legislation.)
For Green, who campaigned hard for Jones, the suggestion she should stay in her current seat was surely a disappointment. Clearly, though, a three-way race presents less than ideal math for either Nasheed or Green. Facing Reed alone, either woman could conceivably put together a coalition that could threaten Reed. But together, with Nasheed and Green splitting the progressive vote, Reed's support from more conservative voters should give him a real advantage.
The math isn't ideal, but Nasheed isn't going anywhere. And she doesn't expect Green to, either.
"Megan's ego will not allow her to," Nasheed says, adding, however, that she'd prefer Green as an ally on the board. "We have a lot in common. There are a lot of issues we agree on."
Still, Nasheed and Green aren't simply interchangeable liberals with different skin color. Nasheed's campaign website may tout similar policy promises as Green's, such as reforming marijuana policy and requiring developers institute Community Benefit Agreements, but as Reed suggests at the #WokeVotersSTL debate, parts of Nasheed's voting record would make any self-identifying democratic socialist weep blue.
In the city's Darst-Webbe housing projects, where Nasheed spent her childhood, the only politics that mattered were the tensions between rival teenage gangs. From that upbringing, Nasheed transitioned to a business owner and politician who early on developed a reputation for crossing her own party.
In Nasheed's first years as a state representative, she leveraged Republican support by breaking with her fellow Democrats on several major bills, including on a law restricting abortions after twenty weeks and a critical "yes" vote to repeal limits on campaign contributions. She says she now regrets some of those early votes, but she doesn't regret using the tools she had to get things done in a Republican-dominated legislature.
"I'm very pragmatic," Nasheed says now. "I have stood up for the last twelve years fighting for progressive issues, and if you want to get these things done, you have to be able to sit down at the table and figure out what you can give and what you're not willing to take."
Nasheed insists that she has the tools to "creatively utilize the office." If she can give residents a better Board of Aldermen presidency, she argues, she can give St. Louisans a better city.
Nasheed doesn't see that salvation in terms of rigid progressive policy goals. She simplifies the issue to a matter of leadership. "You need to have someone there that can be effective, that can move the divisiveness out the way and get things done."
And what would that new and better city look like?
"It would look like Jamilah Nasheed," she says, grinning more with her eyes than with her mouth. "It would look like Madam President."
Lewis Reed declined to be interviewed for this story. Claiming that the RFT's past coverage lacks "balance," Reed suggested that he would not participate if the story revisited the details of his appearance on Romanik's radio show. (He also tried to push for a guarantee we'd reference the fact that Green once used the phrase "calling a spade a spade," which he has long maintained was a racist reference to Alderman Moore, a charge Green denies.)
Reed may have stumbled into the Romanik scandal, but it's also true that his three terms as board president rank among the longest tenures of any elected figure at City Hall. A fourth presidential term would be unprecedented.
Former St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay was elected board president in 1995 but only served a single year of his second term before leaving the presidency for the mayor's office.
"I loved being president," Slay says during a recent interview at his law office. "You have a tremendous amount of influence. You get a citywide pulpit for anything you want to talk about. And at the same time, you're not the mayor."
The board presidency, he says, requires deft management of relationships as well as policies. It also has the luxury of the leverage supplied by wielding one of three votes on the Board of E&A. With just three players on the board, the president is at all times only one alliance away from controlling the approval or denial of all city contracts.
But being a good president is not about power, insists Slay. He frames the position in terms of "influence and relationships."
Around Slay's office are mementos from those relationships: plaques, honoraria, commemorative shovels and bricks from ribbon-cutting ceremonies, signed photos with celebrities and athletes.
On a side table sits a chessboard. The spaces bear the signatures of grandmasters who participated in one of Rex Sinquefield's chess tournaments, including those of Magnus Carlsen and St. Louisan Fabiano Caruana. As opponents in 2018, the two grandmasters played twelve consecutive draws against each other, their counterattacks so perfectly matched that neither grandmaster could break the stalemate without the help of a tiebreaker.
At the Board of Aldermen, it is the president's job to break ties on board bills and resolutions. It's also his job, argues former president Tom Villa, to ensure that the moves and counter-moves of lawmaking amount to more than a replay of past mistakes.
"The president of the Board of Aldermen, you can be as busy as you want to be," says Villa, who served two terms as president from 1987 to 1995. "Your tentacle is into almost everything."
The next president, Villa believes, will need friends in all the right places — now more than ever. A proposed soccer stadium and airport privatization plan have earned recent headlines, but Villa warns that it is the upcoming ward reduction, from 28 wards to 14, that should be keeping presidential candidates up at night.
"If you're the president, you're going to have to be really, really adept at trying to steer something through that is going to be as politically charged as anything you've ever seen in your life," he says.
Pushed by, yes, Rex Sinquefield and approved by voters, the reduction calls for the redrawing of ward boundaries by 2020 to cut in half the city government's 28-ward structure. The measure remains controversial, and some north city aldermen are backing efforts to reverse (or re-do) the 2012 vote, alleging that the reduction represents "organized gerrymandering" that strips power from black neighborhoods. Whoever wins the March 5 primary, Villa says, will have to deal with a bitter fight over the 2012 vote and the lines of the new wards.
Some positions are less fraught. Like Reed, Villa supports plans for a soccer stadium for an as-yet unconfirmed MLS team. Villa considers it the sort of deal a board president should be backing.
But Villa considers airport privation as something between a scam and a farce. "If it were a cutting-edge idea, somebody would have cut the edge long before the city of St. Louis got to it," he says. "The way this thing is structured is ridiculous."
Behind the high-priced consultants touting airport privatization, is, again, Sinquefield, and the potential conflicts inherent in letting a libertarian billionaire shape city policy are made even worse by what Villa sees as poor judgment by city officials.
Slay, for instance, struck a deal with Sinquefield to have the financier underwrite the hiring of airport privatization consultants, saying Sinquefield would be repaid if the deal goes through. That left the consultants with a big incentive to push for privatization, whether or not it's a good deal for the city. Even worse, soon after Slay left office, he himself was hired by a Spanish firm considering a bid to lease Lambert.
Villa says he's "disappointed [Slay] has opted to be involved in the process." Similarly, Villa questions why Slay's successor, Lyda Krewson, didn't drop the privatization push once she took office.
And then there's Reed, who at the last minute threatened to block an E&A vote authorizing the privatization consultants' hire — only to drop his opposition when the firms of two campaign donors were added to the contract.
"That's not a stroke of political genius," Villa remarks.
It's unfortunate, because St. Louis could really use some political genius right now. In the lead-up to the 2017 mayoral race, Villa, then recently retired from the board, was quoted remarking the city didn't need another "caretaker" mayor, but a bomb-thrower.
Both challengers to Reed could play that role. Of Green, Villa says, "the status quo isn't in her thesaurus," and he notes Nasheed's advantage in a lengthy career as a lawmaker and political fighter. "She's not a shrinking violet."
Whether it's Reed, Green or Nasheed, the board president will have to be ready to use everything in their arsenal, and without much of a grace period to find their footing. They'll be confronted with rapacious developers and machinating billionaires and the revolving door of City Hall. Villa predicts hard choices ahead.
"What a political minefield!" Villa says. For the winner, "It'll be like saying 'congratulations' and handing you a box of hand grenades. And they're all ticking."
See our chart below for more info on where the candidates stand on some key issues
Editor's note: A previous version of this story misstated Tom Villa's tenure as Board of Aldermen president. He left the job by his own volition after two terms; he was not beaten by Francis Slay. We regret the error.