Inside the Race for Board of the Aldermen President 2019

Jamilah Nasheed and Megan Green want to disrupt St. Louis. They'll need to beat Lewis Reed, and each other

Jamilah Nasheed, left, and Megan Ellyia Green are vying to replace Lewis Reed. He'd like to keep his job.
Jamilah Nasheed, left, and Megan Ellyia Green are vying to replace Lewis Reed. He'd like to keep his job. DANNY WICENTOWSKI

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State Senator Jamilah Nasheed: "I am that leader that's going to bring results." - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
DANNY WICENTOWSKI
State Senator Jamilah Nasheed: "I am that leader that's going to bring results."

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."

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