Party Disloyalty

The 20th Ward delivers for the Democrats, then gets dumped

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The old cliché about St. Louis city politics is that there are two political parties: white Democrats and black Democrats. The more accurate maxim is that the two parties are dependable Democrats and South Side Republicans who vote for Democrats in citywide elections. Call them Republicrats.

South Side Republicrats typically oppose abortion, support school vouchers and, in recent history, don't like Bill Clinton or anyone who shares a ticket with him. When they get a chance on a national or state ticket, they go for the Grand Old Party. But when it comes down to license collector, treasurer, mayor, comptroller or president of the Board of Aldermen, they vote for the party of FDR, Harry Truman, Ray Tucker, Alfonso Cervantes and Vince Schoemehl.

They are macro-, not micro-, Republicans, in part because the Republican Party has redlined the city, deciding not to field or fund even plausible candidates. Without the right candidate or enough cash, Republicrats within the city limits realize it's foolhardy to vote for a like-minded aldermanic candidate. If one won, that would mean forming a coalition with Ald. Fred Heitert (R-12th) and, well, nobody. If the number of Republican aldermen doubled, they could still hold their caucus in a Johnny-on-the-Spot. Heitert is the only Republican alderman among the city's 28 aldermen. No Republican holds a citywide office.

Collectively, the city is old-school politics, with a huge block of voters delivered to the Democratic presidential candidate on demand. Clinton led the city in 1996 with an edge of 69,112 votes over Bob Dole. Last year, Al Gore did even better, with a 71,768-vote advantage over George W. Bush.

Don't take that to mean the folks south of Interstate 44 don't stray from the Democratic herd. On the North Side, they don't; on the South Side, they do.

Just compare two wards -- the 23rd on the South Side and the 20th on the North Side. In last November's presidential election, only 76 lonely souls in the 20th Ward had the compassionate conservatism to vote for Bush. Gore got 4,981 votes, or 94.2 percent of the vote, compared with 1.4 percent for Bush.

In the 23rd Ward, it was much more of a contest, with Bush getting 38.8 percent of the vote last year and Dole getting 33 percent in '96. In the neighboring 16th Ward, the Republicrats fared even better, with their candidates finishing in dead heats. Last year, Bush received 46.8 percent of the vote, compared with 47.9 percent for Gore. In '96, Clinton was good for 44.2 percent of the 16th Ward vote, and Dole got 43.4 percent.

Voters in both those wards decided to go Democratic in this spring's mayoral primary. Even though the turnout was much higher -- 67 percent -- for the November election, the 44 percent turnout for the mayoral primary still produced significantly higher vote totals for mayoral candidate Francis Slay than for presidential candidate Gore. In the 16th Ward, Slay received 1,772 more votes than Gore.

Yes, the two wards bursting with Republicrats are the 23rd Ward, Slay's home ward, and the 16th, home to Ald. Jim Shrewsbury. And yes, the Democratic-stronghold 20th Ward is home to Ald. Sharon Tyus. Slay is the mayor, Shrewsbury is president of the Board of Alderman and Tyus is soon to be a nomadic alderwoman, evicted through redistricting from her home ward to represent a newly named 20th Ward east of Grand Boulevard and south of Gravois Avenue.

What makes all this doubly ridiculous is that Slay's operatives asked the state Democratic Party to pay the $25,000 supposedly needed to fine-tune the aldermanic redistricting map so that it could withstand a court challenge. Even with those changes, the map uproots Tyus from her North Side ward. Understandably, vociferous complaints rose from the African-American aldermanic contingent, and mayoral chief of staff Jeff Rainford backed off from the request. Donors will be sought elsewhere to pay that bill.

Even with this attempt to mollify aldermanic blacks by tweaking the map, the main absurdity remains: In a supposed political process, redistricting by Democrats has resulted in the punishment of an alderwoman from a ward that overwhelmingly votes for Democrats. Sure, Short Cuts knows that Tyus could piss off the Dalai Lama, but the new mayor should have realized that messing with her wasn't worth it. And it doesn't make sense on party political grounds, either.

Slay's minions have often said their new boss is not the same as the old boss and that, unlike his predecessor, Clarence Harmon, the new mayor knows politics. And maybe Rainford wanted to emulate that ludicrous Jamie Allman commercial with the background music provided by Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down." Well, they picked the wrong fight. They should have sent the message out that this wasn't worth doing. Supporting this map gives Tyus ammo to rail against Slay and boost her talk about backing Republican wonk Jim Talent for the U.S. Senate. Keeping Tyus where she was and drifting the central-corridor wards south would have done the trick, but that wasn't something St. Francis' crew wanted to do.

Now the mess has gotten messier. The redistricting bill was primed for a Pearl Harbor push last Friday, but the cartographers in Room 200 couldn't get the bill ready in time to sneak in a first reading while eight aldermen were away at a National League of Cities meeting. If Rainford and the bill's backers had planned D-Day, we'd all be speaking German now.

At this Friday's aldermanic meeting, the backstage infighting and census-tract swapping goes public. Some say that because the next aldermanic election is not until 2003, the courts may not be eager to enter into the fray, even if a lawsuit is filed by Tyus. Conversely, what with the mess that this has become, any aldermen still standing after the dust settles may want to throw it over to the courthouse. No one should be surprised if the judge ducks.

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