St. Louis Democrats Press Ahead with Plan to Censure Rogue Members

The 8th Ward special election pitting "independent" Annie Rice against party pick Paul Fehler continues to divide city Democrats. - COURTESY OF ANNIE RICE/HOLLY RAVAZZOLO
The 8th Ward special election pitting "independent" Annie Rice against party pick Paul Fehler continues to divide city Democrats.

The demise of St. Louis Democrats' plan to punish committee members who oppose party-endorsed candidates, it turns out, has been greatly exaggerated.

 In fact, Bob Hilgemann, the chairman of the St. Louis Democratic Central Committee, says he believes supporters have the votes to enact the controversial bylaw change, which threatens members who support non-Democratic candidates with being silenced for up to six months.

"Ultimately, it's going to come to a vote, and I think it's got enough votes to pass," he says. "People feel strongly that we need to require our members to support Democrats. A lot of people in this group feel that they need to support the party or resign their position."

Members of the committee are the party's formal apparatus in a city that votes Democrat without reservation. They're chosen on primary ballots — two for each city ward — and hold their unpaid seats out of passion.

But with the party in St. Louis split between old-guard Democrats and progressive insurgents, the committee has become a key battleground. The tensions reached a boiling point in February when two members of the central committee ran against each other in a special aldermanic election. With the 8th Ward seat newly vacated, Annie Rice and Paul Fehler, both elected to the committee in 2016, both threw their hat in the ring. When the committee endorsed Fehler, allowing him to run with the coveted "D" next to him name, Rice decided not to keep her previous pledge not to challenge the party's nominee. She gathered signatures to make the ballot as an Independent — and then she won, handily.

Committee members were unhappy with Rice's independent bid even before her victory, and the bylaw committee had prepared language saying that anyone who ran without the Democratic Party's imprimatur could be stripped of their committee seat. Under the proposal, committee members who chose to "publicly endorse" or "support" non-Democratic candidates could also face up to six months of censure.

After the RFT reported on the plan just after the election, Hilgemann told Rebecca Rivas of the St. Louis American that the plan was likely dead. "The DCC chair Bob Hilgemann told me today he will most likely cancel the meeting and "go back to the drawing board,'" Rivas tweeted on February 15. "I asked if they would hold a public hearing on bylaws changes, he said he'd be open to it. He called the proposed changes 'draconian' and didn't support them."

But the current proposal, which received positive feedback last weekend, is little changed from the one that drew a reaction in February. It holds that anyone running for office going forward "in any capacity other than as a Democratic candidate" may face removal from the committee with a two-thirds vote.

In addition, any committee member who has "publicly endorsed or supported a candidate who is not the official Democratic candidate shall be subject to an administrative hearing," the proposed language states. As before, the committee could decide by a two-thirds vote to strip the rogue member of their right to speak at meetings or vote.

Discussion of the bylaw changes Saturday morning — the first Central Committee meeting since Rice's election — grew tense on several occasions. That wasn't, however, because there was dissension on the committee. It was because they had an observer — and she was recording them.

Sarah Felts, who is a member of the St. Louis Young Democrats but not a member of the Central Committee, heard the meeting was open to the public. Upon arrival, she heard that no reporters had made it, so she decided to live-stream the bylaw discussion on Twitter.

What followed was an intermittently awkward 30 minutes in which Felts was asked by one member to stop taping (the chair declined to echo the call, so she kept going), upbraided several times for not introducing herself (even though there had been no opportunity for a public introduction) and questioned about whom she was representing.

She replied that she wasn't representing anyone but herself.

"Do you represent a group, Black Lives Matter or something like that?" one member pressed.

"I'm just a citizen of St. Louis city who's interested in getting more involved," she said.

"Your name again?" she was asked, again. She gave it.

Felts says she stopped her livestream after the bylaw discussion ended. But after that, she says, several members attempted to tell her that she didn't have the right to post their images online. Too late, she told them. "The horse is out of the barn — it's up on the Internet, and I'm not deleting it," she recalls saying. (Hilgemann now says the committee may have to develop a policy going forward as to whether videotaping or live-streaming is permitted.)

As Felts' live-stream video shows, the members who attended Saturday were interested in discussing some details of the verbiage, but no one urged abandoning the changes entirely.

Having the discussion aired publicly, however, clearly made some members uncomfortable. As the meeting was ending, Felts says she was approached by 24th Ward Committeewoman Teri Powers. Powers told her she'd been rude not to introduce herself and then chastised Felts for what she'd previously posted about her on social media.

Felts says she knew exactly what Powers was referring to. In an exchange on a mutual friend's Facebook page the week before, Powers had referred to some women as "sluts." From the context, she appears to have been referencing state Representative Cora Faith Walker (D-Ferguson), who has publicly accused a fellow Democratic representative of rape. And Felts, who is friends with Walker, had taken umbrage.

"You called my friend a whore," Felts told her.

In response, she says, Powers sniped back, "Birds of a feather flock together." (Powers did not return a call seeking comment.)

Felts says she found the interaction — and the meeting in general — disconcerting. "I'd come in with high hopes of learning stuff about the committee," she says. "And I did learn things about the committee .... but it was very disappointing seeing them in action."

Far from being dissuaded, however, Felts says she's hoping to be there for the committee's next meeting in July, which could include a vote on the bylaws. "I want to go back and let them know, 'This is being recorded again,' so people don't think they can bully someone and meet in private.

"I've spent a lot of time in Jefferson City, and I got used to people there being rude to me," she adds. "But they were typically not members of my own party."

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at [email protected]

About The Author

Sarah Fenske

Sarah Fenske is the executive editor of Euclid Media Group, overseeing publications in eight cities. She is the former host of St. Louis on the Air and was previously editor-in-chief of the RFT and the LA Weekly. She lives in St. Louis.
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