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Mayoral Profile: Antonio French

| Staff Writer

In the next month, the Forum section will be profiling the upcoming mayoral race in St. Louis, the first election for the position in 16 years not featuring an incumbent. Before the primary, we will be profiling how the leading candidates plan to help repair and grow our city in certain areas: education, crime and economic growth.

Every sentence that Antonio French speaks has a definite purpose. Though his slogan #BothSidesOfDelmar gives a succinct, marketable snapshot of his vision for the city, it’s not just rhetoric; the 39-year-old backs it up with detailed and passionate discussion of policy targeting the city’s most run-down neighborhoods.

French has held his current office as alderman of the 21st Ward since 2009. Born in the O’Fallon neighborhood of North St. Louis, part of the same ward he now represents, French has first-hand knowledge of the difficulties that north city residents face. His mayoral campaign centers on these problems, in part because they’re relevant to the whole city.

Education

As mayor, French hopes to expand the model of his nonprofit North Campus to provide all St. Louis students with assistance and activities outside the classroom. The program currently serves over 200 children in French’s ward, providing academic help, extracurricular activities and other resources to bolster academic achievement and keep kids safe.

Whether this will be enough to bring St. Louis students up to par with state and national standards remains to be seen. However, this supplemental support is essential for children whose families can’t provide enough resources on their own, and any education plan is incomplete without it.

Crime

Aside from education, St. Louisans’ main concern is violence. The first step of French’s “Comprehensive Plan to Reduce Violent Crime” would be to replace Commissioner Sam Dotson, whom French blames for many failed policies. French would order longer-term concentration of police in “target areas,” rather than Dotson’s system that briefly floods “hot spots” following a violent crime.

French has also been critical of Dotson’s depletion of the police force. He’s proposed increases in both the number of officers and those officers’ salaries, and he’s cited the city’s shortage of homicide detectives as a major problem in apprehending killers and preventing future homicides.

Although primary opponent Lyda Krewson and French have both proposed increased police pay and a larger force, French has been more critical of the current administration and advocated increased accountability for culpable officers. Krewson, on the other hand, was described by the police union’s president as “by far the most friendly with law enforcement” of all the candidates. Given French’s history and his more nuanced rhetoric on policing, it’s hardly surprising that he hasn’t received the same praise.

In a conversation with French earlier this week, he pushed back at the notion that one either supports or opposes law enforcement, lamenting the prevalence of the idea that “somehow being for accountability is being anti-police.”

Far from opposing law enforcement, French hopes to increase sustained police presence. “The number one request [in communities suffering from violent crime] is more and better policing,” he said, adding that this is not mutually exclusive with ensuring that an officer who breaks the law is properly punished.

Economic Growth and City Finances

To reduce violence and improve quality of life in the city, French would also increase funds for the departments of Health, Recreation, and Forestry to provide services that many areas plagued with violence lack, such as health screenings, after-school programs and maintenance of vacant lots and buildings.

All of these proposed policies present a large budgetary hurdle for French. Lyda Krewson’s plan for public safety, which is less extensive than French’s, totals $33 million. Although French has touted his fiscal aptitude—citing his Wash. U. MBA—he hasn’t accounted for all of his proposals’ funding. His jobs plan promises low-interest loans for small businesses, which could bring economic growth, but certainly not enough to generate sufficient tax revenue to pay for all of his ideas.

Final Thoughts

A man of French’s ambition and political experience knows that something must give; presumably, the changes that he wants to see will have to take place more gradually than he may like. While French seems determined to push as much of this agenda as possible, he also acknowledges the limitations of the position St. Louis is in.

“I have a very realistic understanding of the problems facing this city, and I think I’m very different from many of the other candidates [in this regard],” he told me. A successful first term would “make our neighborhoods places [that] people want to move into, instead of moving out of.” Improvement in education, reduction in crime and growth of small businesses are pillars of his campaign.

The goal is fairly simple, but by no means easy. French’s plans for St. Louis are bold, but they’re comprised of tangible building blocks; even if French fails to remake St. Louis as much as he’d like, he will have disrupted the status quo and focused the conversation on the most pressing and basic needs of the city.