St. Louis leaders discuss upcoming mayoral election, issues facing the region

Swetha Nakshatri | Contributing Reporter

A trio of St. Louis political and business leaders talked about economic and racial issues surrounding the April 4 St. Louis mayoral election, the first in 16 years not to feature current Mayor Francis Slay. The panel was co-hosted by the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement and the Clark-Fox Policy Institute at the Brown School Friday.

Dubbed “What’s at Stake in the St. Louis City Election,” the panel was moderated by Tom Irwin, the executive director of Civic Progress, and featured Ginger Imster, newly appointed vice president of innovation and entrepreneurship at the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership; David Hardy, deputy superintendent of academics at St. Louis Public Schools; and Dave Leipholtz, director of community-based studies at Better Together St. Louis.

All three panelists described the necessity for the new mayor to lead meaningful collaboration and build a coalition between St. Louis’s multiple municipalities and levels of leadership in order to solve issues in the area such as the difficulty of recruiting new talent to the St. Louis area, the opportunity for depth of investment, the school-to-prison pipeline, the Delmar Divide and building city-county relationships.

Imster discussed boosting St. Louis’s regional economy by recruiting and retaining new talent and creating opportunities for small enterprises in existing innovation hubs. She said that the next mayor’s biggest challenge will be to replace state funding with private dollars and to respond to the demands of public-private partnership.

“The momentum hinges on our ability as a community to welcome and sustain the very people who are coming into this community [and] choosing it to build to their brand,” Imster said. “And so what are we doing to welcome them, to invest in them, to work for them, to trust them?”

Hardy acknowledged Slay’s role in helping St. Louis Public Schools reach full accreditation for the first time since 2000. He said that the next mayor should continue those efforts and consider crime, poverty and housing challenges that face students, particularly those on the north side of the city.

“A mayor that realizes that our children, African-American children, are five times more likely to be suspended, to end up in jail, is someone [who] is going to help us rethink how we change those dynamics and those realities,” he said. “A mayor [who] has that understanding and comes with that vision and is willing to collaborate with us and understand that coming together will get us further faster will be the one that we want to see.”

Leipholtz, who works with city-county relationships, noted the fragmentation of the St. Louis region and the disparities that come from a lack of consolidation. He stated that issues of regionalism—St. Louis County has 91 municipalities and over 500 aldermen, governing a region that many just think of as one city—are often accompanied by a standstill mentality and an ignorance about the dangers of inequity.

“I think that our struggle is communicating that your reality isn’t the only reality of being a St. Louisan,” he said. “And there’s some pretty startling realities out there, that people live day in and day out, with bad services [and] with lower life expectancies. You know these are our neighbors, but because they live in a different municipal boundary we say ‘Oh, that’s somebody else’s problem.’”

Imster added that the mayor has an added responsibility to establish trust throughout systems of governance that have been inherently divisive and combative, leading to economic loss and regional disparities.

“That’s the kind of political fortitude that is going to be required of the mayor, to be able to look at his or her peer group and build trust and mutual accountability because the regional leadership is judged as a whole,” she said. “Nobody understood outside of St. Louis that we have 91 municipalities. St. Louis is St. Louis to everybody outside of it. So we need to start behaving, and our political officials have to be embracing of behavior that is regional. Because competing with one another is killing us, literally.”

Imster expressed hope for St. Louis to become a welcoming city for women, minorities and immigrants, while Hardy discussed providing education for children, regardless of their race or residence.

Leipholtz finished by encouraging the new mayor to face problems head-on and build a team of support for success.

“I think that successful people like a challenge,” he said. “And St. Louis has some, but I think the flip-side of that is there’s a lot of potential opportunity there.”

Attendees of the event included community members as well as students, who appreciated the lens that it provided on some of St. Louis’ defining issues.

“I’m actually from St. Louis, and this is my first time voting. So, it just gave me a lot of insight into what the mayor is actually going to be facing in the next term and what that’s going to mean for St. Louis,” freshman Abby Kenyon said. “I think it was a really productive event, and the speakers were all very incredibly well-spoken.”