Olin MBA alum seeks support for 2017 St. Louis mayoral run

| Senior Editor

St. Louis 21st Ward Alderman Antonio French has a long history on Twitter (@AntonioFrench). He was an early adopter of the social media platform, early enough that when he convinced his then-girlfriend to join, she got her first name as her handle.

French used his Twitter account to create a window into the unrest in Ferguson in August of 2014, gaining national media coverage for his tweets and videos. Almost two years later, on Aug. 18, he used that same account to announce his tentative plan for a mayoral campaign.

French, who graduated from Washington University’s Executive Business MBA program in November of 2014, began his tentative campaign following St. Louis mayor Francis Slay’s announcement that he would not be seeking a fifth term in the next mayoral election in 2017.

Although candidates don’t officially file for the race until November, many have already begun exploring their options. Only two have officially launched campaigns: president of the Board of Aldermen Lewis Reed and 28th Ward Alderman Lyda Krewson. If French does run and win, he would become the fourth Washington University graduate to become mayor of the city.

In order to judge interest in a French candidacy, the Alderman has started a crowdfunding campaign on the political fundraising site Crowdpac, which has raised $3,811 from 119 backers as of Sept. 11. In a campaign that is likely to see many large dollar donations to major candidates—Missouri election laws, unlike the majority of states, have no limit on individual campaign contributions—this may seem like a small sum.

French, though, said he is focused on building a large coalition to back him first.

“I am signaling to interested folks in the city of St. Louis that I am willing to commit another four to eight or more years to serving the city in this capacity, if you partner and if you have my back and if we do this together,” French said.

French, who is African-American, said he and other black candidates’ race will only intensify their need for broad support.

“The next mayor of the city of St. Louis, especially if he or she is African American, will need to build a coalition that has never occurred before to be successful,” French said.

Three potential candidates (Reed, French and City Treasurer Tishaura Jones) in the mayoral race are African-American. The city of St. Louis has only had two African-American mayors in the past, and both were one-term mayors.

But a French administration’s success, he said, should be measured against the city’s broader history of racial and socioeconomic exclusion.

“A successful administration would mean [that] a lot of people who have not felt like they have been included in this city’s course over the last 15 years—that this is something that they can get involved in. [That] this is a movement that they could be a part of,” French said.

The prospect of being mayor, however, isn’t French’s primary concern.

“I have no burning desire. I have not dreamt of being the mayor. What I dream of is living in a better city. What I dream of is creating a better St. Louis for my 5-year-old boy,” French said.

French’s own history in St. Louis runs deep. He was raised in the city, attending grade school in the same ward that he now represents at City Hall. Even when French went off to study political science at Auburn University, he found the city calling him back. Throughout his studies, French took time off to help run political campaigns for candidates in St. Louis, alternating semesters between Alabama and Missouri.

After returning to the city permanently, French started up the blog PubDef (short for Public Defender), which served as a political journalism blog.

That sense of journalism came into focus when French decided to drive down the street to Ferguson, Mo. to tweet about the unrest following the shooting of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson.

“My initial tweets—the intended audience was locals, especially media folks who followed me, because I was just shocked that there weren’t very many reporters out there,” French said.

Looking back on the events in Ferguson, French said that one of the main issues that lead to the unrest was a lack of focus on parts of St. Louis outside of affluent neighborhoods.

“You were only surprised by what happened in Ferguson if you weren’t paying attention. Too many of our leaders have been acting like cheerleaders and not enough have been acting like quarterbacks or coaches,” French said, referring to leaders as celebrating the city’s big accomplishments, but not leading the city to deal with longstanding problems.

Since that time French has remained a force—though sometimes controversial—on the city’s Board of Aldermen. He is a consistent political foe of Mayor Slay.

French filibustered the city’s proposed funding for a new St. Louis Rams football stadium unless the city committed to a new plan to address crime. He and Mayor Slay eventually came to an agreement, resulting in the Comprehensive Plan to Reduce Violent Crime in December of 2015.

French also opposes the current development plan for the National Geospatial Agency’s relocation to north St. Louis, and in August of last year voted against raising the city’s minimum wage.

In an editorial for the “St. Louis American,” French wrote of the minimum wage issue: “The problem is the economics of the city doing it alone. I support raising the minimum wage—the way it has always been done, at the state or federal level. But the City of St. Louis is in no economic position to raise our minimum wage alone and not expect big economic consequences in the years to come.”

French wrote that such a move would drive businesses and population to the county, rather than building sustained growth in the city itself.

That concern with population and wealth loss among many parts of the city is a chief concern for French. In 2012, he started North Campus, a nonprofit that provides after-school enrichment activities for neighborhoods in and around the 21st Ward. The goal of the organization is to help underserved kids in those communities reach their potential, bringing economic and social growth further down the line.

The project was modeled off of the Harlem Children’s Zone, as well as the more general concept of a college campus.

“The thing about a college campus…is that a university cares about all 24 hours of their students. Not just about coming to class,” French said. “What they’re trying to do is create an environment on campus that nurtures growth and nurtures relationships and makes you feel safe.”

North Campus currently serves over 100 children a day from the neighborhoods of Penrose, O’Fallon and College Hill.

The responsibility of a campus to it’s community, French said, extends to his alma mater’s relationship with the city of St. Louis as well. French commented that the University, as well as other major educational and business institutions in the city, should work to address problems throughout the community, not just those at their front door.

“In my conversations with [Chancellor Mark Wrighton], I tell him that I notice a response from Washington University—the same way I notice a response from Saint Louis University—when there is violence around their campus. They take that seriously, they get involved,” French said.

That response may take the form of increased security around campus, but rarely, French said, does that response extend to events outside of the University’s immediate area.

“The thing that institutions need to understand is that the violence that occurs even a mile away from you still matters,” he said.

Addressing violence in the city feels particularly urgent for the alderman. French’s young son is already starting to notice poverty and crime in the city, and he worries about his son facing racial and societal problems personally as he grows up.

“For me, I feel like my child is my hourglass,” French said.

As for the mayoral race, there is still some sand left in the glass before French decides to put his name on the ballot.

“[Career politics] is not what I want to do with my whole life, but I do want to see this city do better and I want to be a part of it.”