Updated at 12:45 p.m. March 1 with details about voting patterns — For decades, it’s been a given in St. Louis elections: The person who usually wins is of the race — white or black —that has the fewest candidates in the contest.
And studies have shown that many St. Louis voters prefer to support candidates of their own race. With that in mind, candidates and political parties often are accused of stacking contests.
But the city’s major mayoral contenders are banking on different dynamics in the March 7 primary. That’s particularly true of the four best-known Democratic candidates who are African-American.
Even some of their own allies have accused Treasurer Tishaura Jones, Board of Alderman President Lewis Reed and Aldermen Antonio French and Jeffrey Boyd of hurting all their chances by running at the same time. The fifth well-known Democrat – Alderman Lyda Krewson – is white.
Jones doesn’t buy that the old paradigm still holds: “I think voters are smarter than that. Our voting demographic is not monolithic anymore.”
Jones and Boyd point to last year’s city elections for sheriff and circuit attorney. Four of the five Democratic primary candidates for sheriff were African-American and one of them, Vernon Betts, won. And in the race for circuit attorney, the two white contenders were given an edge by political pundits, but one of the four black candidates, former state Rep. Kim Gardner, was the victor.
Mayor Francis Slay, who is white, is leaving office as the city’s longest-serving mayor. In his first election in 2001, he defeated two African-American rivals — then-Mayor Clarence Harmon and former Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr., who had been ousted by Harmon in 1997.
Former St. Louis Alderman Mike Jones — who is black and was a top advisor for the first black St. Louis County executive — said that whoever the next mayor is, he or she will need “crossover appeal.”
He used the analogy of successful entertainers who adopted that same approach.
“If (the next mayor) is black, they’re going to have be the Temptations,’’ Jones said. “If they’re white, they’re going to have to be the Righteous Brothers.”
Saint Louis University political science professor Ken Warren has conducted many of the studies about St. Louis' voting patterns. In recent city elections where there are white and black candidates, he said, about 20 percent of white voters may vote for a black candidate.
“There’s no question that people tend to vote for people they feel more comfortable with,” Warren said. “So Irish vote for Irish, Poles vote for Poles, Mormons vote for Mormons and blacks vote for blacks.”
He's a nationally recognized expert on demographics and voting behavior, and has been tapped by candidates, black and white, to testify in court about the impact of race and ethnic backgrounds on voting behavior.
Here’s the rundown of how most of the Democratic mayoral primary candidates feel about racial politics; some of the Democrats and all of the Republican primary candidates are not represented because they didn’t go into detail on the subject.
Jones succeeded in her first bid for the treasurer’s office in 2012 in part because she attracted votes from white and black young voters. Jones is hoping that same strategy works in next week’s primary.
“We’re campaigning with everyone,’’ she said. “Our message of ‘One St. Louis’ means everyone is included.”
Reed’s early crossover appeal helped him become the first African-American to win the 6th Ward aldermanic seat. In 2007, he became the first African-American to be elected as president of the Board of Aldermen, and garnered 80 percent of the vote when he ran for re-election in 2011.
Reed said it’s important for the next mayor to promote the city’s growing diversity.
“We are a very diverse city, but we rarely embrace it the way we should embrace it, and hold it up as a positive,’’ he said.
Win or lose, Boyd said he’s confident that the city is moving beyond its old racial voting practices.
"I’m not running this race based on race. I'm running this campaign based on qualifications,’’ he said. “I’m proud of my city because we’re not looking at race anymore.”
Krewson has represented the racially diverse 28th Ward for about 20 years. She said she’s mindful of the destructive role that racial divisions have played in the city’s history, including its politics.
If elected, Krewson said that her decisions will reflect her commitment to racial equity. She adds that voters should look beyond race, instead considering the candidate’s qualifications.
“There’s more to electing a mayor than just the color of their skin,” she said.
French also asks city voters to look at a candidate’s record, not race. He notes that his wife is a Bosnian immigrant, and they have a biracial son.
French discounts the grumbling among African-American activists that so many black candidates are running for mayor.
What’s more important, he said, is whether African-Americans turn out to vote, because if it’s as low as in the recent past —20 to 25 percent of eligible voters— “then it’s unlikely the city will see another African-American mayor for many, many years.”
Follow Jo on Twitter: @jmannies