Mayor Francis Slay, in a culmination of years of campaigning and strategic political calculations, took a historic step on Tuesday night toward becoming the city’s longest-serving mayor.
“We have convinced the people of St. Louis to really make history,” Slay told jubilant supporters who gathered at the Dubliner Pub on Washington Avenue downtown to claim victory.
Slay defeated Aldermanic President Lewis Reed by 10 percentage points in the Democratic mayoral primary. Slay was heavily favored, having spent 12 years as the city’s mayor. A third candidate, former Alderman Jimmie Matthews, trailed far behind with just over 1 percent of the vote.
“We ran a hell of a race,” Reed told supporters on Tuesday night. “We unified the city. Sometimes it’s not about the win, it’s about the path God set you on.”
At Reed’s campaign party at Carpenters Hall on Hampton Avenue, the mood was somber. As Slay appeared on television screens declaring victory, the crowd gathered, sighing and expressing disappointment.
Turnout hovered around 22 percent of registered voters. St. Louis was hit with a few hours of snow and freezing rain for parts of the day.
The battle between Slay and Reed was long in the making. The two citywide elected officials increasingly sniped at each other during public meetings. In recent years, Reed became critical of Slay’s leadership and policies, although Slay’s experienced campaign apparatus questioned whether Reed would actually challenge the mayor in earnest. He did. In October, Reed announced he would embark on a “mission of change” by running against Slay, who hadn’t faced a significant electoral challenge since he first ran for mayor.
No St. Louis mayor has ever been elected to a fourth four-year term, and only one has tried.
Now Slay faces Green Party candidate James McNeely in the April 2 general election. Although Tuesday’s primary only determined who will be the Democratic nominee for mayor, winning the Democratic primary has been tantamount to winning the general election in the heavily Democratic city.
On Tuesday night, Slay declined to discuss specifics of what his fourth term would look like.
Slay pledged to “make St. Louis city even cleaner, healthier, safer, more fun, better educated, and just a better place for more people. We’re going to make St. Louis a better place, a more inclusive place.”
He pinpointed two things: creating more jobs and “making every one of our neighborhoods a safer place.”
New things, however, are on the horizon: The city will gain control of its police department from a state oversight board this summer. Slay has also said he would like to bring the city back into St. Louis County.
Reed, 50, hoped to capitalize on pockets of voters dissatisfied with Slay’s long tenure, including black voters, many firefighters upset over Slay’s handling of their pension system, and residents who opposed Slay’s support of a water consulting contract for Veolia, a company they fear could reduce water quality. Reed said he would unite the city and bring a fresh approach to City Hall.
Reed said on Tuesday night that his campaign raised “the consciousness of this city.” Reed will remain the president of the Board of Aldermen for another two years. He didn’t refer to his future plans on Tuesday night.
Slay, 57, argued that over 12 years his “competent leadership” brought new life to the city and improved its reputation. His campaign, and third term, focused on quality-of-life issues that he said made the city more livable and fun: food trucks, dog lovers, revitalized neighborhoods, new entertainment venues, smoke-free bars and restaurants, new public spaces like downtown’s Citygarden.
Slay’s campaign prided itself on its communications strategy, with its near constant use of Twitter and Facebook and canvassing.
On Tuesday night, Slay made reference to the “relentless” rally cry his campaign team has used on social media.
“This was a relentless team, it was the most relentless campaign team in the city’s history, and we’re very proud of it,” Slay said.
Slay also built a strong coalition with gays and lesbians, saying St. Louis should attract people from less progressive parts of the state and Midwest.
Reed focused his candidacy on crime, saying Slay hadn’t done enough to bring safety to St. Louis’ streets. His supporters often used social media to highlight homicides when they occurred.
Slay was bolstered by shrewd political calculations and a more than $3 million campaign war chest that enabled him to blanket the city with radio and television ads. Last year, Slay endorsed U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, then locked in a primary battle with U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan. Reed endorsed neither. Slay was rewarded with Clay’s dogged support.
Reed’s campaign banked on a big turnout in north St. Louis, where Reed has the largest concentration of support. His campaign said it hoped a large number of contested aldermanic ward races in those areas would boost turnout.
Reed raised a fraction of Slay’s money, taking in about $626,000. That forced Reed to rely on gaining “free media” instead of relying on paid advertisements.
Race, and some unusual racial alliances, were factor in this election. Reed is black, and he invoked national black leaders in his campaign. Slay is white but courted black support with the help of Clay and state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed.
The general election is on April 2, where the more contentious battle will be over the proposed Arch tax to raise funds for the sweeping renovation of the Gateway Arch grounds.
If Slay wins, he will become the longest-serving mayor in the city’s history after eight more days in office, surpassing Henry Kiel, who served in the early 20th century.