Hartmann: The City That Gets No Respect

If you follow the news, you probably have heard that there’s an effort afoot in Jefferson City for politicians

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If you follow the news, you probably have heard that there’s an effort afoot in Jefferson City for politicians to scorn the city of St. Louis and its voters by disregarding their autonomy regarding policing and crime.

But I have a hunch you didn’t notice this item from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
“The Board of Police Commissioners today assailed the proposed investigation of the Police Department by a state legislative committee, asserting it would be ‘highly destructive to the morale’ of the entire department,” the daily reported. “In a letter to State Rep. Jennie Walsh (D-St. Louis), committee head, the board said it felt that ‘any unauthorized investigation would establish a dangerous precedent.’”

Also, there was this unrelated item: “The legislature would be asked to amend state law to permit the board to recruit policemen from anywhere in the state, and also to allow officers to live in St. Louis County. Department rules, which are based on state law, require that candidates for appointment as policemen have lived in St. Louis one year and they continue to live in the city after appointment.”

The article was dated September 20, 1955.

So, these issues have been with us awhile. I would have attempted to contact Walsh for an update, but my research discovered that were she alive, she’d be 130 years old.

Apparently, there’s nothing new about the state legislature looking down its nose at the city. The uniforms have changed: Democrats dominated state government with an iron fist in that era, and they weren’t afraid to use Jefferson City’s authority to infringe upon any autonomy the city might have thought it had.

And that was back in the day when the city shouldn’t have been so easily abused. Its population of 850,000 ranked it eighth in the nation and represented more than 20 percent of Missouri’s total of 3.95 million people. Today, the city’s estimated 293,000 citizens constitute less than 5 percent of Missouri’s 6.2 million.

It’s no wonder state officials feel empowered to push the city around today. But Governor Mike Parson has taken the time-honored practice to tyrannical heights with his public attempts to disregard the very existence of democracy in the city of St. Louis. Parson has proposed two autocratic moves that in a normal world might prompt calls for his impeachment. One is for the state government to eliminate the city’s police residency requirement — the one referred to in that 1955 article — less than three months before city voters are going to vote on this very question, one that affects them exclusively.

Sexier politically — but just as repugnant — is a proposed “concurrent jurisdiction” imposition that would enable the attorney general to seize control of violent-crime prosecutions under certain conditions in the city. The key point: It could do so over the circuit attorney’s objections, an insult that would never be perpetrated on the other 114 counties in the state.

As to the police residency issue, it is a breathtaking attack on democracy that Parson would impose the state’s will on city voters like this. I say that as someone who has been opposed to those very residency rules for decades, previously as a city resident.

What I think about police residency doesn’t matter. What Parson thinks doesn’t matter. Same for Mayor Lyda Krewson, who wrongfully requested this intrusion over the expressed opposition of the elected Board of Aldermen.

The people of St. Louis are voting on this November 3, you know, like as American citizens? It’s worse than a “dangerous precedent” that the state would trample city residents’ rights like this.

Just as egregious is the proposed encroachment upon Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, who was effectively reelected August 4 in a Democratic primary landslide of historic proportions. It largely escaped public notice, but Gardner won with more votes than any circuit attorney in city since the rollicking days of Circuit Attorney George Peach in the 1980s.

Gardner defeated a qualified opponent, former Assistant Circuit Attorney Mary Pat Carl, by 43,425 to 28,031 votes — a 21.5 point differential. The turnout was the largest in decades in a circuit attorney’s primary race.

But that’s not all: Gardner received more votes than the entire four-person field got (42,089 votes) in 2016, her first win. For perspective, Jennifer Joyce, the city’s longest-serving prosecutor of sixteen years, never received more than the 35,259 primary votes she tallied when unopposed in 2012. And Gardner received more than twice as many votes as the well-regarded Joyce needed to win her first, contested primary election, against Jerryl Christmas in 2000.

It was an overwhelming reelection mandate for Gardner and her criminal-justice reform agenda, but not to the governor. In a folksy Trump impersonation, Parson held a press conference barely a week later to declare simply that Gardner wasn’t getting the job done, as if the election had not happened. And then, of course, he suggested usurping her authority.

As state Rep. Justin Hill, R-Lake St. Louis, a conservative former police officer, suggested Thursday on my KTRS show, can you imagine the outrage if, say, some future Attorney General Kim Gardner tried seizing an officer-involved shooting case from a rural prosecutor to toughen it up?

Even the conservative Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys called out Parson for this disrespect. But there’s this other voice, whispering in his ear, saying, “I may never get red meat like this again.”

We’ve seen this act too many times over the years. When the city decided in 2015 to raise its minimum wage to $10 per hour, the state was eventually able to overrule it with a preemption law. In a similar vein, but with a different technique, the state electorate prohibited cities like St. Louis from maintaining desperately needed gun-control laws.

Parson is acting out a contemporary theme of Missouri Republicans, who formerly prided themselves as opponents of big-brother government and advocates of local control. Instead, GOP politicians now advance the utterly patronizing notion that St. Louis is too important for the state economically to let “those people” in the city drag down the rest of the state.

See “whistle, dog” for more information.

In this bizarre exercise, a coalition of outstate residents and metropolitan area conservatives in places such as St. Charles and Jefferson counties convince themselves that they actually care about St. Louis by outwardly acknowledging it generates a big chunk of the state economy. It is then viewed as too big to fail, so they must come to its rescue.

As someone who respects rural people, it’s painful to see Missouri devolve into this mindless culture war. It’s no secret that many outstate have regarded city slickers as condescending elitists. Sometimes they had a point, I’m sure.

But, today, we see a reverse narrative: Outstate residents and their outer-suburb political allies are seen as smarter people who know what’s best for the city, and they have a right and duty to impose their political will on city residents in the name of self-protection economically.

This resembles what was argued 65 years ago. But at least then, city police were governed by a board of police commissioners appointed by the governor pursuant to ridiculous laws dating back to the Civil War. If nothing else, there was legal justification for outside interference: It was baked into the cake.

St. Louis shouldn’t stand for this anymore, and by St. Louis, I mean the entire region, surrounding counties included, because their time could be coming next. The message to Jefferson City should be clear: Stop disrespecting us.

It wasn’t right in 1955. It isn’t right today.

Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at rhartmann@sbcglobal.net or catch him on Donnybrook at 7 p.m. on Thursdays on the Nine Network and St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).