GEORGE KENNEDY: Race, class and politics in First Ward reapportionment

Thursday, August 4, 2011 | 5:34 p.m. CDT; updated 10:13 a.m. CDT, Friday, August 5, 2011

“It’s a matter of geography, pure and simple.” That’s what Bob Pugh said to me last week when I commented on the challenges faced by the Ward Reapportionment Committee he chairs. He said it with a straight face.

I’ve known for a long time that Bob doesn’t have a high opinion of journalists, so it’s possible, I suppose, that he expected me to believe him. I doubt it. He knows there’s nothing pure or simple about the process that will result, eventually, in new boundaries for at least some of the city’s six council wards.

If it were simple, the work could be wrapped up pretty much as imagined at last week’s meeting by committee member Wiley Miller: “Move some of Ward 2 into Ward 1, and we’ve solved our problem, voila!” he said.

One of the few points of clarity in the process so far is that there isn’t likely to be a “voila!” moment.

If it were pure, or purely geographic, one of the four trial maps drafted by the city staff would have served. Instead, we’ve already seen another alternative offered by committee member Rob Monsees. And the staff is under instructions to draft at least two other versions, embodying ideas suggested by committee members Colleen Coble and Terry Smith.

Meanwhile, issues of race, class and politics swirl around the central question the committee must resolve. That is how to add about 4,000 people to the undersized and underappreciated First Ward, which now contains most of downtown and the largely low-income north central section of the city.

I did some poking around in the Missourian’s files and discovered that 20 years ago — when the First Ward was redesigned to nearly its current location — Larry Schuster, thencouncilman of the ward, protested.

“Taking all the trouble spots of the city and lumping them into one ward is a disservice,” he said.

Colleen Coble, herself a First Ward council member after the reorganization, referred to that view at last week’s meeting: “People think of the First Ward as home of those others I don’t want to be part of.” That’s an outdated prejudice, she added.

That it still prevails is demonstrated by the squawks of current residents of the Second, Third and Fourth wards, when various trial maps proposed to shift them into the First Ward.

The map — or “trial,” as it's called — that generates the most concern in political circles is Trial D, the one brought to the table by Rob Monsees. He would move chunks of the Third and Fourth wards into the First. As it happens, those chunks are the most heavily Democratic precincts of the existing wards.

That possibility has led my progressive co-religionists to suspect, and allege, partisan motivations in a process that isn’t, at least on the surface, partisan. They argue, with voting patterns to support them, that Trial D would pretty well guarantee a decade of 4-2 dominance of the council by conservatives.

Their suspicion arises at least in part from the fact that Rob has spent most of his career working for Republican office holders, including former Sen. Kit Bond and former Gov. Matt Blunt. Rob now makes his living in a university office that’s trying to commercialize nanotechnology discoveries made by MU engineers.

He’s a soft-spoken, pleasant guy. When I asked, he assured me, “This has nothing to do with Republican politics.” Nor is it a plot by the Chamber of Commerce to guarantee conservative dominance on the council, he added.

In fact, his Trial D is a close copy of what was called Trial 5 in the last reapportionment, in 2001. It was presented then, and Rob offers it now, as a way to strengthen not only the numbers but the clout of the First Ward by adding more politically active and more affluent constituents.

It lost out then to the configuration we have today, by a 4-3 vote of the City Council. Then-First Ward Councilwoman Almeta Crayton and then-Mayor Darwin Hindman were among the three supporting it.

If geography really were the sole or even the primary criterion, Trial D would do the job. So would Trial B, a city staff-drawn map that adds a big chunk of the Second Ward to the First. The Democrats I’ve talked to would much prefer the latter, though they may introduce a version they like even better.

With a deadline of Sept. 15 and maps yet unseen to consider, Rob Monsees and the Democrats do agree on two things – that the committee is unlikely to settle on a single map and that the final decision is likely to be made again by the City Council, 4-3.

The outcome I hope for would pair numerical balance with political fairness.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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Ellis Smith August 5, 2011 | 5:51 a.m.

While there are differing considerations when drawing boundaries, wouldn't the primary one be that all the wards contain roughly equal numbers of residents?

Maybe that's not esoteric enough. These days nothing is worth even talking about if it isn't esoteric.

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