Let's get the jokes out of the way first: City Hall really is a cesspool. Local politics have gone straight down the toilet. Political decorum is in the tank.
Such jabs are zipping around St. Louis these days after Alderman Irene Smith took a very public pit stop in a City Hall trash can during a filibuster last week. But the episode has sparked some serious debate as well.
Critics of the Board of Aldermen have seized upon it as Exhibit A in their quest to reform the city's political system. They say St. Louis has way too many aldermen who bicker way too much and who focus on narrow, neighborhood issues rather than the more serious woes that afflict this long-ailing city of 348,000. They complain as well that the aldermen quarrel too much about racial issues, perpetuating deep divides that separate white from black here.
The July 17 incident also exposed rifts among city leaders over the best strategy to save St. Louis--which has been hemorrhaging population since the 1950s, when the total stood at 856,000, as families flee the dismal schools, patchy health care and desolate stretches of boarded-up downtown streets.
Public urination may not spur reform. Yet it has, at least, raised public awareness of the local political process. And many citizens do not like what they see.
"One word--disgraceful," a city resident wrote the local paper.
"I've seen acrimony and name calling, but this is just out of control," agreed Lana Stein, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
The mayor's chief of staff added that people in the rest of the state "must think we're a bunch of morons."
The now-infamous episode that touched off the debate unfolded while Smith was leading a filibuster to fend off a redistricting proposal that she said would hurt African American voters. Hours into the debate in the stuffy aldermanic chambers, she asked for a bathroom break. But the chairman told her if she left, she would have to yield the floor--and the filibuster would collapse.
So Smith decided to hold her ground. Her supporters surrounded her with sheets as she stood over a garbage can and apparently relieved herself, right there on the debate floor.
Local TV cameras captured the episode. The footage rolled on the evening news. And it has become the talk of the town.
Citizens have chucked rolls of toilet paper from the public gallery in the aldermen's chambers. Civic leaders have fretted aloud that this is not the image they want St. Louis to project. And politicians have used every synonym in the book to denounce Smith's behavior as embarrassing, disrespectful and outrageous. The police, meanwhile, plan to cite Smith for violating a city law against public urination. She could be fined up to $500 or face 90 days in jail.
"I would say this represents a unique . . . low," groaned Ken Warren, a political scientist at St. Louis University.
Warren long has called for reforming the Board of Aldermen; this incident only gives him more ammunition. His main concern, shared by other analysts, is that the board is too large. There are 28 aldermen, so each one represents just 12,400 constituents. (By contrast, each councilman represents 200,000 people in Los Angeles, 157,00 in New York City and 58,000 in Chicago.)
"There are so many of them that it approaches the point of absurdity. They defend their little fiefdoms rather than think in terms of the whole city," Warren said.
"That's why there are stop signs everywhere in the city," agreed Greg Freeman, a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and a longtime political observer. "People want stop signs on their blocks and the aldermen try to get them to win a few votes. It's very difficult for them to focus on the big picture."
The big picture these days--and the subtext for the recent incident at City Hall--is the mayor's drive to build a $346-million downtown baseball stadium for the St. Louis Cardinals, funded in part with tax dollars.
Many aldermen have complained long and loud that the city funnels too much money into ritzy downtown development projects and not enough into the fading neighborhoods where citizens live. Among the most vocal critics has been Alderman Sharon Tyus. And she is the alderman due to lose her ward in the redistricting proposal that her ally, Smith, was filibustering when nature called.
To their supporters, the trash-can pit stop was not an embarrassment, but an almost-noble sacrifice in support of a worthy cause.
"We've spent the past 35 years trying to build this town with tourism, going all the way back to the Gateway Arch. And what you have as a result is a city that has lost half its population," said local activist Bob Pieper. "Clearly, this strategy doesn't work. We need to shift gears. Sharon Tyus has been one of the most outspoken, and that's ruffled a lot of feathers."
To add yet another wrinkle: The ward Tyus represents is mostly black. Under the proposed redistricting, it will be replaced with a more integrated ward. Smith and several other African American aldermen fear the new map could mean diminished clout for black voters in a city that is now more than 50% black.
For now, the redistricting plan has been shelved while the aldermen take summer break. The potty jokes, meanwhile, keep on coming.