ST. LOUIS • Is the 1st District congressional race about race?
Both major Democrats in the upcoming primary for the new district — U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay and U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan — insist that it’s not.
“I’m not going there, because I don’t think it’s necessary,” says Clay, who is black. “People in this community know me.”
Carnahan, who is white, answers the question by paraphrasing Martin Luther King Jr.: “Judge people on the content of their character and not the color of their skin.”
But behind the stated denials of the candidates, race is undeniably a factor in the contest, which will likely determine who will become the sole representative of a city divided deeply by race.
“It’s there,” says Gentry Trotter, a black Carnahan supporter who heads his own publishing and public relations firms. “You see it. You feel it.”
Carnahan and Clay, two sitting Democrats and former allies, have been thrown into a bitter battle for their political lives by a new redistricting map that edged Carnahan out of his seat. With St. Louis still solidly Democratic, the winner of the Aug. 7 primary will almost certainly become the new district’s congressman in the Nov. 6 general election.
Race is a clear if unspoken theme in the campaign fight that has ensued.
It’s the not-so-subtle backdrop to a recent radio ad by Clay, in which pastors at two prominent black churches implore listeners to stand behind “leaders like Lacy Clay and President Obama,” as soft jazz plays in the background.
It’s implicit in Carnahan’s campaign attack on Clay’s financial and legislative ties to the rent-to-own industry — an industry whose prey, Carnahan’s campaign says, is primarily in black neighborhoods.
And it underlies Clay’s attack on Carnahan for supporting the Wall Street bailout, with the slogan: “Wall Street Russ versus the rest of us.”
Their very campaign structures and strategies hint at a need to address the other side of the racial divide. Key players in Clay’s campaign are white, and he has taken pains to remind voters of support from white officials such as Mayor Francis Slay and Gov. Jay Nixon, as well as his record on organized labor issues important to working-class whites.
Carnahan’s campaign manager is black — a fact that the city’s major African-American newspaper recently suggested was racial positioning — and its campaign mailers have been largely tailored toward black communities and concerns.
Clay Jr. won the district in 2001 and took over his father’s seat. Before this year’s redistricting altered its borders, the 1st District covered much of north St. Louis city and county, with a racial makeup of 49.8 percent black and 46.9 percent white, according to the most recent U.S. Census.
Carnahan, son of the late Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, was elected to the neighboring 3rd District in 2004. That district covered much of southern St. Louis city and county, as well as Jefferson and Ste. Genevieve counties. The district was 85.7 percent white and 9.1 percent black in the last census.
Then came redistricting, a process that each state has to go through every 10 years to reflect new Census data and which determines the offices on the ballot this fall. The old 3rd District was eliminated as Missouri lost one of its nine congressional seats.
The new Republican-drawn map took a chunk of that loss out of St. Louis, leaving the city with just one district, the new 1st. It includes about 80 percent of Clay’s old district, with a racial makeup of about 49.5 percent black and 43.7 percent white.
Until their current battle, Clay and Carnahan were not just political allies, but generational ones. They were heirs to a biracial Democratic coalition that stretched back decades, under both their fathers.
That coalition held up even after photos emerged from the early 1960s showing the elder Carnahan in blackface, singing in a barbershop quartet at a Rolla minstrel show when he was 26. When the photos became public in 1999, the elder Carnahan, by then governor, publicly apologized.
Among the black leaders who publicly accepted the apology and offered support was Clay Sr., then in Congress. “There is nothing in his background or his behavior since I’ve known him the last 20 to 25 years to lead me” to think he’s a racist, Clay Sr. said at the time.
That old alliance soured after redistricting began last year. While Republicans clearly benefited from the redistricting process, its outcome — a citywide majority-minority district — was virtually preordained by federal civil rights laws. Those laws prevent the redistricting process from discriminating against minorities by diluting their political representation in places such as St. Louis, which has a large and concentrated black population.
After some talk of Carnahan running in the Republican-leaning new 2nd District, he instead filed Feb. 28 to challenge Clay in the new 1st, a decision that rocked the state’s Democratic universe.
Warren, the SLU political scientist, who is white, and Washington University professor of education William Tate, who is black, both said race could be an even bigger factor in the contest than it might normally be, because of the candidates’ similar positions on issues.
“Ultimately, it’s going to come down to which of these gentlemen makes people feel like, ‘He’s in my corner,’” said Tate, who has specialized in minority education and civic issues. “That’s where race factors into it, whether people want to admit that or not.”
Warren said that “they both are Democrats who have similar voting records. It’s only natural for people to vote for who they are most comfortable with. You would expect the black community to overwhelmingly vote for Lacy Clay and the whites, to a lesser extent, for Carnahan.”
“Polarized voting is an electoral reality,” he said.
For some local African-American leaders, such as the Rev. B.T. Rice, first vice president of the St. Louis County NAACP, the issue is a difficult one because both congressmen have been perceived as supportive of the community.