When the new legislative session starts for aldermen on April 18th, Antonio French won't be representing the 21st ward. For me, the Board of Aldermen will seem like a very different place. In the week since the primary for mayor, French's campaign has been disparaged by both the "progressive" wing of local politics and by some parts of local black media, for harming Tishaura Jones' shot at winning the election. He doesn't need me (or probably even want me) to defend him, but I will anyway.
For the more outspoken cadre of aldermen currently in office (including me) French defined what being an alderman was, and provided a reason to want this job. French set the standard for turning a position that can be as utterly irrelevant as alderman into a meaningful and sometimes compelling platform for social, cultural, and political commentary and policy. He's been the most consistently interesting voice in local politics on a number of issues for the past decade. When I was elected in 2011, he was one of the few people that didn't seem to think I was irrelevant. The only way to become a good alderman is to learn on the job, but the tips he gave me were accurate.
People who are frustrated with him today for harming another black candidate's shot at becoming mayor should remember that French was completely instrumental in helping Lewis Reed become the first black President of the Board of Aldermen in 2007. I don't remember if I told him, or just thought this during the 2013 mayoral election, but he should have been the candidate taking on Slay, not Reed. French's arguments were clear and incisive, and his ability to communicate to a wide audience was unsurpassed in local politics. But instead of grabbing for the brass ring in 2013, he was a loyal lieutenant for Reed. For some reason people think Slay won easily, but that is anything but the case. Slay pulled out all the stops to win that election 54 - 44. Perhaps at the time Reed had more city-wide name recognition, but I still contend French could have pushed Slay harder, and delivered a more coherent argument on why voters should change course. French compared Reed to Newark mayor Cory Booker, but the obvious reality was that French himself was much more like the energetic and media savvy Booker.
Most baffling in the recent criticism of French is the idea that he isn't, "for the people". French represented one of the lowest income areas of St. Louis, and he used every tool available at City Hall (which usually isn't much) to deliver better services for his community. He consistently pissed off almost everyone in the process. But on a shoestring budget of grants and charity, he cobbled together after school programs for the neediest kids, and help for the poorest seniors. He managed Halloween safe zones so children could Trick or Treat. He paid out of his own campaign funds to run a summer concert series in O'Fallon Park. He got the poorest kids almost free access to the O'Fallon Rec Center. He relentlessly tried to make his community visible, specific, and important to a region that was indifferent or oblivious to it.
Being alderman can be fairly taxing, and immensely frustrating, in any part of St. Louis. It's a much more difficult job in areas with the highest crime and poverty. Local politics is sometimes lumped in with national politics, but it's nothing like it. Local politics is your neighbor resenting you for the building code citation they got. It's someone you know asking you how they can avoid their home getting foreclosed on. It's hearing there was a shooting and worrying you know the victim. It's very personal. I saw French pour himself into it, try everything, and I saw the frustration grow with each passing year. French did veer into a kind of reflexive, automatic distrust of Slay. He assigned malice to actions that I might have called indifferent or tone-deaf. And he alienated people who didn't see things that way. But I can see why he felt that way.
One public example was in 2014. As the murder rate climbed, Police Chief Dotson utilized a "rap" video produced by two white Washington University students to explain that, actually, the highest murder rate in the country was just a statistical problem, rather than a human tragedy. If the same violence was in my neighborhood, I would have lost all remaining patience too. I'm still embarrassed that a "cute" video by college kids was used to minimize the death of so many black residents. This dynamic played out over and over again in small ways and large.
French has been hammered for things (mostly cherry-picked) like not caring about people's wages, not opposing developer subsidies hard enough, and not "really" caring about community issues post-Ferguson. But the last 8 years show otherwise. French was all over Paul McKee in 2009, accurately predicting the coming blunders. He has been the most relentless advocate for minority hiring on public or subsidized projects. And he was talking about "Ferguson" issues well before 2014: Effective community policing, local courts, the portrayal of black people and communities by local media, institutional racism, the enormous toll poverty exacts from children, and more. But he's usually had a pragmatic streak about what local government could actually do, something that has gone very much out of vogue lately. He was willing to make politically bad decisions from time to time if he believed it was better for his constituents.
French got very unlucky when Clinton did not win the presidency. His early association with her campaign would have provided him with more institutional support and substantially more money to campaign for his mayoral bid. He would have looked much more like a front-runner from the early going, and could have had some national figures singing his praises. Instead, he mostly had to go it alone. But he was committed - he was fed up with his current position and ready for a larger platform.
I have become a grumpier person, and he's become a more difficult person in the last six years, so unfortunately I can't call him a friend. But I'm glad to say I was his colleague. In an only slightly different world French would be mayor today. Perhaps his career could have taken the trajectory of Dick Gephardt's, another former alderman. He is an entrepreneurial person who can be very successful outside of politics, but I hope there's space for him in public service again. In any case, for me, the defining personality of my time at City Hall is gone for now. It would be travesty if the narrative of the last week is what he's remembered for.