The upcoming special election in the City of St. Louis’s 8th Ward is a big freaking deal, to state the obvious – and paraphrase Joe Biden, at the same time.
Alderman Stephen Conway, a longtime fixture in city politics (and son of former Mayor Jim Conway) was one of the Board’s most senior members. Whatever anyone’s feelings are about seniority vs. newcomers, that seniority comes with some benefits: institutional memory, a deep understanding of parliamentary procedure, and a working knowledge to get things done.
In the last few years, we’ve seen a change in Board makeup – some newer faces who look at our City’s challenges, and are unafraid to call out imperfections. This, too, is important.
And, based on these value statements, among other things I’ll get to, I am supporting my dear friend and longtime neighbor, Paul Fehler, as the Democratic nominee to replace Ald. Conway. This was not a decision I took lightly, as I have deep respect for the other candidate seeking that nomination. So, rather than go into a comparison/contrast, I want to tell a story about friendship.
I first met Paul through our neighborhood’s former listserv, Shawtalk, when he called out my block for a successful National Night Out party, in 2010. I’d love to take full credit for that, but really, all I did was plant the seed and energize neighbors. They stepped up in ways I didn’t even think of, and made it a success. Good leaders inspire that in others.
I was able to do that, because I listened to the concerns of others, while I was co-block captain. My initial motives were to make the block safer for my ex-wife and me. In the process, I learned of a bitter feud that divided longtime residents, and sensed serious discord. National Night Out was an opportunity to begin that process of righting a fundamental wrong. And, it proved successful. I’ve seen Paul do very similar work, over the years.
After that initial encounter with Paul, he reached out to me privately. Turns out, he was producing a film called The Pruitt-Igoe Myth. That film would become a globally-recognized piece of work, and should be required viewing for anyone who cares at all about St. Louis, urban planning, public housing, racial tensions and public policy.
Paul allowed me to see an unfinished version of the film, and I came away gobsmacked. I went home and wept for my city. I changed how I viewed our city’s troubles. Much to the consternation of well-meaning friends who wanted to do good, but couldn’t see that good requires action, I couldn’t stop talking about it. And, I couldn’t stop focusing my efforts on making my own neighborhood both safe and inclusive. Good communicators inspire that in others.
When I stepped into the role of 1st Vice President, and later President, of the Shaw Neighborhood Improvement Association, Paul would continue to challenge me in uncomfortable ways. I was heavily invested in the City’s Neighborhood Ownership Model – a good model with systemic challenges that I’ll get into, another time. He would challenge me to not play into others’ fears, in order to recruit neighbors. I didn’t see it that way, at the time, as I saw myself challenging neighbors to quit talking and start doing.
Both of us learned from that experience. And, I watched Paul get involved in neighborhood leadership, as a vice president, and chair of the Safety committee – the very place he was challenging me to do better.
When I took a position with the City of St. Louis, as a Neighborhood Improvement Specialist, Paul and I would meet regularly. He would ask me questions about City processes and operations, and he would offer insights as to flaws within how we were doing things. I, too, considered myself a potential change agent from the inside, and I saw immediately the value in those discussions. It’s critical to understand the rules you want to change, before you change them.
Even now, he’s exhibiting that principle, going directly to members of the Democratic Central Committee on both sides of Delmar, and listening before he talks. Because, that’s always been Paul’s heart.
I know few people in this world with as much thoughtfulness as Paul Fehler – along with the willingness to put those thoughts into action, by building the necessary consensus to get the right things done. It’s what I’ve tried to do – however imperfectly – in my own leadership roles. It’s what I still hope to do, even though I’m no longer a City employee.
My early-childhood roots are in the 8th Ward. My mom and dad lived in a 2-family, on the 4500 block of Flora, when I was a kid. That particular part of Southwest Garden continues to have a special place in my heart – so much so that my ex-wife and I lived across the street, before we bought our house in Shaw – one that we need to sell, because, unfortunately, my professional ambitions came at the expense of my marriage. Not a problem for Paul, Nadia, and Henry. They’re all in.
Again, I very much appreciate and respect the other candidate, who has her own support. I wouldn’t have voted for her as Committeewoman, if I didn’t think she was up for the job. I will not tolerate any divisive or negative comments about either candidate on this blog post, or on my social media profiles. Our neighborhood suffers from enough division, and that breaks my heart more than few know.
All I ask is that you consider my thoughts, along with those of others, and make an informed choice. I’m laying mine on the table, for the ward, for the City, and for a good friend. Here’s a video from the man, himself.