Racial divide surfaces in Board of Aldermen committee meeting

Racial divide surfaces in Board of Aldermen committee meeting

CITY HALL – Racial divisions at City Hall boiled to the surface last week at a Board of Aldermen committee meeting meant to discuss the potential closing of the city’s Medium Security Institution.

Fifth Ward Alderwoman Tammika Hubbard, who is black, disparaged white aldermen who she said claimed they did “what’s in the best interest of people of color when you sit down here and vote against everything in north St. Louis.”

Hubbard specifically mentioned the upcoming reduction of wards to 14 from 28, a measure that is opposed by many African-American aldermen.

“You know it isn’t going to be seven black and seven white,“ Hubbard said. “If we’re going to be about change, let’s be about change. But quit bamboozling the community, because I’m going to expose you every chance I get.”

Shortly after that, Sixth Ward Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia, who is white, said she regretted the current racial divide on the Board of Aldermen.

“I want to be extremely sensitive to the fact that I’m a white woman, and I can’t speak for people of color, but I can be an ally, and the adversarial nature of the relationships down here at the board between black and white aldermen are absolutely heartbreaking and are doing a huge disservice to the residents of our community,” Ingrassia said. 

“I want to be thoughtful about relationships, but just because I’m a white woman, I don’t think it’s fair for me to not be able to move issues of racial equity forward,” Ingrassia said. She offered to help bridge any gap that has formed.

Ingrassia said she understood that the awful racial history of St. Louis made it different from many places in the country.

“I’m assuming that’s why a lot of those issues are bubbling below the surface a lot of the time, but until we have honest conversations about how to move forward together, we’re going to be stuck in the same place over and over again,” she said.

The two alderwomen spoke at a Jan. 29 hearing of the aldermanic Public Safety Committee to discuss a resolution meant to push the city to close the Medium Security Institution, also called the workhouse, at 7600 Hall St.

After both Hubbard and Ingrassia spoke, 23rd Ward Alderman Joseph Vaccaro, who chairs the public safety committee, said much of the division was the result of the upcoming reduction of wards.

City voters approved in 2012 a charter amendment change that called for the reduction in the number of wards and aldermen. Starting in 2022, the board will consist of 14 aldermen and the president of the board.

Vaccaro is the co-sponsor of a bill calling for another election on whether the number of wards should stay at 28. The bill’s sponsor, 21st Ward Alderman John Collins-Muhammad, said at a hearing on the issue in June 2019 that reducing the number of wards without a solid plan would hurt the north side and other wards. 

“Right now our communities are ravaged by decay,” Collins-Muhammad said. “Systematically, it is impossible to create equity within two years of a reduction.”

African-American aldermen who spoke at that hearing in June said that their constituents needed more services and that it would be harder to provide those services with just 14 aldermen.

After that hearing, Collins-Muhammad held the bill from consideration for an initial vote in the Board of Aldermen. It’s still being held from an initial vote. 

“I can tell you, if there’s a gap, it’s because there are some people that don’t want to look at both sides,” Vaccaro said at last week’s hearing. 

In the 2012 election, election money was spent in south St. Louis, and a lot of misinformation was spread, Vaccaro said. “No money was spent in north St. Louis – none. In fact, intentionally, in my opinion, voters north were kind of left out of the vote.”

Vaccaro also noted that some aldermen asked sharp questions when Hubbard introduced a bill to approve tax increment financing for a three-bed hospital on land connected to controversial developer Paul McKee Jr. The board voted 23-2 with one voting “present” in October for a new development agreement for the planned $72.9 million Healthworks Hospital Project on the old Pruitt-Igoe grounds. 

“The line of questioning to her was so far off the charts as to, ‘Where’d you get your money? Aren’t you this? Aren’t you that?’ when nobody ever asked that of anyone,” Vaccaro said.

After Friday’s meeting of the Board of Aldermen, 22nd Ward Alderman Jeffrey Boyd, the chairman of the board’s African American Caucus, said he didn’t see a black-white division.

“I’m not of that opinion,” he said. “Personally, I haven’t seen it. I don’t have a problem with anybody. This is just a job for me. I take nothing personally.”

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