Opinion

Jaco: Political vendettas are more important than public health

In a sane world, you wouldn’t need mask mandates. People would think public health was important enough to mask up and get vaccines on their own.

You wouldn’t have city 21st Ward Alderman John Muhammad raging against masks and vaccines on social media, then testing positive for COVID-19 after being part of an anti-mask crowd at the St. Louis County Council meeting Aug. 3.

You wouldn’t have public County Council comments from unmasked voters such as, “The virus is a hoax” and “I have the freedom to not wear a mask.” You wouldn’t have personal and racial attacks against County Health Director Dr. Faisal Khan. You wouldn’t have a majority of the county council of Missouri’s most populous county vote two weeks in a row against a mask mandate.

And you wouldn’t have the two Democratic council members whose districts are the worst in the county for COVID cases and hospitalizations join with the three council Republicans to torpedo the mask mandate because they have a political beef with fellow Democrat and County Executive Dr. Sam Page. But that’s just what the two African-Americans on the council, Rita Heard Days and Shalonda Webb, have done.

There’s a lot to unpack in the performative assholery of the five council members who voted Aug. 3 to rescind the county’s mask ordinance, and then on Aug. 10 refused to implement a new one.

But before we get to the political vendettas and ambitions driving COVID’s friends on the County Council, we need to look at the facts about public health they’re ignoring.

According to the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, an average of 79 new COVID cases a day are being admitted. Almost all of them are unvaccinated. The task force hasn’t seen these kinds of daily COVID numbers since November of last year and February of this year.

An average of 517 people are hospitalized in the metro area with COVID. Of those, 157 are in Intensive Care Units. Of those in the ICUs, 90 have been put into comas so ventilators can allow them to breathe. Six of those patients are under age 11. Two of them are on ventilators. On average, seven people a day die from COVID in metro hospitals.

Those figures are as bad as anything we’ve seen since late last winter, and the numbers are climbing. In parts of largely African-American north St. Louis County that border the city, only 28 percent of adults have been vaccinated, while not surprisingly, the COVID infection rate is 60 percent higher than in the southern half of the county. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black Americans are twice as likely as whites to die from COVID, and three times as likely to be hospitalized.

Given all that, plus the fact that Missouri has been in the top ten (usually in the top five) states for per capita cases, hospitalizations and deaths for the past two months, and the St. Louis County Council’s refusal to mandate masks in public settings seems almost insane, or criminal, or criminally insane. But power, politics, and revenge are what’s really driving this crazy train.

The three Republicans are easy enough to figure out. Far west County District 7 councilman Mark Harder has been taking his anti-mask talking points to Fox and Friends, proclaiming that the vaccinated shouldn’t need masks, ignoring the fact that the vaccinated can still spread the virus if exposed to it.

Far South Countian Ernie Trakas, representing District 6, is against masks because “Liberty doesn’t come in increments, small doses, or watered-down varieties,” which opens the way for refusing to wear seatbelts, smoking in restaurants, or driving drunk to be legal since hey, freedom, no matter who else I hurt.

The Big Casino among Republicans, though, is Mid-County District 3’s Tim Fitch, former County Police Chief, erstwhile opponent of Executive Sam Page, and probable GOP candidate against Page in 2022. Fitch has attacked Health Director Dr. Khan, attacked Page for issuing a mask order, demanding the Council be included, and then when it was, voted against the mask ordinance, using the usual GOP “liberal Democrat” buzz.

Again, none of this from the GOP is any surprise, since the GOP base in Missouri ranges all the way ideologically from anti-vaxers to supporters of the Jan. 6 insurrection. This nonsense, nihilism hidden behind a smokescreen of “individual liberty,” is what they do.

Which brings us to the two Black female North County Democrats on the County Council, District 4 Councilwoman Shalonda Webb and District 1 Councilwoman Rita Heard Days. They’ve joined the three Republicans to form a majority to overturn the mask mandates and stymie County Executive Page. Why?

For Webb, a Boeing engineer, it started when other Democrats ttied to vote for a new chair of the Council before she was sworn in. Then District 2 Democrat Kelli Dunaway questioned whether Webb was really a Democrat.” Her anger over that may have led her to ally with conservative Republicans on masks, even though her two anti-mask votes seem at odds with her July 15 Facebook post where she wrote “COVID numbers are going up in our region. The Delta Variant must be taken serious (sic)”.

Sources claim Webb told District 5 Councilwoman Lisa Clancy on Aug. 9, the day before Webb voted against the mask ordinance, that she would normally support it, but that “… since I owe my election to Rita [Heard Days], and Rita wants me to vote ‘no’, I’ll vote ‘no.’” Webb did not respond to an email asking for comment.

Webb has allied herself with Rita Heard Days, who, like Webb, represents a district with high COVID numbers and low vax rates. For Days, the reason seems a good deal more straightforward: a vendetta against County Executive Page.

It all started in 2019, when then-County Executive Steve Stenger resigned after being indicted (and later convicted) on federal fraud charges. The late Councilwoman Hazel Erby, as senior Democrat on the Council, was widely expected to be appointed by the Council as County Executive until a 2020 election to fill out the rest of Stenger’s term.

The job, instead, went to Sam Page. Reportedly, Days was outraged that a Black woman with seniority had been passed over for Page. In 2020, Days supported Page’s primary opponent. When Erby was then hired by Page for a $120,000-a-year diversity and inclusion position, sources say Erby insisted she be made part of the system for granting minority contracts. Page reportedly resisted because Erby was a political appointee tasked with outreach and hiring, not contracts.

Federal investigators later discovered that memos Erby had sent to the county procurement office insisting that all minority contracts be run by her had been ghostwritten by Courtney Curtis. Curtis, a former Missouri state representative, was sentenced in May to 21 months in federal prison for misusing campaign funds.

When Curtis ghostwrote the memos from Erby to the county procurement office, he was Councilwoman Rita Heard Days’ legislative assistant at the County Council, a position he held from September 2019 until his sentencing. Councilwoman Days did not respond to a email seeking comment.

In August 2020, Page fired Erby, who in turn sued claiming discrimination, and that Page had violated the state’s whistleblower law. Erby died of pancreatic cancer last month at age 75 before the suit was resolved. 

Sources say Days’ anger at Page has not subsided, and her helping block the mask mandate in the last two County Council meetings, along with her alliance with conservative Republicans against Page, is part of that. 

It seems, at least in the County, that vendettas, even those that interfere with public safety and health, are alive and well. Unlike the seven people a day, day in and day out, who never make it out of the metro area’s COVID ICU wards.                     

Charles Jaco

Charles Jaco is a journalist and author. He has worked for NBC News, CNN, KMOX, KTRS, and Fox 2. He is best known for his coverage of the first Gulf War, and for his "legitimate rape" interview with Senate candidate Todd Akin. He is the winner of three George Foster Peabody Awards, and the author of four books.

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