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Hotflash and I had the opportunity to see the Democratic candidates for mayor up close late last week at a meeting of the 15th Ward Democratic Club. (Many thanks to Jan and Greg for organizing the event!) And I do mean up close – I was up in the front row, close enough to see the mayor’s leg twitching nervously as he delivered his opening statement, and Maida Coleman sat down right behind me, I suppose just to take in the show and research the opposition. Despite just wrapping up service as the Democratic leader in the Senate, Maida is an independent candidate for mayor and was not allowed to speak at the forum.

The 15th Ward Democratic Club held an open candidate forum for Democratic candidates on a night where the temperature hovered in the single digits. Despite this, a good 20 or 30 people turned out, not including the  entourages of the various candidates. I didn’t take very accurate notes on what each candidate said, and a couple of problems with the camera prevented us from getting all of the gory details down on film. Hopefully Hotflash will have some YouTube clips for us soon so you can see for yourself at least some of what was said. All in all, though, I was more impressed with each of the candidates than I was going into the meeting.

More below the fold.

Mayor Slay’s opening statement seemed to me to be the workmanlike speech of an accomplished technocrat, full of stats on investment and paint by the numbers accomplishments. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I mean, it’s good to have a public servant who is rational and data driven, and this is the way Slay presents himself. He delivered the speech crisply and smoothly. As for the data itself, I’m not an expert, but I’m sure we’ll see a variety of partisans putting it in a different light between now and Election Day.

The only time Slay seemed to be agitated was when asked about Sherman George. He definitely knew the question was coming (as I recall it was something along the lines of “Would you have done anything differently regarding the situations in the fire and police departments?”) as his answer was logical and direct. He didn’t get angry or overly emotional or sentimental about the situation, but at times, he failed to complete sentences before rephrasing the sentence in another manner, and he repeated several points almost one after the other.

Denise Watson-Wesley Coleman was almost the polar opposite of Slay. Instead of coming across as a technocrat, her speech was almost completely filled with her passions. She’s obviously never been a candidate before, as her speaking style is still very rough and she began very tentatively. She did find her stride at one point, and perhaps the most entertaining point was when she glared over my left shoulder, right at Maida Coleman, and stated that she was beholden to no other interest or politician except the ideals for which she is running. I would have given anything at the point to have been seated on the other side of the room so that I could have seen Maida meet that gaze!

There’s a lot for Denise to work on if she’s going to become a formidable candidate. She didn’t have details at her fingertips like Slay did, or even a factoid she could steer the answer to if she truly didn’t have an answer. For example, she was asked what she would do about rising homelessness in St. Louis, and she responded that there were programs in Saint Louis to deal with homelessness, and she would look into getting more programs. Not exactly the most specific answer there.

Irene Smith closed out the night. A bit rushed, as the library’s closing time drew near even as she began, Smith struck a sweet spot between Slay’s managerial prose and Coleman’s fire. Like Coleman, Smith’s opening statement was heavy on biography. (Slay didn’t have to mention his biography – clearly the last eight years of his career massively outweigh everything else he’s done in terms of this campaign.) But she transitioned smoothly from her own career to the specific problems the city faces, possible solutions, and how her own previous experience matches those solutions. She’s a good public speaker, too – she effectively managed dramatic pauses for emphasis and wove larger themes into her specifics.

From people I talked to right after the forum and in the intervening week, I don’t think Slay is the lock that his overwhelming financial and institutional advantage might otherwise signify. The people I’ve talked to – regular voters, not political junkies – are very open to looking at the alternatives to Slay. A couple even recalled Smith’s incident in the aldermanic meeting back in 2001, but didn’t seem to care. All the caveats about anecdotal evidence, of course. So while Slay looks to be an easy winner, it will be interesting if a challenger gets enough funding and/or grassroots support to get their message out.

A point of disclosure and a caveat. First, I’ve given advice to Coleman’s campaign on Internet outreach. I know some of the people who are helping Denise with the campaign, and I know how tough a race they are facing. The least I could do was give them a few pointers based on what I learned working on the Margaret Donnelly campaign. It’ll be up to them to make good use of them, if they can.

Also, apologies for posting so late about the forum. I’m swamped at work and had all the usual chores in the intervening week between the candidate forum and now, plus the inaugural celebration, so I wasn’t able to post in the meantime. So there’s the caveat that I have probably failed to recollect a personal story that Slay shared, or some relevant policy details that Coleman told, that destroys my neat little characterizations of their appearances. In that respect, you, the reader, should treat this less as a news article than the personal feelings of an average voter. Hopefully, hotflash can balance that out with some YouTube clips that can allow you to form your own impression.