History of St. Louis Class Hears From Politics Panel

The Class of 2024 gathered in Brauer Auditorium last week to hear from a politics panel, one of many engaging sessions that allow students to hear from local people who care deeply about their community and work hard to make a difference.

The panel consisted of Ian Mackey, a Democratic state representative first elected in 2018, Shamed Dogan ’96, a Republican state representative first elected in 2014, and Jason Rosenbaum, political correspondent for “St. Louis Public Radio” and host of the “Politically Speaking” podcast.

Carla Federman, JK-12 History and Social Sciences Department Chair and Upper School History Teacher, moderated the discussion. She began by asking the guests to explain what drew them to politics.

Mackey said that he’s always wanted to be a politician and that he considers it fun. “I wanted to debate folks I disagree with, try to understand why people look at issues differently than I was and see how politics can improve the lives of people.”

Dogan shared a similar history; he got the political bug in middle school when his mother, who completed law school in her 40s, went to work for a state senator. Dogan served as a page, running papers around the state capitol building. He founded a political organization as a student at MICDS and remained active through college before working in the Senate. “It was a dream job,” he said, before explaining that once returning home he has also served as alderman for the City of Ballwin. “So I’ve worked at federal, local, and state level, and have been interested and involved in pretty much all of my life,” he said.

Rosenbaum began his career as a writer, choosing journalism as soon as he realized it would be difficult to earn a living as a fiction writer, at least not right away. He wrote for his middle and high school newspapers and was an avid reader of the Chicago Tribune. After graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism at Mizzou, he did a stint as a web editor before being hired as a writer for the St. Louis Beacon. When the Beacon was absorbed into St. Louis Public Radio, he “became a broadcast journalist overnight with little training.” It took him a full year to acclimate to the new medium, and after nine years, he says he wouldn’t go back.

What are the most important political issues you see today in St. Louis?

Dogan: “The biggest challenge is turning our region’s perception and reality around. Thirty years ago, St. Louis was known as the homicide capital of the U.S. We are still one of the top two or three cities for homicides. Crime is the reason people don’t move to cities like ours. 2020-21 had record-high homicides in the US. How can you convince someone it’s a great place to work, raise your family, and live when they see the reality around them? My neighbor’s car got stolen, kids are being killed, and no one is punished for it. We need to have our civic leaders deal with that problem.”

Mackey: “Shamed is right, and I would expand to say that our region is divided in two: city and county. The city has the homicide rate. A bright line has divided us since the 1860s. We can all go to Cardinals games and write ‘St. Louis’ on our envelopes but the line is there. Cities that grow see a decrease in crime. Access to economic opportunities decreases as population decreases. Every 10 years or so, we think about fixing it. We’ll try again in five or 10 years, but it’s not going to improve until we become one St. Louis, until we do what so many other cities have done: create a cohesive, collaborative government between the city and county.”

Rosenbaum: “Disorganization, in general, is a major problem, not just the city/county divide. St. Louis County has the Special School District which pulls hundreds of millions of dollars for special ed personnel and the city doesn’t, so people move from the City to the County, like my family did, for those resources. But some people can’t. There is a constant brain drain of special ed teachers, and they can’t have a consistent staff there. That’s just one example. Another example is the sales tax increase for public safety in 2017. Hundreds of millions of dollars were supposed to help crime go down, and there was no bang for the buck; crime is still a problem. Having two major police departments who only casually work together and aren’t consolidated is a problem.”

Mackey: “In statistics given by the St. Louis Business Journal, we see that the state of Missouri exports more college graduates every year for the last 10 years than we have entering college freshmen. There are only three other states that export more than Missouri. I think it has to do with our social policies.”

What do we do about these issues?

Rosenbaum: “Better Together was an extraordinarily bad proposal. It would have made Steve Stenger the ultra-mayor. The city is much smaller than the county, so the city would have been emasculated from a municipal standpoint. One of the problems with the fragmented nature of our region is that too many people have too much power. Better Together was seen as a very self-interested way of giving someone who was very unpopular a lot of power. The city has just finally come to a place where Black political power is at its pinnacle. There is a Black mayor and Black county officials, and under that proposal, they weren’t willing to unilaterally give up power. It would be good to have one recorder of deeds, one treasurer, and one attorney, but having no political agency whatsoever was a non-starter.”

Mackey: “I agree, that specific proposal was not the right way to go. We have 1,100 elected officials in St. Louis county, including mayors, alderpeople, fireboard people, etc. When they act collectively to stop something, they usually succeed. It’s going to require people to give up power, and that’s against human nature. How do we get that done? How we convince people to do that is an open question. Other cities have done it. Nashville did it. There are a number of different ways to go about it. Nashville is a great example.”

Dogan: “One of the challenges is that there’s a lot of tension between the different municipalities, there are too many elected officials, too many local governments, but we are pro-democracy and people want access to their elected officials, where can people talk to their elected officials in those small municipalities. If you dissolve those cities and merge, then you have to go to Clayton if you have a problem; you don’t have a city hall or an alderman right down the street from you. That takes away people’s power to elect representatives at a micro level. Change like that has to come from the bottom up.”

What do you see as your role in all of this? What do you hope to accomplish?

Mackey: “Part of our job is to tell stories, tell the story of our city, our region, and our community to sell that narrative and perception. There’s so much power in our words and minds, to think about how we live and talk about where we live. We need good ambassadors for our city when we go to Jefferson City. And we need to be customer service managers when people have issues interacting with their government. If there is any snag in government, we are here to provide that service. Usually, within a day or two, we get it resolved. Then, just showing up. Show up in these spaces that other people don’t have time to show up in: school board meetings, local city council meetings, and places where can state government interact better with local government.”

Dogan: “As someone who is leaving office in a couple of months, I have focused on the last six or eight years since Donald Trump came on the scene. A lot of my best friends in the legislature are Democrats, and I get trouble from my side. They say, ‘Oh, you’re a RINO,’ which means Republican In Name Only. We’ve seen that, increasingly, people care about opposing and destroying the other party and we see this on both sides; that is a threat to democracy. When people view the next election as being ‘the most important election that you will ever participate in because if we lose the other side will win and destroy our country,’ that’s not an attitude you can sustain long-term as a country. That’s my biggest worry long-term. I listen to a lot of political podcasts and they are doom and gloom because of this prospect of some sort of civil war or a breakup of states. When you claim others aren’t real Americans, those are all things that rip away at the threads that unite us. I’ve tried to model that there are more important things than the label of your party.”

Rosenbaum: “I see my role as different than a politician or someone seeking to change something. Media outlets can have a gimmicky presence: someone calls a reporter who then solves a problem. That’s not the role of journalists. We can shine a light on problems and show a pathway to solutions, but it’s up to others to solve the problems. It’s not up to journalists to arrest people who have done bad things, it’s up to governmental leaders and law enforcement. Journalists showcase that there’s a major problem. It’s important to uplift the perspectives of people, especially those who have not been able to be heard. Trying to make sure that people across communities get a chance to talk about what they want to do from a political standpoint. The podcast is a good platform for that, although it’s not perfect, but a lot of times state legislators don’t get 30 minutes to talk. Newspapers are no longer a viable industry and have become largely irrelevant and replaced by digital. The written word is not irrelevant, but putting it on paper and throwing that onto someone’s lawn has become an obsolete part of journalism. That presents a lot of challenges, harder to make money off that. If you don’t make money then journalist outlets can’t exist and there’s a void filled by bad actors or partisan actors.”

“I think I walked away with more hope for St. Louis’ politics,” said Jada Greer ’24. “The politicians seemed to have an amazing rapport with each other and even though they had different approaches to solving problems, there were universal agreements over what we need to work on. More than anything, though, I just think it was cool to get to see these important people as actual people—they were actually really funny, too.”

In the end, all three of our panelists encouraged students to get involved and to be active in their local, state, and federal governments. Mackey said, “The people who show up to the meetings get what they want.” The panelists all generously spent some time answering questions from the audience before the Class of 2024 was dismissed. Several students stayed behind to continue the discussion.

“It was highly informative to see people with different political standpoints (democrat, republican, and journalist) agree and disagree respectfully on how St. Louis should improve its current state,” said Zoie Tolson ’24. “This panel was highly impactful to my St. Louis history research essay and stressed how the past affects the future, the trouble/debate that comes with beginning a new process, and what goes along with it.”

Many thanks to Ian Mackey, Shamed Dogan ’96, and Jason Rosenbaum for spending their valuable time with us. Our students appreciate the first-hand perspectives of politics and government.