St. Louis almost got through the primary election for county executive without any huge accusations of racism. Almost.
With only a week to go, it's still hard to know whom voters will support on Election Day. Can County Executive Charlie Dooley mobilize the base that's supported him for a decade and keep his seat? Or will challenger Steve Stenger, chairman of the county council, win enough voters to his side with his message that "ten years is long enough"?
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch tried to help its readers answer that question this weekend by endorsing Stenger, an unsurprising move after years of editorial critiques of Dooley's cronyism and bungled political projects.
But it wasn't the endorsement that riled Dooley. It was the political cartoon, in which a smiling Dooley in a blue, pin-striped suit paints over the "here" on his "The buck stops here" desk plate, which now reads, "The buck stops."
Dooley's campaign says the cartoon is a callous, racist and proof that the paper's editorial board has always been out of touch with black readers, especially black leaders like Dooley.
"The editorial cartoon that appeared with their endorsement is perhaps one of the most insulting and racist works we have seen; for the publishers of this paper not to realize the potential insult of this cartoon is unimaginable," says Linda Goldstein, Dooley's campaign spokeswoman. "We are outraged and embarrassed."
Goldstein says the cartoon refers to "Buck," the archetypical caricature from minstrel shows of the mid-1800s that portrays a black man as untrustworthy and menacing, especially to white women. The Buck character played alongside other stereotypical roles, such as the Mammy, the all-knowing and strict maternal figure, and Uncle Tom, the good-hearted, religious, sober, non-threatening black man.
"Does that mean the Post editorial board and Stenger supporters are saving St. Louis County from a menacing black man? Is it an appeal to racist views of black incompetence and malfeasance?" Goldstien says. "The Post-Dispatch should know that such portrayals do not exist in either historical vacuum or outside the context of the tone of its own coverage of this race," Goldstein says.
But Tony Messenger, editor of the Post-Dispatch's editorial page, says he's offended that the Dooley campaign is finding racial insult where none is intended.
"'The buck stops here' is the single most famous phrase in Missouri political history, used by former President Harry S Truman, who, by the way, integrated the armed forces," Messenger told The Missouri Times. "It is a simple measure of accountability, the ability of a leader to take responsibility for the actions of his or her administration. That's it, and that was the exact context in which it was used."
Stenger's supporters have their own theory for Dooley's sudden outrage: He needs a big turnout from St. Louis County's black community to win four more years in office. Singling out an endorsement as being racially motivated could be an effective ploy.
Goldstein says if the newspaper wanted to keep the cartoon without adding insulting racial implications, they should have drawn Stenger sitting at the desk.
"We understand the Harry Truman phrase and its meaning relative to accountability; this is not that," Goldstien says. "St. Louis County cannot be a welcoming community and build on diversity when its daily newspaper is so blatantly callous about its portrayal of African Americans in leadership."