It's that time again -- campaign season has peaked and democracy lovers everywhere are prepping their voting muscles for tomorrow's election.
Yet while national pundits fret over which party will control Congress, the election in St. Louis has it's own wild drama, centered on a little-known office that, until recently, never made headlines -- the Recorder of Deeds. Sharon Carpenter, a Democrat, headed the office since 1980, but she resigned in July after admitting she'd violated Missouri's nepotism statute by hiring her great nephew. Now she's campaigning to get her job back.
Carpenter's downfall was arguably engineered by Marie Ceselski, a nearly 20-year employee in the Recorder of Deeds office and an unapologetic whistle blower. It was Ceselski who first leaked evidence of Carpenter's shenanigans to political opponents, official auditors and the media. Since Carpenter's resignation, Ceselski, a 7th Ward Committeewoman, has continued to air Carpenter's dirty laundry on her blog, The Great State of St. Louis.
"It's not election day yet, and I think I should take every opportunity available to educate anyone, even a single person, on what's been going in the recorders office," says Ceselski.
For starters, Ceselski says staffers in the Recorder of Deeds office are worried that if Carpenter wins she'll retaliate against employees, especially those who cooperated with the city and state auditors or spoke to media about Carpenter.
"They're thinking, 'If Sharon gets elected, I'll get fired,'" she says, even though there's clear legal precedent that makes such retaliation illegal.
But Ceselski is taking matters into her own hands. She's been on a tear lately, penning ten blog posts in the past two weeks, with titles like "Sharon Carpenter: Feathering Her Own Nest," "Sharon Carpenter Is Not A Progressive" and "Sharon Carpenter Did Not Invent The Internets."
Carpenter appears well-positioned to reclaim her former title. She coasted to victory in the August primary, and that means ballots will show Carpenter's name as the official Democratic candidate for recorder. Her main opponent is Jennifer Florida, a former Democratic alderwoman whom the mayor appointed as Recorder of Deeds following Carpenter's resignation. Florida wasn't on the ballot for the August primary, so she's been forced to run as an independent candidate.
Despite the scandal, Ceselski sees Carpenter as the favorite to win. Ceselski faults Florida's campaign for not better educating voters on improvements Florida made since taking over in July. Carpenter's campaign, on the other hand, bluntly denies allegations that she improperly used a "technology and preservation" account to pay for numerous travel and food expenses.
"I think both campaigns have failed voters, I think the media have failed voters, and I think politicians have failed voters," Ceselski says.
The result is a swirling mess of city hall political intrigue, corruption allegations and official investigations, all of which was covered by a Riverfront Times cover story last month. Ceselski's says the recorder's race has sowed confusion within the city's Democratic party machinery, and her own 7th Ward decided not to endorse either candidate. But she says most of the city's Democratic wards are sticking to their partisan guns.
"To the best of my knowledge, the majority of the ward organizations will have Sharon Carpenter's name on their ballots for the Democratic party," she says, referring to the sample ballots polling workers commonly distribute outside voting locations.
There's another factor hanging over the election: The audit of the office's finances by the city comptroller, which Ceselski expects to be released in a matter of weeks.
Update 3 p.m.: We got our hands on a draft version of the audit, and it's a doozy. The audit appears to confirm that Carpenter misspent thousands of dollars over the past four years. Read more here. End of update.
Ceselski tweeted about the upcoming audit from her Ward 7 account:
"I do know the audit is going to say she misspent the money. It cannot be anything other than that," Ceselski says. "I would bet my salary on it."
If Carpenter does win the election, she'll have to reassure her staff that they won't be punished for speaking out about her during her absence. But Ceselski says her coworkers' worries are reflective of the office culture established under Carpenter, one of suppression and obedience. No one wants to talk about Carpenter's wrongdoings when there's a chance she could retake control of the office.
"This was an office where you didn't ask questions," Ceselski says. "It didn't matter how much I'd tell people what their rights were, what was legal and what wasn't legal. These are people that never asked to be put into public life, and I'm different. I'm a Democratic committeewoman. I'm the bigmouth."
To read the full, twisting tale of Sharon Carpenter's fight for the Recorder of Deeds office -- including her role in signing the state's first same-sex marriage certificates -- check out the Riverfront Times cover story Ms. Deeds: Sharon Carpenter's Strange Fight for the Recorder of Deeds Office.