PHOTO BY SAM LEVIN
Lewis Reed with his wife, Mary Entrup (right), in 2013.
When Alison Dreith decided to run for a spot on the Democratic Party's Central Committee, she knew she might upset a few people. Dreith is taking on Mary Entrup, a former city judge who is married to Lewis Reed, the president of the Board of Aldermen — and while the committee spot is far from high profile, any intra-party conflict can be perceived, rightly, as an attack on the status quo.
But Dreith never imagined that, when Reed's chief of staff Tom Shepard set up a meeting to dissuade her from running for the seat, she wouldn't even be invited. Instead, Shepard arranged a meeting with Dreith's husband Jake McDaniel ... and her husband's boss.
Let that sink in for a moment.
It's 2016. A woman is likely to be the Democratic Party nominee for president. And yet here in St. Louis, a woman running for office doesn't even get a seat at the table when her own future is being discussed. Instead, a top aide to one of the city's most powerful politicians feeling out what it would take "to make that go away" — "that" being the woman's bid for a position in the local party power structure — addressed the question to her husband
Even worse, he arranged the meeting via her husband's boss, just to give everyone a really uncomfortable strong-arm feeling. Dreith's husband, McDaniel, is a business rep for a local teachers union; Shepard arranged the meeting with Ray Cummings, who is McDaniel's boss and the local's vice president for political action.
Believe it or not, though, that's not even the worst of it.
The worst of it is that when I called Shepard Friday to talk about all this, he said he had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. He'd never met with a guy named Jake McDaniel. He didn't know which union the American Teachers Federation's Local 420 even belonged to. Oh sure, he knew Cummings, he acknowledged, but he didn't remember meeting in person any time recently. Was I referring to a meeting on the phone? No? A conversation to discuss the central committee? He didn't remember that at all. "I don't know that I would be doing anything like that," he said.
He said he'd have to check his calendar and call me back. "I'll even call Ray," he promised. He never called back. I tried him again later that day. Nothing.
Unfortunately for Tom Shepard, there is proof that he met with Cummings and McDaniel — proof in the form of an audio recording. Dreith, who is the executive director of Missouri's NARAL chapter, is running along with a slate of progressive candidates who aren't happy with the lack of transparency in local Democratic Party politics. She had seen enough to suspect she needed to protect herself, just in case. And so McDaniel surreptitiously brought a recorder.
In the audio of the May 11 meeting, you can hear Shepard clumsily approaching the question of what Dreith would want to drop out of the race, or whether she'd be open to such a conversation. McDaniel keeps patiently replying that, hey, that's not really something he can answer.
"With this committee, right? In my position, as far as President Reed, Lewis, is concerned, it's a distraction," Shepard says. "He's gotten really focused on it and is going to spend a lot of time to help Mary with this election. So my own personal goal is to find a way for this, not on the table as a distraction. So, my first goal would be to ask you, what do you think about Alison? Is there anything else that she would want to do that we could support her, running for alderwoman or president of the board or —"
"You'd have to talk to her about that," McDaniel says. He says it repeatedly throughout the twenty minutes of awkward conversation about the central committee seat: "You'd really have to talk to her."
For anyone who's ever wondered what actually goes on in the smoke-filled rooms where deals get made, the tape is revealing only in its banality. The men chuckle and make small talk and clumsily dance around the elephant in the room. About fifteen minutes in, as McDaniel defers, yet again, to his absent wife, there's even moment where Shepard stumbles right into a joke about the entire uncomfortable subtext.
"Don't get me wrong, I wasn't coming like, 'Let me ask the little lady's husband what he thinks about it,'" Shepard says, laughing nervously. "I didn't want it to get ... what I'm getting from you, kind of, is whether it's even worth a sit-down to talk about it."
"I'm sure she'd be open to at least a phone call," McDaniel says. It's at that point he gives Shepard her phone number.
But here's the really crazy thing.
After the meeting, no one called Alison Dreith. Not the next day, not the next week.
Why should they? They'd talked to her husband. They'd made their point. He was supposed to convey the message; she was supposed to drop out.
When Dreith instead fumed, and McDaniel sheepishly admitted to his boss that his wife was livid, Shepard (and whoever else in Reed's camp was in on this thing) must have hoped the whole thing would just go away. That's how these things work in St. Louis.
Or at least that's how they used to work. But not with this slate of reformers. Not with this candidate.
"As a woman who's a leader of a women's organization, and as a potential politician, it makes me sick to my stomach," Dreith says. "And the fact that they had to drag my husband's boss in, just for the extra leverage — it's just flat-out wrong."
She adds, "And you know what makes me even more upset? The fact that his wife probably didn't even know it happened." In Shepard's clumsy attempt to cut Dreith out of the conversation, "They're doing it to Mary, too."
Dreith is not going to drop out. She's not going to shut up. And by making that recording, and then sharing it, she's made her point. She can't be back-doored. She won't be coerced.
And if anyone wants to talk about her campaign, they have no choice but to go directly to the source. This "little lady" makes her own plans; the boys better get used to it.
Editor's note: We heard back from Tom Shepard this morning. He says that the meeting was initiated by his friend Ray Cummings, and that there was no sexism involved in meeting with McDaniel without Dreith present. Had gender roles been reversed, he says he would have handled things the same way. "It was suggested to me that [McDaniel] was a human being who might have some insight as to whether it was something to approach, in the interest of party unity."
He stresses that the meeting took place after office hours, and Lewis Reed was not aware of it.
Sarah Fenske is the editor in chief of the Riverfront Times. Email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @sarahfenske.