Awkward Ward Meeting Puts Sheriff Candidate on the Defensive


The St. Louis sheriff is responsible for transporting prisoners from the justice center to the courthouse. - PHOTO COURTESY OF FLICKR/PAUL SABLEMAN
  • Photo courtesy of Flickr/Paul Sableman
  • The St. Louis sheriff is responsible for transporting prisoners from the justice center to the courthouse.

St. Louis Alderman Joe Vaccaro, who is running for sheriff, got a rough reception in the city's 26th ward on May 26 — getting confronted by a Democratic Party committeeman and angering the largely black crowd. 

According to three people at the meeting, Vaccaro, who is white, got off to a bad start by acknowledging that he'd hardly spent any time in the neighborhood, which lies on the far northwest edge of the city near the Delmar Loop. And things only went downhill from there — culminating in an especially awkward reference that various attendees recall as being either "you people" or "you all."

Vaccaro forcefully denied using any such language to the RFT, even patching in fellow alderman Frank Williamson to back up his claims. But while Williamson says he does not believe Vaccaro had any bad intent, he confirmed that he heard him say "you all" in reference to north city residents — and that Vaccaro himself clumsily called attention to the turn of phrase by catching himself and adding, "I don't mean it in that way." 

Joe Palm, the ward's Democratic Party committeeman, says what he heard was the more charged "you people," which can have a loaded racial meaning. (Reacting to Ross Perot's usage in 1992, one NAACP branch president told the New York Times the phrase was what "white people have used ... when they don't want to treat you like an equal.") He called out Vaccaro in front of the crowd.

Palm tells RFT he felt Vaccaro was talking down to the residents. "I can't let someone come here and say certain things, or attack my constituents as 'you people,'" he says. "It was obvious he was not culturally competent in the language that was appropriate."

The hostility didn't end there.

At one point, Vaccaro explained that he'd been endorsed by the firefighters. Palm questioned whether he knew there was an organization of black firefighters, too, and Vaccaro responded by trying to explain how he'd worked with the local civil rights activist Percy Green II on an issue involving a black firefighter. Palm would not be mollified. "Hey, you might want to slow down, because Percy Green is my cousin," he retorted — then proceeded to call Green right there on his cell phone. (Green, he then announced to the room, didn't know what Vaccaro was talking about.) 

"People were like, 'Get the hell out of here,'" Palm reports. The contentious exchange only ended when Williamson stepped in.

"Joe Vaccaro has a good heart. I think he's sincere," Williamson says. "But he didn't really articulate what he was trying to say." The alderman's unfortunate construction — whether "you people" or "you all" — was no more than a clumsy attempt to say that the city needed an even playing field for employment prospects, Williamson says.

The meeting shows the difficulty facing Vaccaro as he tries to transition from a seat representing a largely white neighborhood in south St. Louis to the sheriff's job, which deals with a much more diverse population. The seat is now open because longtime sheriff James Murphy — who previously lost a lawsuit alleging black deputies faced a racially hostile work environment — is not running for reelection. 

Vaccaro says some of the people challenging him at the meeting are supporting his opponent, former sheriff's deputy Vernon Betts, who lost to Murphy in the Democratic Party primary in 2012 by just two percent of the vote.

"This is nothing more than them trying to put something together to make me look bad," Vaccaro says. "You might want to put on this story that it was paid for by People for Vernon Betts, because the only reason for it is to make him look good. I'm working hard. I'm visiting everybody who invites me. And this is all they can talk about?"

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