St. Louis Prosecutor Faces Voters, After Years of Sustained Fire from Police Union

Kim Gardner has an Aug. 4 rematch against a former prosecutor whom she defeated four years ago, but the terrain has shifted significantly since 2016.

Rachel M. Cohen   |    July 23, 2020

Kim Gardner (Gardner/Facebook)

This article originally appeared on The Appeal, which hosted The Political Report project.

Kim Gardner has an Aug. 4 rematch against Mary Pat Carl, a former prosecutor whom she defeated four years ago, but the terrain has shifted significantly since 2016.

When Kim Gardner and Mary Pat Carl first faced off in 2016 to be the chief prosecutor of St. Louis, Carl had endorsements from the retiring incumbent and the local police union. But Gardner, whose platform echoed some of the Black Lives Matter movement’s demands just two years after the nearby Ferguson protests, won by a large margin, becoming the city’s first Black circuit attorney.

Gardner faces a rematch against Carl in the Aug. 4 Democratic primary, but their contest is playing out on very different terrain. Nationwide political shifts toward criminal justice reform have emboldened activists to expect more from Gardner, and they have pushed Carl to soften her language compared to 2016.

Still, local activists view this race as a referendum on the fierce pushback that Gardner has faced since she took office. The primary, which will most likely decide the election in this Democratic city, may be an early window into whether this sort of pushback will prove successful in other jurisdictions where reform-minded prosecutors soon face re-election

Gardner has been under sustained fire from police unions and from Missouri’s GOP elected officials throughout her term, including for her handling of the high-profile case of former Republican Governor Eric Greitens. Earlier this year, state lawmakers proposed a bill to transfer some of her power to the state’s Republican attorney general. And in recent weeks U.S. Senator Josh Hawley, also a Republican, has repeatedly attacked her for not prosecuting Black Lives Matter protesters. 

Gardner’s supporters say these hurdles are the reflection of status quo interests fighting aggressively against a powerful Black woman in a way that other reform-minded prosecutors do not have to deal with. In January,  nearly a dozen elected Black female prosecutors from across the country— including Kim Foxx in Chicago and Marilyn Mosby in Baltimore—issued a statement in solidarity with Gardner, saying she was “fac[ing] an unprecedented campaign by the city’s corrupt and racist political establishment to destroy her.”  

“Progressives who challenge the status quo are going to get pushback, but for Black women it’s like quadruple the amount,” Tiffany Cabán, who narrowly lost her district attorney bid in Queens last year, told The Appeal: Political Report. Cabán now works as a national political organizer for the Working Families Party, which has endorsed Gardner for re-election. 

Carl, by contrast, believes the controversies that have surrounded Gardner’s tenure are evidence that she is unfit to lead. She says she would restore “competence and confidence” to the office, and she has criticized Gardner for a historically high turnover in her staff, a lack of public transparency, and a drop in the rate of trials that result in a conviction

And Carl largely lays the blame for the battles between Gardner and other law enforcement agencies on the incumbent and her practices, a perspective that is rejected by local activists wary of what they view as punitive backlash against reform efforts. 

During her 2016 run, Carl enjoyed the support of the departing circuit attorney, Jennifer Joyce. Carl called herself “tough on crime” and she emphasized her experience as the city’s top homicide prosecutor. Carl qualified that moniker to say she would also be “smart on crime” when it comes to low-level offenses by using diversion programs and treatment courts as alternatives to jail time. 

This time around, Carl has scrapped her “tough on crime” language.

“I don’t think my policy stances have changed much from 2016, but I think I’m doing a better job of being able to communicate what they are,” Carl told the Political Report. She credits a nationwide wave of progressive prosecutors since 2016 with giving candidates like her a clearer roadmap to campaign on. 

Carl even says that Gardner has not been progressive enough on some issues, critiquing the incumbent for not steering enough people toward diversion and for continuing to use cash bail

Activists say they are working to figure out if there’s substance to Carl’s new statements, or if they’re largely rhetorical. 

John Chasnoff, the co-chairperson of the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression in St. Louis, acknowledged Carl is “saying some of the right things these days” and credits the changing political landscape for pushing candidates leftward. “But I think our tendency is to stick with the candidate who was saying those things back when they weren’t quite so popular,” he added. 

Mike Milton, the Bail Project’s policy and advocacy manager in Missouri, also credits Carl for “listening” as St. Louis has become more “politically activated” around criminal justice. But “historically Mary Pat Carl has been the police candidate,” he said. 

Carl was endorsed by the St. Louis Police Officers Association, the majority-white police union, in 2016. This year, the SLPOA has not endorsed a candidate, though it is disparaging of Gardner. “We will let you know if/when we issue an endorsement,” said Jeff Roorda, the SLPOA spokesperson, when asked of the union’s plans. “Kim Gardner has proven herself unfit for public office.” 

Roorda has made a litany of more aggressive attacks against Gardner. He wrote a commentary in 2019 accusing her of declaring “war” with police officers; later that year, he said Gardner should be removed “by force or by choice.” 

Carl attributes these tensions with cops to Gardner’s style and policies. “I think you can hold the police accountable without going to war with the police,” she said in April. In her interview with the Political Report, Carl suggested Gardner’s combative relationship with the police compounded the city’s crime problems, pointing to the more than 60 St. Louis children who have been shot this year. “If we are spending the time fighting each other we’re not solving the problem,” she said.

But Carl also says she would support changing city policies to better address police misconduct. She is campaigning on creating a “duty to intervene” policy, which would require an officer to step in and prevent another officer from violating rules and laws.

Carl also says she would continue Gardner’s practice of maintaining a list of police officers with a history of corruption or lying whose testimony prosecutors should not rely on. (Gardner has dismissed many cases brought by officers on this list, angering the police union.) For some police, Carl said, misconduct would warrant “outright exclusion from testifying or from presenting cases to the circuit attorney office.” But she has not specified what sorts of behaviors would rise to this level. “I would publish the ethical criteria that an officer must follow, the things I will not tolerate, and I will work with the community to come up with that list,” she said.

Carl faulted Gardner for not releasing the names on her “do not call” list and pledged to disclose the identity of officers with serious charges against them to ensure police departments in other cities don’t make hires without “full knowledge of their history in St. Louis.” Carl thinks the police could be more open to her style of list-building than Gardner’s. “My selling point would be getting bad officers off the street is beneficial to all,” she said.

To Gardner, though, Carl’s orientation toward the police, including her “duty to intervene” proposal which assumes officers will call out wrongdoing, reflect naivety about the challenges of holding police accountable. “There are a lot of good police who sit in complicit silence,” she told the Political Report. “She does not understand that the ‘blue code of silence’ is real.”

In January, Gardner filed a lawsuit against the police union, among other entities, alleging a conspiracy to thwart her reform efforts, including her bid to rein in police misconduct.

Beyond Carl’s statements on taking a more cooperative approach with  the police, some local organizers have been troubled by her attitude toward the broader blowback against Gardner.

Action St. Louis, a group that promotes racial justice, asked the candidates in a questionnaire about efforts by the state’s attorney general and the region’s Trump-appointed U.S. attorney to increase federal prosecutions in St. Louis, thereby wading into the jurisdiction of the circuit attorney. Over the last year, federal prosecutors and state officials have similarly impeded the authority of reform-minded prosecutors in Baltimore and Philadelphia.

Gardner answered that the uptick in federal charges was “largely political,” she describes it as a pushback against her agenda, echoing how Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner and Baltimore’s Mosby have criticized efforts to limit their power. By contrast, Carl’s reply attributed federal prosecutors’ involvement to understaffing in Gardner’s office, which “forc[ed] the US Attorney’s office to take responsibility for prosecuting violent crimes.” 

Kayla Reed, the executive director of Action St. Louis, told the Political Report she found Carl’s answer “really concerning.” She described the increase in federal prosecution, much like the legislative efforts to usurp control from Gardner, as retaliatory. “In my opinion, if you’re going to run on holding police accountable then you call that behavior out,” she said. “By not doing that, the rest feels performative.”  

Activists give Gardner credit for bringing positive change to St. Louis. For instance, she has stopped prosecuting standalone charges for simple possession of less than 100 grams of marijuana, and has expanded diversion options for people charged with low-level and nonviolent offenses as a strategy to reduce incarceration. Gardner has also pushed to release Lamar Johnson, whom her office says has not committed the murder for which he has been incarcerated for 25 years.

“We think she’s done a fantastic job of introducing a progressive agenda to St. Louis,” said Chasnoff of the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression. “It’s a markedly different direction from her predecessor.” Milton of the Bail Project agrees that the previous circuit attorney, Jennifer Joyce, “had a deep relationship with incarceration” and applauded Gardner for going after the “root harms” of crime. 

There have been times, though, when activists felt Gardner resisted reform or moved too slowly. 

One was around closing the Workhouse, a St. Louis jail that the Board of Aldermen voted last week to shut down by the end of the year. A coalition of groups led a multi-year campaign to close the jail and bail out the people detained there. Although both Gardner and Carl campaigned this year on closing the facility, Gardner hadn’t previously supported this.

Reed said she could not explain why Gardner hadn’t supported the closing sooner. The Appeal reported in 2018 that Reed and other advocates were disappointed that Gardner was continuing to send people to the Workhouse, and seeking to hold them there pretrial.

Reed thinks disagreements with prosecutors come with the territory for “anti-carceral organizers,” as she looked ahead to pushing the office “over how and when change should occur.” Gardner told the Political Report she welcomes these conversations. “I look forward to talking to activists who may not agree with me,” she said. “I always say the system wasn’t built this way overnight, and it won’t be rebuilt overnight either.” 

Other advocates also hope to see more bold reforms over the next four years. Milton said he wants the prosecutor’s office to decriminalize substance use, keep the pressure on police, and  continue to reduce the reliance on cash bail.

Sara Baker, legislative and policy director at the ACLU of Missouri, said she was encouraged to hear both Gardner and Carl make new commitments to decriminalizing sex work at a debate held this month. Her group plans to hold the next circuit attorney accountable to those pledges. 

A year ago, Cabán’s commitment to decriminalize sex work in Queens pushed that issue into the national spotlight; months later, Chesa Boudin won in San Francisco on a similar promise. “I’d argue that candidates like myself, and Chesa Boudin, we ran on platforms to the left of folks like Gardner,” Cabán said. “But we could not have done so successfully without them going first.”