Backers of Prop A used old, new methods to get message out

ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

Old school met new school in the successful sale of the St. Louis County transit tax.

Chesterfield Mayor John Nations, who ran the Proposition A campaign, believed that if voters were armed with all the facts, they would support the half-cent increase to fund mass transit. But that meant getting the word out through church fish fries, neighborhood meetings and on front porches.

"Modern campaigns being what they are, I wanted to run more of an old-fashioned campaign," Nations said a day after Tuesday's surprisingly one-sided victory of Proposition A.

But not too old-fashioned. In the latest example of the reach of social networking, younger voters were galvanized through Facebook groups, Twitter feeds and the blogosphere.


The half-cent sales tax in St. Louis County authorized by Proposition A is expected to generate $75 million a year to fully restore bus, Call-A-Ride and MetroLink service that was slashed a year ago.

Once the election results are certified, the state director of revenue will determine when the tax can be collected, said Mac Scott, a spokesman for St. Louis County Executive Charlie A. Dooley.

Passage of the measure is expected to trigger collection of a quarter-cent sales tax in the city of St. Louis.

The tax was passed by St. Louis voters in 1997, but it was dependent on an increase in the county sales tax. The tax is expected to take effect later this year.

Without additional funding, the region faced a mass transit meltdown that has been years in the making. Nations figured that if county voters understood the stakes of either a yes or no vote, the issue would pass.

"My sense always was that we had the right message," Nations said.

St. Louis County voters rejected a similar measure in November 2008, but the coalition that worked for its passage remained intact.

"We have been in campaign mode for two years," said Tom Shrout, executive director of Citizens for Modern Transit. "We never stopped."

Meanwhile, a massive round of service cutbacks in March 2009 demonstrated how many people rely on public transportation to get to work, school and church, said Katie Jansen Larson, executive director of Metropolitan Congregations United for St. Louis, an interdenominational coalition of more than 40 religious congregations in the region.

"When those cuts were made, people kind of felt they were punched in the stomach," she said.

Two months later, Metropolitan Congregations began to rally behind a second run at a transit tax. In early December, just before the St. Louis County Council voted to place Proposition A on the ballot, Larson's group dispatched about 100 people on MetroLink for a couple hours to gauge support for the measure.

Pastors incorporated Proposition A into their sermons. Volunteers collected pledge cards from voters who supported the measure. And several Catholic churches talked about it at their fish fries.

"This time, we decided it was our campaign," she said. "If it passes, we need to make it pass."

Meanwhile, Liz Kramer helped rally students and other young adults to support the tax. Kramer, a graduate of Washington University who works at the campus, said she and volunteers tried to raise awareness at local universities and community colleges. "We certainly used a lot of social networking, organizing on the Internet," she said.

Supporters set up a Facebook group and communicated via e-mail. Following Transit Alliance meetings, Kramer said she wrote and circulated blog posts to other tax supporters.

As election day drew near, they persuaded some people to change their Facebook pictures to a transit-related icon. Others posted pictures of themselves riding mass transit.

"People were live tweeting the election all day," she said. "I was away from the computer all day. There would be 40 new tweets about Proposition A."

Proposition A opponents say the tax campaign was well-financed and had powerful allies.

Jonathon Burns of Citizens for Better Transit, who campaigned against the tax, said the pro-tax forces capitalized on a low voter turnout election that allowed them to control the message. He added that the tax had influential backing from Washington University and BJC Healthcare, and the campaign spent money to get out the vote.

"I think that was probably the key to their victory," Burns said.

Voter turnout usually runs about 13 to 15 percent in an April election, said Joseph Donahue of the St. Louis County Board of Election Commissioners, but it exceeded 22 percent on Tuesday largely because of the countywide issue.

Laura Barrett, executive director of the grass-roots Transportation Equity Network in St. Louis, said the campaign energized a new crop of politically active voters.

"I think people got involved this time that had never been involved before," she said. "And (they) were absolutely determined that the defeat of the proposition would not be repeated. This time it was going to win."
 
This story originally appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on April 8, 2010 and is available here:  http://www.stltoday.com/stltoday/news/stories.nsf/stlouiscitycounty/story/D0E0727313E2EF8C862576FF00048D27