St. Louis Voters Speak at the Ballot Box

Enough. That is the message voters across St. Louis County, Mo., sent to their elected officials as they kicked eminent domain abusers out of office and replaced them with candidates whose pledges not to condemn private property for private development became central tenets of their campaigns.

In Sunset Hills, one of the nation’s most egregious abusers of eminent domain for private profit, four aldermen and the mayor—all incumbents—lost to a group of candidates who say they were inspired to seek political office after watching City officials destroy an entire neighborhood by planning to seize and bulldoze hundreds of homes and replace them with a $184 million high-end shopping center.[1]

In the weeks leading up to the election, elected officials in the St. Louis suburb understood that eminent domain could cost them their jobs. A week before the polls opened, incumbent Alderman Robert Brockhaus said, “This election is starting to seem more like a referendum on eminent domain than it is an actual judgment on a candidate’s job performance.”[2] He and four other incumbents, including Mayor Jim Hobbs, lost to mayor-elect John Hunzeker and four new aldermen.

Eminent domain was not only a hot-button issue in Sunset Hills. Manchester—where city officials approved condemnations for a high-end shopping center called Manchester Highlands—voted in Asa Wilson for the mayoral seat over Joe Mastoianni. Wilson’s platform emphasized her opposition to eminent domain for economic development. In Creve Coeur, incumbent Jeff Mitchell, a cheerleader for eminent domain abuse, lost his seat to James Wang.[3]

This election was the first opportunity for voters to voice their opposition to eminent domain abuse at the ballot box since the U.S. Supreme Court decided Kelo v. City of New London last summer, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Perhaps more significantly, municipalities throughout St. Louis County have initiated eminent domain for private development in unparalleled numbers since Kelo, despite overwhelming public outcry from concerned citizens and activists.

In the past year, 47 state Legislatures have responded to Kelo by introducing, considering or passing legislation aiming to curb the abuse of eminent domain. On the state level, Georgia, Indiana and South Dakota are the latest to enact meaningful reform, while West Virginia, Wisconsin and Kentucky acknowledged the problem and began the reform effort, but still need to finish the task. Missouri, one of the poster cases of eminent domain abuse nationwide, has still failed to address eminent domain abuse with reform at the state level. Governor Matt Blunt formed an Eminent Domain Task Force, which suggested few substantive changes to state law—and the Legislature has not indicated any sincere intention to tackle the heart of the problem: whether the government should be able to condemn homes and small businesses for the benefit of another private party. The one piece of legislation that appears to be moving, which did not provide much protection as introduced, has already been watered down.

Meanwhile, the municipal elections in St. Louis County reflect a trend throughout the nation at the local level, where local governments have passed ordinances and resolutions prohibiting eminent domain for private development.

City officials should heed the message St. Louis voters sent to their elected officials. Public outcry against eminent domain abuse is nearly universal across the United States—and voters are willing to take action at the ballot box, though it is a shame governments have the power to put home and small business owners in this position in the first place.

[1] Clay Barbour, “Sunset Hills ousts five over eminent domain,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Apr. 5, 2006, at D1.

[2] Clay Barbour, “Eminent domain’s electoral fallout,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Mar. 31, 2006.

[3] Clay Barbour, “Sunset Hills ousts five over eminent domain,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Apr. 5, 2006, at D1.