At the 2012 Maleness to Manhood event hosted recently by the Mathews-Dickey Boys’ & Girls’ Club, emcee Randy Karraker took a moment to recognize elected officials in attendance, including former mayor Clarence Harmon and Michael McMillan, the license collector and former alderman.
He also recognized one particular political hopeful: Vernon Betts, a retired Ameren administrator and assistant minister at Shalom Church (City of Peace).
“There is an election on August 7,” said Karraker, a sportscaster on ESPN radio. “Go out and support Rev. Betts.”
August 7 is the date of the Democratic primary. Betts has filed for sheriff against the incumbent, Jim Murphy. Since the city voters are overwhelmingly Democrat, the August 7 primary will decide who is the sheriff for the City of St. Louis.
Karraker was speaking to a packed conference dining room, divided equally between young African-American men and their diverse, successful, influential mentors.
It was a remarkable recognition for a first-time candidate running for political office against an entrenched incumbent, Sheriff Jim Murphy, who was first elected in 1989, when President George H.W. Bush was the new U.S. president and Vince Schoemehl was mayor of St. Louis.
Karraker’s spontaneous endorsement was remarkable, in part, because Karraker is a big, burly white man, and by the typical assumptions of St. Louis politics he would be part of Murphy’s electoral base. Murphy is white, and his opponent Betts is black.
But like the audience at the Mathews-Dickey event that heard this spontaneous endorsement, Betts has had a racially integrated career. He worked at Ameren for 28 years, 26 of those years in a supervisory position. Betts mixed with and managed several generations of diverse St. Lousians who worked for the company, which is recognized as a national leader in its diversity efforts. He also was a longtime coach at the Missouri Athletic Club where he touched the lives of countless white families. Yet he is a black man who now serves as assistant minister at one of the region’s largest and most prosperous black churches.
The spontaneous endorsement from a white man did not faze him. Betts expects that many white people who have known him through the years at Ameren or the Missouri Athletic Club or in the community will vote for him.
“I know people all over St. Louis,” Betts told The American – “all sorts of people all over St. Louis.”
Jim Murphy and the nooses
Certainly the black folks who have been following the news will welcome an opportunity to support a credible black challenger to Jim Murphy.
In September 2010, two of Murphy’s African-American deputies successful sued Murphy for supporting a racially hostile work environment. The incident began when Murphy refused to discipline three other employees who hung a noose from some pipes in the St. Louis Civil Courts building in 2006, near where prisoners were held.
The lawsuit also found that Murphy passed over black employees for promotions and gave those promotions to white employees. Plaintiffs William “Pat” Hill and Jacques Hughes also successfully argued that they were retaliated against for complaining about the racial problems.
Betts saw Murphy’s poor leadership himself when he served as a deputy sheriff following his retirement from Ameren. As a former supervisor in corporate America, he was appalled. “They are so disorganized over there, it’s actually hard to believe,” Betts said.
The state auditor agreed in a 2010 report, which found the department had no record-keeping system in place for monitoring Murphy's sick leave accruals. The audit showed that Murphy has 191 accumulated days of sick leave, some of which could be cashed out when he retires for an immediate payment of over $11,000.
The auditor also found Murphy paid his deputies to work elections and paid part-time employees full-time wages. A previous state audit of Murphy’s office in 2003 found similar abuses, and others, including staff use of money from the evidence locker.
In 2008, when Murphy was up for re-election, 26 of his employees asked for vacation time to work the polls but were still paid. This blatant electioneering is ironic, because Murphy fired Betts when Betts said he planned to run for sheriff. Murphy wrote an order for his office empowering him to do that – supposedly, to prevent deputies from campaigning.
“It's a good order. We don’t want our deputies out campaigning. They are supposed to be uninvolved,” said Mike Guzy, the Murphy’s executive assistant.
Guzy, a former St. Louis police officer, was one of the policemen who worked the Chain of Rocks Bridge case where all of the accused, including Reginald Clemons, said they were beaten by detectives and given scripted confessions.
Betts said it was Guzy, not Murphy, who fired him after he announced his plans to run against his boss.
“I guess he wasn’t man enough to fire me himself,” Betts said.
Vernon Betts faces Jim Murphy for Sheriff on the August 7 ballot.