My Twitter feed keeps me in touch with the political campaigns going on in the city, even when I don't make the time to engage in politics in-person due to time/priorities.
This choice is calculated and by design; but every now and then, positivity, kind words and support for a particular candidate catches my eye. That person is Dana Kelly-Franks, running for the St. Louis License Collector. She seemed like someone with the energy and message that appeals to me as a voter/citizen...at least from the sidelines.
The momentum and praise is hard to miss, some coming from people I know in real life not just those who work for campaigns or are paid to make things so. I was curious. But, to be honest, I know nothing about the License Collector office and what it does or means.
Seemed like I should reach out to her and try to be more learned.
Now, to date I've been a firm believer in separation of blog and state...in the ten or so years I've been at this website, I've never published an interview with a candidate for public office. It always felt like it'd be disingenuous if I didn't have the time to interview ALL candidates for an office. And, I took a shot at in on two separate occasions and I walked away unimpressed and disinterested.
I chose to break from tradition and pursue a meeting for a few reasons:
- I am a firm believer in diversity in politics. Women in politics is something I think brings a valuable and much needed perspective to city affairs. I've seen this too in my professional career and further, I was raised by and draw energy from strong women. And, there's a sense of idealism mixed with pragmatic realism that struck me after doing a little research on Kelly-Franks.
- After reading about all this positivity and goodwill, I couldn't help but think "why isn't this woman running for a higher, more impactful office?" Again, I didn't even know what the License Collector does. I needed to learn more.
- I've poured over the emotions/rationalization that came at the dawn of the Black Lives Matters movement. I want to do more. I'm working on that and will share a project close to my heart, but it'll take some time and I'm not ready to speak publicly about it yet. I want to use my voice/privilege that I've developed here to pass the mic to my black neighbors. I hope that doesn't come across as arrogant. I just want to do better and am trying to figure out how. Meeting Kelly-Franks felt like a good dip into a conversation with someone I just might respect who is running for office for the (seemingly) right reasons.
- Finally, it turns out I live very close to Kelly-Franks' campaign office on California and Wyoming Avenues in the Benton Park West Neighborhood (BPW) and that sealed the deal. A politician who headquarters in a mixed race/mixed income neighborhood like BPW (60% black, 28% white, 11% Hispanic/Latino) means a lot to me. There are very few neighborhoods in St. Louis that have this kind of diversity and it's important to practice what you preach. Living in St. Louis Hills or Walnut Park West will bring you a limited perspective on what St. Louis is really like. The areas that are mixed are way more representative of the common experience.
So by my calculation, Kelly-Franks is a positive, driven, change agent, black, female, city resident in a racially/culturally diverse neighborhood near my home trying to make this city a better place?
All the boxes were checked.
So I did some homework and research and WOW, what a life story. I had to do this.
I sent a message through Twitter asking for a meet/greet/interview and a few days later got a cordial message back saying "sure". A couple quick exchanges and we were ready to sit down over bottled waters and Thriller-era MJ in the background speaker at appropriate volume in her campaign office on a humid, stormy Thursday evening in BPW.
Accessibility and willingness to entertain the hoi polloi is a grand gesture and a great personality trait. St. Louis, if nothing else, is an easy place to connect.
We shook hands, made brief introductions with staff members and got down to business.
Before I start, I'm a believer in first impressions. I've been on countless interview panels and have honed the skills of a good read on person and potential. These skills take years to hone, and I don't mind saying after 23 years at a Fortune 500 company, I've gotten good at it.
Kelly-Franks more than passed the stink test. I had the "hire her" instinct after ~15 minutes of conversation.
I can't listen to someone when I suspect an opportunist or someone just rehearsing from a script.
If there's such a thing as trust/respect after a one-hour meeting, I supposed she gained mine.
Here's how the discussion went.
First about her as a person.
Since residency requirements are necessary to run for this office, I had to know where she's from. Her formative years were spent at Penrose and John Avenue in the Fairgrounds Neighborhood...a real St. Louisan. A mother of seven in a blended family, she's got kids in her family ranging from 4 - 24.
We talked about the needs of the St. Louis schools, not just for more money but for smart spending within the SLPS. She has a son with special needs (tuberous sclerosis) and knows this well, he's now studying at Harris-Stowe University...a fighter. Mom is proud of him (and all her kids) and if you heard her/his story, you'd be too.
While she grew up in North City, she's most recently lived in mixed race, culturally and economically diverse neighborhoods, in fact, she has set up offices and businesses on Cherokee, Delmar and BPW, as mixed race as St. Louis has. She's lived on the state streets in South City, one of the best parts of the city to get an honest read on the good, bad and ugly on display in St. Louis. In her words, "our neighborhoods over here are culturally diverse."
"Our community...we love each other...we don't always get to talk much, but the commonality is we want what's best for the next generation. We don't want to keep burdening the next generation with more bills and less services. We want to be led properly. We can do so much better. We need to get into a room and listen and develop a plan that benefits everyone, not just us, but everyone in the room. We have very few leaders like that in a big pot (St. Louis)."
Making better financial decisions has to happen. She told me about her travels as a financial professional. She has a proven track record advocating for entrepreneurs as an accounting & tax professional, and this was a window into her interest in the License Collector office...more on that in a bit.
She's got a balanced approach toward getting things done. She shared examples of going to New Orleans in the wake of hurricane Katrina and helping people with insurance claims and placement to stories of being maced and kicked on the front lines of protest after the Jason Shockley protests that took place in St. Louis. "It depends on whether you need to be up front in the streets or working in the office trying to listen and find solutions and funding for those most in need."
I read in a recent St. Louis American piece, that Kelly-Franks said:
"I’m not worried about politics, I’m worried about outcomes."
Some say politics is everything, others say race is everything in St. Louis. I asked her about her statement above and how she responds to these opinions.
"The people you serve are everything. Politics is a service to the people that put you there."
We chatted about how participatory budgeting can be a voice of the people and help raise engagement for the average citizen in spending and prioritizing where a piece of the public pie should be spent. We hit the topic of the 1% earnings tax and the damage it does in competing with businesses throughout the region. When your St. Louis business and employees have to pay a tax but you could jump across McCausland or Skinker and avoid it, we are at a distinct disadvantage competing with the 80+ cities in the suburbs. "This has to change."
I asked her about her thoughts on City/County unification. "There's no plan of substance for a merger." She is skeptical, but knows it can happen if it makes economic sense for all parties and the citizens want it.
So why this office, why now?
"I've had a lot of experience working with the License Collector's office when representing my client's in setting up businesses in the city. I had a multi-lingual staff with employees who spoke Arabic, French, Spanish, Bosnian, Russian who could help folks get set up with a business license and be compliant with the city. I ended up learning a lot about the office from the business side. I had two clients who lost months of rent and business by falling through the cracks with the License Collector's office. It took them 4-6 months to get their license through a series of misinformation and poor performance at the office."
"I've also traveled throughout the U.S. and done research on how other cities are generating revenue from the business communities and most importantly, how they are preaching their metrics and being transparent with the data, proving the success and value of these agencies and offices."
She cited Colorado, Kansas and mostly, Las Vegas, Nevada as prime examples of highly-functioning business license collection offices. She said "the cities that have gotten it right, they are investing back into the city itself. They make it easy to settle down and open a business and grow. I want more than anything to see people become successful in business and share that success and wealth with the city. The cities I've researched, the schools and city services mirror the successful business climate."
"I want to bring the office into the 21st Century."
Learning more about the office of License Collector.
The License Collector is one of three county "patronage" offices including the License Collector, the Collector of Revenue and the Recorder of Deeds.
Mavis Thompson has led the office since 2013 when she was appointed by then Governor Jay Nixon and then elected in 2014. (source). Thompson, is a lawyer and former St. Louis circuit clerk.
"The License Collector’s Office is authorized by Missouri State Statute to license businesses that operate in the City of St. Louis. It is a fee-revenue-generating office which collects business license fees and distributes approximately $61 million annually to the city’s general fund and other city and state agencies, such as Saint Louis Public Schools, public libraries, MSD, and a state fund for the blind. Pursuant to statute, a percentage of these fees are retained to operate the office, which includes over $90,000 annually for leasing office space in City Hall. The office doesn’t receive any revenue, cars or salaries from the City of St. Louis." (source)
Please tell me the lease terms of City Hall for this office is not $7,500/month. Maybe I'm reading that wrong, but that would be a massive boondoggle.
$61M may seem like a big number, but I learned from Kelly-Franks that the number hasn't really increased in the last five years, ranging from $58M-$61M; you could argue the office is stagnant even though business is growing. Growing by what rate is not readily available as the office does not openly share the percentage of city businesses operating with a license. This info has been requested through a Sunshine Request by Kelly-Franks campaign office.
This is one of the things Kelly-Franks says she will do, make the office transparent. "We need to bring the office into the 21st Century. It's hard to determine how the office is performing. If the office was performing at it's best and the data was transparent, I think people would see the value of the office."
Now I see how the average citizen could see the benefit of the office, but but how does a license benefit the business itself?
Kelly-Franks says, "As a business, you want to be compliant. It benefits you to contributing to a healthy city. You are part of the community and need to help make sure there are funds for streets without potholes in front of your business, that emergency responders are providing the necessary services that a city provides, that our schools are funded and functioning."
She referenced research she'd conducted in other cities for her financial business, and what she's learned from successful areas teeming with new residents and forward business climates. "We need that here, we can be successful too, if we work together business and city."
She's also seen that in some cases, it's easier to set up shop and open a business in the many cities in the County. "This and other things have to change." She cited the fact that the License Collector definitions haven't been audited and reviewed for over 20 years. Currently, a lawyer, CPA or physician is exempt from the requirement for a license, where a veterinarian or insurance broker does. We need an even playing field, we all use and require the save services from the city."
You can view the full list of businesses or professions that are exempt and require a license HERE.
Kelly-Franks has proven herself as a successful business owner. Why choose public office, why this office, why now? Does she see this as a stepping stone office, a quick 4-year term and on to bigger and better things?
"I don't see myself as a 'stepping-stone' type, I'm more the kind of person that loves knowing what she's doing is helping others, being an expert, becoming successful and creating the ideal situation for the office. I want to see others succeed in business and this is a path toward that goal. If the office becomes as successful as I see it in my vision, I would stay as long as necessary and as long as the people want me to continue."
She seems so driven and with all this momentum and praise, why not aim for a higher office? I've always thought an Alderperson can have more impact on your life as a citizen than the Mayor or these patronage offices.
"Just because I'm not running for a legislative office doesn't mean I can't work with the Aldermen in meaningful ways, advocating for issues, proposing bills, etc. I want to do what nobody's done before with this office and for the city as a whole."
If you like what you've read or heard about Dana Kelly-Franks, you can find opportunities to volunteer, canvass door to door, make phone calls and of course make a donation. Click HERE to find out these and other opportunities to help out.
The election for License Collector takes place on August 7th.
"We need as much community involvement as possible. We need everyone with a voice to spread the word and help with name recognition. Get out the good word."
I hope I've done my small share to help a person who won me over as a decent, kind human being first, and a driven woman with great ideas, energy and the commitment to make it all work.
Thanks Dana, we wish you the best of luck in this and any of your future endeavors.