Seventy-five years ago St. Louis mounted a great effort to rid itself of air pollution that had plagued the city, and many others throughout North America and Europe, for decades. This is another in a continuing series about that campaign.
By Bob Wyss
With his political life on the line, Barney Dickmann survived.
For the moment.
Dickmann successfully beat back two challengers in the St. Louis Democratic primary election for mayor on March 7. But he still needed to face his Republican opponent William Dee Becker in the general election and his prospects looked bleak.
Democrats had cast 81,956 ballots in the primary, but Republican were stronger with 95,469 ballots. It was the best showing by the Republicans since 1929.
There were a number of issues in the race but the city’s air pollution soon was a major topic.
Becker, a former St. Louis circuit court judge, argued that the city’s success so far in cleaning up its air was less Dickmann’s accomplishment and more a bipartisan triumph. He also credited the city’s newspapers for helping force residents and businesses to buy cleaner but more expensive coal to heat their homes and power industry.
If anything, Dickmann tried to distance himself from the situation, claimed Becker, by dumping the issue on a bipartisan committee and staying aloof in case anything went wrong.
Becker also hinted that he might be able to lower fuel prices in the future.
Those accusations prompted an odd array of unusual supporters of Dickmann in response to Becker’s charges.
James L. Ford, the local banker who had headed the city’s Smoke Elimination Committee, said it was unfair to suggest Dickmann was not involved in the final recommendations. Dickmann was responsible more than any other single individual in the new law ordering everyone to buy cleaner coal, said Ford.
Smoke Commissioner Raymond Tucker argued that Dickman had done everything he could to get the lowest possible price for the coal legally sold in the city. Tucker said the biggest obstacle was that wholesale coal prices at the time were set by the federal government and that significantly limited what Dickmann could do.
If Becker had a plan to lower coal prices, added Tucker, he should disclose it before the election.
Perhaps most surprising were the city’s three newspapers. Each of them argued that the smoke issue should not be part of the campaign and that Dickmann deserved to be re-elected.
The St. Louis Star-Times declared “The anti-smoke campaign has been far too successful and has brought too many benefits to St. Louis to be kicked around in political speeches and extravagant pre-election tall talk.”
Suggestions that the fuel costs could be cut meant that candidates were “cruelly beguiling the poor, who are forever being deluded with the mirages of political promises.”
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch called Becker’s comments “unfair campaigning.”
Both the Post-Dispatch and the St. Louis Globe-Democrat suggested that the smoke campaign was above politics and that Becker should prove it by retaining Tucker – a Democrat – as smoke commissioner.
But a coalition of groups representing low-income residents and even labor unions that would normally support a Democrat came out in support of Becker.
It was all too much.
On April 1, election day, Becker easily defeated Dickmann. The results: Becker 183,112 with 55.4 percent to 147,428, or 44.6 percent, for Dickmann.
As Oscar Allison was to write in 1978 in a thesis about Tucker and the smoke campaign, the very success of the smoke drive “had a built-in paradox.” People were happy to have clean air but unhappy to have to pay for it. As a result, Barney Dickmann was denied a third term.
Historians have sometimes suggested that Dickmann lost because of charges that he ran a political machine out of City Hall that voters had tired of. But Dickmann always believed that anger over the cost of the smoke campaign was a major reason he lost.
That political lesson is another reason progress remains slow in cleaning the air or ending climate change, whether it is in Los Angeles, London, Beijing or New Delhi.