YMCA Political Entanglements Questioned

1805

The YMCA of Greater St. Louis, a well known non-profit with a long record of community involvement, has seen a recent surge in political activity. Phedra Nelson, whose LinkedIn indicates she is employed as the Community Wellness Director for the Gateway Region YMCA, has repeatedly utilized the YMCA’s name and facilities to advance the political interests of herself and her allies.

Campaign literature exploiting the Emerson YMCA, a 501c3 nonprofit, and suggesting the charity was endorsing her candidacy.

First, during her campaign for Ferguson city council last year, Nelson released a campaign video which was filmed in her office at the Emerson YMCA, mailed literature to voters promoting her work with the Y as endorsement of her qualifications to be voted to council, and posted numerous Facebook posts using images and her videos of the Emerson YMCA. After YMCA executives were approached regarding the unlawful use of their name and facilities, the video was removed. But Nelson has continued to exploit her position at the YMCA.

In December, Nelson’s branch organized a “Unity in the Community” event, sponsored by what appears to be a random sampling of local elected officials. But the selection was far from random. In fact, every elected official that participated in the event was an ally of a political organization started by disgraced attorney Elbert Walton Jr. Walton, a disbarred attorney, is most well known for the fracas surrounding Northeast Fire Protection District, where black residents of north county paid exceptional legal bills and Mr. Walton earned an exceptionally comfortable living.

But Walton’s lasting impact has been extending the tentacles of his family’s “politics for profit” operation throughout north county. Former county council member Rochelle Walton Gray stirred controversy by voting to elect Sam Page ally Lisa Clancy as council chair, after she had been voted out and her term had expired. A judge ruled that her vote was invalid, and that a subsequent election which installed Rita Days as chair was valid. After leaving council, Walton Gray was given an $89,000 a year position in the Page administration as “health outreach coordinator.” Before being elected to county council, Rochelle Walton Gray was a member of the Missouri House. Term limited out in 2016, she was replaced by Alan Gray, her husband.

State Senator Angela Walton Mosley, who is in her first term as a state senator from north county, is Elbert Walton Jr.’s daughter. Her husband, Jay Mosley, is a state representative from north county.

As prolific as the Walton family may be, eventually they ran out of siblings and spouses to support. So their political organization branched out to back other candidates. Michael Person, a state representative from Ferguson, was nominated to fill a vacant seat in a committee meeting he held in his own home. Since then, Person stipulated to a violation of Missouri ethics law, for an infraction involving failure to report campaign expenses he incurred on behalf of Rochelle Walton Gray’s bid for Democratic committeewoman. Redistricting has placed Person in the same district as another representative from the Ferguson area, Raychel Proudie.

Other Unity favorites include Neil Smith and Marlene Terry, who are also current members of the Missouri House of Representatives. Yolonda Fountain-Henderson, who has announced a bid for state representative, was the mayor of Jennings, and was unanimously impeached by the Jennings city council in 2016. Fountain-Henderson is a member of the Jennings school board, and a long time ally of the Waltons.

Just today, Senator Mosley tweeted her support to “members of Unity St. Louis.” By some amazing coincidence, every member of this political group was featured on the “Unity in the Community” flyer from the YMCA in December.

Another Unity PAC favorite, Anthony Weaver, was treasurer of the original Unity PAC when it stipulated to extensive campaign finance violations in 2013. A close family friend of the Walton’s, Weaver was employed as Rochelle Walton Gray’s assistant during her tenure on county council. When she lost her bid for reelection, the county hired Weaver as “change management coordinator” at a salary of $82,500.

In 2020, Anthony Weaver’s daughter, Chevonne Weaver, was treasurer of the new incarnation of the Walton’s “Unity PAC” and was caught doing the same old business. In a stipulation to numerous violations of ethics laws, Chevonne Weaver admitted to inaccurately reporting thousands of dollars in campaign contributions, and to illegally withdrawing money from the committee to pay poll workers without proper accounting.

And by the way, the one remaining name on the flyer, Sam Page appointee Rochelle Walton Gray, has already declared herself a candidate for county council in 2024.

So, the YMCA has hosted an event, in which every single participant is an active political candidate for state office, all documentable members of a specific faction. Oh, and other elected officials in the area who do not belong to that faction were not invited. We checked. State representatives who are not members of this faction were not invited. This is nothing less than a partisan political action, disguised as a health outreach. And who might organize such an outreach on behalf of the YMCA? Might it be their community wellness director?

Then, in January, the YMCA sponsored another activity, a door to door distribution of smoke alarms and cleaning supplies. This distribution, which so far as I know has no precedent here, was done in one neighborhood only: the neighborhood where a Unity supported candidate for Ferguson city council resides. Ferguson mayor Ella Jones and councilor Nelson, both of whom signed the candidate petition for the candidate, participated in the event. The incumbent councilor in that ward, Linda Lipka, was not invited. Yet again, the YMCA has taken sides, and organized an event for political purposes. This intent was clear in the post Nelson wrote on the Emerson YMCA Facebook page and duplicated on her personal page “Faye Faye” as well, specifically promoting the distribution as being in the political subdivision of Ward One. The public comment made by La’Rae Jackson gives thanks for the event to Mayor Ella Jones and councilor Phedra Nelson, who had “somehow arranged the event with Home Depot,” and later reiterated a thanks exclusively to Jones and Nelson in calls and texts from residents. At no point in the account by Ms. Jackson was there any mention of any involvement whatsoever of the YMCA, the charity which paid for the time councilor Nelson took to arrange the giveaway. [Watch the public comment on the video here 25:35-28:55 marks.]

A representative of the YMCA of Greater St. Louis, when asked to comment, provided the following statement:

The Gateway Region YMCA is a nonpartisan organization that does not endorse political campaigns or candidates for public office. It is not uncommon for any of our Ys to host or partner on events where public officials are invited as part of our regular community outreach efforts. In her role as Healthy Schools Healthy Community Director, Ms. Nelson organizes and attends community events on behalf of the Emerson YMCA. In no way is her involvement in those events intended to represent affiliation of any kind to any political campaign or any candidate for public office. The events you reference were widely attended by members of the community in partnership with other community businesses and organizations. Home Depot approached the Y and selected the neighborhood for the giveaway event, and the vaccine event was coordinated between the Emerson Y Executive Director and St. Louis County.

So what does national YMCA say about political entanglements? In their guide to YMCA advocacy, they include several principles: (1) If you invite one candidate, invite everyone running for that office; (2) Do not imply endorsement through introductions, t-shirts, buttons, signage, web sites, etc. On each occasion we mention here, the YMCA of Greater St. Louis has failed to comply with these directives. First, they allowed an employee to film a campaign video in the YMCA. Then, they held two “outreach events” to which only candidates aligned with the political faction supported by their employee were invited. Gateway Region YMCA, and Phedra Nelson, have repeatedly violated these principles.