By Tim Bross
ST. LOUIS, Missouri (Reuters) - St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay appeared headed for victory on Tuesday in a three-way Democratic primary, setting the stage for a general election that could see him elected to his fourth term and become the longest-serving mayor in the city's history.
Election returns showed Slay, 57, defeating Lewis Reed, president of the city's Board of Aldermen, by an unofficial margin of 54-44 with all precincts reporting. Former Alderman Jimmie Matthews won 1.3 percent of the vote, according to the unofficial tally from the St. Louis Board of Election Commissioners.
"We won!" Slay, 57, said to cheers from supporters in a speech shown on local news stations, adding that he would work to make St. Louis "a better city, a more inclusive city."
Slay will now face Green Party candidate James McNeely in an April 2 general election. There is no Republican in the race.
If Slay wins in mid-April, he would become the city's longest-serving mayor, surpassing the 12-year, nine-day tenure of Henry Kiel, who served from 1913 to 1925. Slay, who was first elected mayor in 2001, would also be the first to win four four-year terms.
Under his leadership, Slay argues that St. Louis has added jobs in the technology sector and from the groundbreaking last month of the long-delayed Ballpark Village entertainment district adjacent to Busch Stadium, home of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
St. Louis ranks high in violent crime. Its murder rate was 35 per 100,000 residents in 2011, trailing only Detroit and New Orleans among large cities, according to the most recent FBI statistics available.
Ken Warren, a professor of political science at St. Louis University, said crime would not resonate as an issue with voters because the numbers, though high compared to other cities, have been dropping for more than a decade.
Slay's political longevity can be explained by his ability to avoid making enemies, said David Robertson, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
"Mayor Slay has governed in a way that has not sparked the kind of passionate, widespread opposition to threaten his incumbency, which is striking because of the serious recession that hurt a lot of other political careers," Robertson said.
(This story corrects 4th paragraph to delete reference to Slay citing city's high crime rate - that was a tactic of his opponent; corrects name of school in 8th paragraph to St. Louis University from University of Missouri-St. Louis)
(Reporting By Tim Bross; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Mary Wisniewski, Cynthia Johnston, Paul Simao and Lisa Shumaker)