By Tim Bross
ST. LOUIS, Missouri (Reuters) - St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay is favored to win a three-way Democratic primary on Tuesday that could clear the way for him to become the longest serving mayor in the city's history and the first to be elected to four terms.
Slay, 57, faces Lewis Reed, 50, president of the city's Board of Aldermen, and former alderman Jimmie Matthews, 67, in the Democratic primary. The winner will face a Green Party candidate in an April 2 general election. There is no Republican in the race.
Reed has run an aggressive campaign, often citing the city's high crime rate, but he has raised only about one-sixth of the $3 million that Slay has.
If Slay wins, he would become the city's longest-serving mayor in the middle of April, surpassing the 12-year, nine-day tenure of Henry Kiel, who served from 1913 to 1925. Slay would be the first to win four four-year terms.
St. Louis, which is located on the Mississippi River and has a population of about 318,000, was hard hit by the 2007-2009 financial crisis.
Slay argues that the tide has turned, citing new technology jobs and 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.
But Ken Warren, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said crime would not resonate as an issue with voters because the numbers, though high nationally, have been dropping for more than a decade.
Warren said Slay was "virtually guaranteed to win for numerous reasons," including a belief that his administration has not been plagued by scandals like past city governments.
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.
Slay, who is white, was endorsed by the city's most powerful black politician, U.S. Representative Lacy Clay. Slay endorsed Clay last year in a primary against another incumbent Democratic congressman, Russ Carnahan.
Slay's two Democratic challengers are black.
Blacks make up 49 percent of the city's population while whites account for 44 percent.
(Reporting By Tim Bross; Editing by Mary Wisniewski, Cynthia Johnston and Paul Simao)