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Democratic primary in 5th state Senate race could cost St. Louis a 'black' seat

In 1961, Theodore McNeal, an official with the union representing Pullman porters, went to Jefferson City as the Senator from the 7th District.

Since then, the city of St. Louis has always had at least one black state senator. But redistricting and term limits may put that 52-year-streak in jeopardy.

State Senator Robin Wright-Jones figured a primary challenge was coming.

"I had been hearing for quite some time that people were being asked to run against me as far as three years ago," she said. So she wasn't totally surprised when state Representative Jamilah Nasheed, a fellow member of the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus, got into the race for the 5th Senate District.

"Right now, in the Senate, under Robin Wright-Jones, the city hasn't had an effective voice," Nasheedtold St. Louis Public Radio's Maria Altman in January.

Races like this are unavoidable following the census and redistricting. Nasheed had been drawn in with two other black incumbent state Representatives, and decided to take her chances against an incumbent senator arguably weakened by campaign finance scandals.

And with two black candidates, even if Wright-Jones lost, the seat would remain African-American.

Then just five days before the filing deadline, another candidate jumped in.

"Triangulation, I call it."

Jeanette Mott Oxford, a term-limited state Representative, says she wasn't looking to hold another public office after eight years.

"The incumbent [Wright-Jones] is someone that I worked hard for four years ago," Oxford said. "But many of my constituents have come to me with concerns about her service, and certainly it hasn't worked out the way I expected."

More like St. Louis politics as usual, says Wright-Jones.

"Because there's two black women in the race, that's the opportunity for a white anybody to walk through the middle," Wright-Jones says. "And that is St. Louis politics. And the sad part about it is, we could lose this seat that has been an African-American seat to a non African-American."

And on that point, Wright-Jones and Nasheed are in full agreement.

With a population that is 48 percent black, and the city’s other Senate seat already in the hands of a white southsider, Joseph Keaveny, they say the 5th Senate district needs to remain in African-American hands.

Sympathy and empathy

As Nasheed put it, the closer you are to an issue, the harder you’ll work to address it.

"The high mortality rate, the high infant mortality rate, hypertension, diabetes poverty, all of that impacts African-Americans more so than any other race here in St. Louis," Nasheed said. "And that's why we need that voice in the Senate, so that we can have someone that can not only sympathize, but empathize."

Political science professor William Hall, who lectures on race and politics at Washington and Webster universities, says the record shows that Nasheed is right. Politicians who are for whatever reason more passionate about an issue are more effective at getting it addressed.

"It would be disingenuous to think that someone who is non African-American is going to be necessarily as effective or as sensitive, or able to put their interests front and center, just like every other racial and ethnic group," Hall says.

Oxford points to her record in response. What you work for, she says, is much more important than your skin color.

"I've been a real champion around removing barriers from families in poverty so they can get out of poverty," Oxford said. "That's a racial justice issue as well."

With friends like these ...

The race has split the Democratic Party and its traditional allies. And Alderman Antonio French, a Nasheed supporter, says it’s an ongoing battle that black Democrats are tired of fighting.

"It almost becomes a 'with friends like these' scenario," French said. "African-Americans are the heart and soul of the Democratic party, especially in the St. Louis region, and that we continually have to defend our position, or fight against other Democrats just for basic representation, that is unfortunate."

Nasheed could be considered the strongest proponent of a “black” seat. She was one of four Democrats who voted to override Gov Jay Nixon’s veto of a U.S. Congressional map that pitted Representatives Russ Carnahan and William Lacy Clay against each other because it preserved Clay’s seat.

Perhaps ironically, she's the least concerned about losing the 5th.

"I truly believe that at the end of the day, I will receive 80 percent of the vote north, and I will neutralize Jeanette Mott Oxford on the south side," she said.

Oxford and Wright-Jones are sounding similar notes of confidence. All three say they’re focusing these last few days on getting their supporters to vote.

  • For complete election coverage, go to Beyond November, a St. Louis Public Radio collaboration with The St. Louis Beacon and Nine Network of Public Media.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.