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‘We’re fearless’: Black women wield unprecedented political clout in the St. Louis area

St. Louis Comptroller Darlene Green takes the oath of office during an inauguration ceremony at City Hall in April. (2017)
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Comptroller Darlene Green takes the oath of office during an inauguration ceremony at City Hall in April.

Darlene Green first became St. Louis’ comptroller in 1995, making her the most politically powerful African-American woman in the region. Twenty-two years and seven elections later, she’s still in office, and has lots of company, putting St. Louis on the leading edge of a national trend.

Seven other black women from the area hold major offices, including St. Louis circuit attorney, two Missouri Senate seats and two St. Louis County Council seats. That’s in addition to a half-dozen on the St. Louis Board of Aldermen or in the state House.

All Democrats, the women span at least two generations. Most have been elected within the past five years. And while their key issues differ, all exude independence as they influence public policy.

Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal reads about the Manhattan Project out loud after the house voted down a bill to create a fund to buy out dozens of homeowners near the West Lake Landfill.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Maria Chappelle-Nadal, state senator | Chappelle-Nadal has represented the 14th District, which spans much of central and northwest St. Louis County, since winning election in 2010. She has become famous in the state Capitol over her frequent filibusters, and previously served three terms in the Missouri House. Her 2016 Congressional bid was unsuccessful.

“What we are willing and ready and able to do is roll up our sleeves and say we’re ready to get into the game and we’re ready to make changes by any means necessary,” state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed of St. Louis said. “And we’re not fearful. We’re fearless.”

St. Louis County Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, wants to raise the county's minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Credit File photo by Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Hazel Erby, St. Louis County councilwoman | She has represented the county’s 1st District since 2004, when she won a special election, and was re-elected in 2006, 2010 and 2014. Erby is the council’s vice chairman and often tangles with St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger. She also is the Democratic committeewoman for the county’s University Township.

The St. Louis area is “definitely above average” when it comes to black women in power, according to Kimberly Peeler-Allen with Higher Heights, a New York-based nonpartisan nonprofit that encourages black women to run for office.

But, Peeler-Allen said, “it’s not something that is an anomaly,” pointing to the rising number of African-American women in local and regional elected positions across the U.S.  In New York state, black women make up close to 10 percent of the Assembly. And Baltimore has elected three African-American women in a row for mayor.

State Rep. Rochelle Walton Gray, D-Black Jack, works during the last few hours of the legislative session.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Rochelle Walton Gray, St. Louis County councilwoman | Walton Gray won the county’s 4th District in 2016. She previously served four terms in the Missouri House, succeeding her stepmother, Juanita Head Walton. Walton Gray is the daughter of former state Rep. Elbert Walton, and her husband, Alan Gray, now holds her old seat in the state House.
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner takes the oath of office at the Old Courthouse in January 2017.
Credit File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Kim Gardner, St. Louis circuit attorney | Gardner was elected in 2016, and is the first African-American in the post. She previously served two terms in the Missouri House, and also holds a nursing degree.

Statewide, Missouri doesn’t fare as well.  Missouri is 21st in the nation for its overall percentage of black women in the state legislature — and there’s never been a black woman elected to Congress or a statewide post, like governor.

“While black women’s representation is strong in St. Louis, there is significant room for improvement in their overall representation statewide,’’ said Kelly Dittmar, a professor affiliated with The American Center for Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

St. Louis Comptroller Darlene Green made a rare appearance on Friday before the Board of Aldermen. She says the bill is not fiscally responsible.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Darlene Green, St. Louis comptroller | She’s been in office since 1995, when appointed to fill a vacancy. Green is part of the three-person board that makes most major city-government decisions, and has held the comptroller job longer than any other person in St. Louis history.

Locally, there’s no question that black women have been more successful than black men in getting elected to top offices. The last African-American man to serve in the Missouri Senate was Democrat J.B. “Jet” Banks,  a towering figure in St. Louis who stepped down 18 years ago.

Tishaura Jones high-fives guests at a campaign kickoff party for her mayoral run at Exodus Gallery on Delmar Blvd. on Nov. 15, 2016.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Tishaura Jones, St. Louis treasurer | Jones was first elected 2012, winning re-election in 2016; she narrowly lost a bid for mayor in the spring. She previously spent four years in the Missouri House and is the daughter of former Comptroller Virvus Jones.

That might be because black women often have an easier time than their male counterparts in connecting with voters, according to St. Louis County Councilwoman Hazel Erby, one of the region’s political veterans. She tied that success to women’s earlier, more traditional political roles such as knocking on doors and leading phone banks.

Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Jamilah Nasheed, state senator | Representing St. Louis’ 5th District, Nasheed has been a senator since 2013 and is term-limited at the end of 2020. She previously served three terms in the Missouri House and ran a bookstore for 10 years.
St. Louis License Collector Mavis Thompson watches Friday's Board of Aldermen meeting with aide Bill Ray. Thompson opposes slashing license fees for one or two-person businesses.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Mavis Thompson, license collector | A lawyer, Thompson was appointed to the post in 2013 by then-Gov. Jay Nixon and elected to a full term in 2014. She was St. Louis circuit clerk from 1995-1998, and also holds a nursing degree.

“I think that the community accepts us because they trust and have faith in women and believe that we’re there to really truly make a difference,” Erby said, and added with a chuckle, “Women get things done. They just do.”

‘Do the right thing’ and role models

Several of the black women in power said they’ve been inspired by Green’s longevity and reputation as a soft-spoken woman who sticks by her principles.

Last spring, for example, Green came under fire when she said St. Louis’ credit rating could be hurt by a ballot measure to earmark public money for a new soccer stadium sought by business and labor groups and backed by then-Mayor Francis Slay. She didn’t blink, illustrating what Green calls her chief principle.

“For me, it’s not about me,” she said. “It’s about the service and serving the people that have elected me. I take great pride in being able to do the right thing.’’

Green is a confidant to several black women officials, her way of emulating some of the help she got in the 1990s from two major behind-the-scenes players: state Sen. Paula Carter, D-St. Louis, and Pearlie Evans, the longtime aide to then-U.S. Rep. William L. Clay Sr. (father of U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay). Both women, Green said, preached the power of sticking to principles when under political pressure.

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner said she consulted Green before she decided to run last year for the city’s chief legal job.

Gardner is the first African-American to hold the position. A former state legislator, Gardner said her background as a black woman helps her relate to the predominantly black defendants and victims in the city’s justice system. She also points to her family’s 70-year-old funeral business, Eddie Randle & Sons Inc., which has seen firsthand the devastating effects of violent crime and gun violence.

But Gardner noted that her guiding philosophy has little to do with race.

“We all want the same things, regardless of our race or gender,” she said. “We want a safe city, we want a healthy city, and we all want to reduce crime so that we can have a better quality of life for everyone.”

St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones said she often turns to veteran St. Louis Alderwoman Sharon Tyus for advice.

“She’s a lawyer and she can always provide context when I ask questions about why things run a certain way,’’ said Jones, who also tries to meet regularly with Erby.

For Nasheed, her biggest inspiration came from the late Shirley Chisholm, a New York Democrat who became the first African-American woman in Congress and ran for president in 1972.

“A lot of us, we read about her and we looked up to her, and we wanted to be a Shirley Chisholm,” Nasheed said.  “Because we wanted to be unbossed and unbought.”

Sexism stands in the way

Green, Erby and others said sexism, not racism, is more prevalent in their political careers.

“Men will try to knock you down,” Green said. “That’s whether they’re white or black, they’re going to put their thumb on you if they can.”

In some cases, the sexism can be subtle. Erby recalled an incident where she had a heated policy agreement with two top county officials, both men. The next day, she said, flowers were sent to her office. When she found out the two officials had sent them, she told the deliveryman to take the flowers to their offices instead.

“I won’t say what I told him to tell them,’’ Erby joked, then turned serious.  

“They would not have delivered flowers to a male counterpart,” she said. “They thought that was going to smooth over the entire thing. That’s not how it works. You know that’s not how it works.”

Jones, who narrowly lost a bid this spring for mayor, said she’s had to continually prove her expertise on fiscal issues, even though she’s been in office several years. She talked of the frustration she feels when people first seek advice from her father, former city Comptroller Virvus Jones (whom Green followed), before approaching her.

Tishaura Jones points to such challenges as a reason why black women officials need to communicate more with each other.

“We’re in an unprecedented time where we have a number of black women in pretty powerful offices,” she said. “If all of us were actually working together on similar issues, what a difference that would make.”

Follow Jo on Twitter: @jmannies

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.