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St. Louis Mayoral Hopefuls Square Off In Debate That Centered On Crime

The four contenders for mayor of St. Louis discussed crime prevention, the COVID-19 pandemic and transportation funding in one of the last virtual showdowns before the March 2 primary election.

Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed, Treasurer Tishaura Jones, Alderwoman Cara Spencer and businessman Andrew Jones are vying to make it to the April 6 general election. The primary is the first election under the approval voting system in which voters can select as many candidates as they want in the primary, with the top two advancing. It’s also the first nonpartisan election in the city.

St. Louis Mayoral Virtual Primary Debate | February 23, 2021

Crime prevention

The central topic of the debate was crime, an issue that has bedeviled the city of St. Louis for decades. And since the mayor directly oversees the police department, they have much more responsibility for bringing down crime than other elected officials.

Pointing to the low clearance rates for murders in the city, Reed said he would continue to advocate for providing rewards for people who anonymously provide information to police.

“We’re going to have to invest our way out of this issue,” Reed said. “It’s not one that where we’re going to purely arrest our way out of it. We’re going to have to have multiple things operating all at once.”

Reporter Rachel Lippmann Recaps Tuesday's Mayoral Primary Debate On St. Louis On The Air

Spencer said she would push “focused deterrence,” which puts police attention and resources on people who commit the most violence in the city. She also would look to what other cities are doing to deal with crime.

“It’s clear there are programs that are working very well in other cities,” Spencer said. “And if elected mayor, I will bring focused deterrence to the city of St. Louis. This is a data-driven approach that has been successful in cities that look very similar to St. Louis.”

Tishaura Jones said that political leaders from around the region need to come to the table to deal with crime. She noted that “crime doesn’t just stop at Skinker Boulevard or the Mississippi River.”

“So that means engaging our partners to the west and to the east to come together to the table with active strategies to reduce crime and also to address our current situation,” she said. “Because crime affects all of us whether we live in St. Louis City, St. Louis County or St. Clair County or Jefferson County.”

Andrew Jones said he gets paid “to solve problems and not to hem and haw and to put up strawmen concepts.”

“What we’re going to do is utilize the professional men and women in the police department who know how to do their jobs,” he said.

The city plans to cut funding for the Workhouse from $16 million to $8.8 million due to declining inmate counts.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
The fate of the jail known as the Workhouse has also been a key issue during the mayoral campaign.


The candidates also discussed the future of the city’s Medium Security Institution, known as the Workhouse.

Both Spencer and Tishaura Jones expressed support for closing the Workhouse. Tishaura Jones added that the city “absolutely” needs to address the problems at the Justice Center jail in downtown St. Louis, which was the scene of an uprising earlier this month.

“We need to do a series of things to make sure the [Justice Center] is well maintained and, again, that we’re treating people with dignity and respect,” Tishaura Jones said. And then that way, after we get this situation resolved — then we can close the Workhouse.”

Andrew Jones and Reed are opposed to shutting the Workhouse. Reed said that’s not a good move with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It is unreasonable and immoral to still move forward with closing the Workhouse amidst what we’re seeing with COVID,” Reed said. “COVID has affected every human being on planet Earth. So certainly it’s going to affect the people in the Workhouse. And it’s something that we need to continue to review.”

Officials are considering the addition of turnstiles to the MetroLink system.
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Despite passage of a sales tax aimed at expanding MetroLink in 2017, there's been no movement on building more line for the light rail service in the past four years.

Transportation funding

The candidates were asked about whether they would pursue an expansion of MetroLink, especially since voters approved a sales tax hike in 2017 that was supposed to go toward expanding the light rail service.

Tishaura Jones said that the city should work with St. Louis County and St. Clair County “to see what routes should be expanded.” She said that she would collaborate closely with St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, who endorsed her, on the issue.

Andrew Jones said the reason MetroLink hasn’t expanded is that any project “needs a whole lot more money.”

He also said that there needs to be more data to make sure expansion is “absolutely necessary.”

“So until such time comes where some federal money comes, we should table it,” he said.

Reed said that development and investment happens along areas with public transportation corridors. He said he would push both the Biden administration and the state for funding, pointing out that state government rarely provides any money for cities to use for public transportation.

Spencer said the city is collecting about $10 million a year from the 2017 sales tax hike. But a major expansion, she said, would cost roughly $1 billion — which would mean the city would be paying off such an endeavor for decades even with a big federal contribution.

“If elected mayor, I’d pivot this incredibly important conversation and do two things: One, I’d increase safety on our existing lines and our existing public transit systems,” Spencer said. “And number two, I would change the conversation from light rail to a more nimble bus rapid transit system.”

File Photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
The top two candidates in the March 2 primary will move on to the April 6 general election.

Second choices

Reed, Jones and Spencer have raised the most money and are trying to appeal to voting blocs throughout the city that could propel them to the runoff. The Republican nominee for mayor in 2017, Andrew Jones is an underdog in the contest — but could still be a major factor in the outcome, because sizable pockets of GOP voters live in the crucial southwestern side of the city.

Since only two of the four candidates will make it to the April election, they were asked whom they would throw their support behind should they come in third or fourth.

Spencer said she would support Tishaura Jones, pointing to both their aligned policy values and her dim view of how Reed runs the Board of Aldermen.

“The board is run like a circus in so many ways,” Spencer said. “And I have to say, I really overlap in policies with Treasurer Tishaura Jones in many fronts.”

Reed then slammed Spencer and noted that she did not have any support from Black aldermen.

“It’s divisive leadership that we cannot afford in our city,” said Reed, referring to Spencer.

He eventually said he would support Tishaura Jones if he didn’t make it to the April runoff.

Citing the fact that they worked together at People’s Health Center, Tishaura Jones said she would support Reed if she comes in third or fourth.

“I know that at his heart he definitely is putting the city first,” she said.

Andrew Jones declined to say whom he would support if he loses next Tuesday.

The debate was sponsored by St. Louis Public Radio, Five on Your Side and Nine PBS.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.