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Tishaura Jones Looks To Make History In St. Louis Mayoral Race Filled With Milestones

St. Louis Mayoral candidates Cara Spencer and Tishaura Jones on Tuesday, March 30, 2021 participated in a debate hosted by St. Louis Public Radio, Nine PBS, 5 On Your Side and the St. Louis American.
David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
Treasurer Tishaura Jones answers a question during a March 30 debate hosted by St. Louis Public Radio, Nine PBS, 5 On Your Side and the St. Louis American.

Tuesday’s election for mayor of St. Louis will be historic in many ways.

A new system of voting means the general election will decide the winner for the first time in decades. It’s the first time two women — Treasurer Tishaura Jones and Alderwoman Cara Spencer, D-20th Ward — are competing for the office head-to-head. And as a Black woman, Jones would break a remaining barrier for the office. It took the city until 1993 to elect a Black mayor, and until 2017 to elect a woman chief executive.

“It feels really amazing at times, scary at others,” Jones said of the potential to make history. “But the things that are kind of guiding me are how many young girls and other single moms will now see that this is a possibility.”

The perspective of a Black woman is needed to move the city forward, she said.

“I’m unapologetically Black,” Jones said. “And I put that at the forefront of every decision that I make.”

Though white allies are necessary for the city to move forward, she said, they do not have the experience necessary to lead a majority-minority city.

“A white person doesn't have to tell their white children how to act when they're stopped by the police. That's a conversation I have to have with my son every time he leaves my house,” she said Tuesday during a debate sponsored by St. Louis Public Radio, Nine PBS, the St. Louis American and Five On Your Side. “A white person doesn't have to worry about their child getting hit by a stray bullet when he's outside playing. That's something that I worry about with my son. And it's almost happened to him several times in our neighborhood.”

Racial equity lens

To Jones, the city cannot address its deep-seated racism until its leaders are willing to talk about it.

“I think that our approach to racism has been one of those things where we try to just sweep it under the rug,” she said in an appearance on the Politically Speaking podcast before the March primary. “We haven’t had those direct, uncomfortable conversations about how systemic racism in our region really leaves us behind.”

Treasurer Tishaura Jones talks to Congresswoman Cori Bush following an Aug. 5, 2020 press conference at the Arch.
Jason Rosenbaum
St. Louis Public Radio
Tishaura Jones talks to Cori Bush after they both won their primaries in August 2020 — Jones for treasurer, Bush for Congress.

Reports released by the Ferguson Commission and For the Sake of All should have served as jumping-off points to start the conversation, Jones said. But instead, they sit on a shelf gathering dust.

“Until we are serious about and intentional about putting racial equity at the center of all of our decisions, race will be one of those things that continues to hold our region back from being the best it can be,” she said.

For Jones, that means a development policy that focuses on reversing decades of “strategic disinvestment.”

“In my administration, I would be intentional about sending investment into neighborhoods north of Delmar, and also in South St. Louis, that have seen little to no investment over decades,” she said. “Since we haven't invested in those neighborhoods over decades, we cannot be surprised that the population is declining in those neighborhoods, and also that the schools are closing in those neighborhoods.”

Jones would create positions within the St. Louis Development Corporation to guide neighborhoods through the development process. And while tax incentives are often necessary, she said, she would push for plans to include community benefit agreements.

Investment of any kind could prove difficult unless people feel safe. Jones is promising a crime plan that, as she explained on Politically Speaking, puts the public back in public safety.

“I would have a community-first public safety approach, which brings everybody to the table,” she said. That's faith leaders, that’s local businesses, that's prosecutors, social service providers, and the police.”

One person she said would not be welcome at the table? Jeff Roorda, the business manager of the St. Louis Police Officers Association.

“Jeff Roorda continues to gaslight and spew racism in our police department and in this region,” she said. “And if the Police Officers Association wants to sit at my table, they will get rid of Jeff Roorda.”

But Jones promised a direct line of communication to officers, who would be crucial to boosting accountability.

“I don't think that employees, officers, anyone in the city feels like their voice is being heard,” she said during Tuesday’s debate. “And that's the first step we have to open the lines of communication.”

Jones said she was “outraged” by the failure this week of a federal jury to convict three white St. Louis police officers in the beating of a Black undercover officer during protests in 2017.

“We have some real work to do,” she said. “We can’t reform out of this — we have to transform our way out of this. We have to transform the culture and the entire police department that leads with an arrest and incarcerate model to one that leads with prevention.”

Implementing a prevention-focused model will not require an increase to the police department’s budget, Jones said.

“It's about effectively deploying our resources,” she said during a recent debate that aired on Fox 2.

The full impact of the coronavirus on the city’s budget is still not yet fully known, but relief is on the way. St. Louis is set to receive $500 million from the federal American Rescue Plan, nearly five times the national average. And unlike previous federal funding, the money can be used to replace lost revenue.

“First and foremost, we’re going to take care of people,” Jones said, promising rental and business assistance, as well as a focus on getting coronavirus vaccines to those who need it most. Longer term, she said, she’ll focus on things like public WiFi, which makes it easier for students to access remote learning.

“I also want to set aside a pot of funds to get community input,” she said during the Fox 2 debate. “This is a lot of money, it can do a lot of good. I don't have all of the answers.”

The first 100 days

The effort to find answers to the problems plaguing St. Louis begins for the new mayor almost immediately — inauguration is just two weeks after the general election. Jones said her experience, including four years in the state House and two full terms as treasurer, mean she is in the best position to get started quickly.

“We don't have time for leadership that has to learn on the job,” she said. “Electing a mayor with executive experience, relationships on the local, state and national level, and a background in health care is what this moment demands.”

Jones’ agenda for her first 100 days would “be about taking care of people, and making personnel changes that would show the office is moving in a new direction.” Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards has already submitted his resignation, and all department heads serve at the pleasure of the mayor.

Treasurer Tishaura Jones stands with her son Aden after announcing her candidacy for mayor on Nov. 4, 2020.
Rachel Lippmann
St. Louis Public Radio
Tishaura Jones' son Aden looks on as his mother answers media questions after she announced her second run for mayor on Nov. 4.

That agenda also includes closing the north St. Louis jail known as the Workhouse, while at the same time ensuring the safety of inmates held at the Criminal Justice Center in downtown. Jones said she had not had a chance to fully digest the report of the task force that examined theFeb. 6 uprising at the downtown jail, but she called the recommendation for a new facility “a non-starter.”

Regardless of who wins on Tuesday, the mayor of St. Louis will be a single mother of a school-age son.

“That’s a wonderful testament to the city,” Jones said. “I want him to take away from this campaign, and just my career in general, that women are strong, that women can do just almost anything that men can do.”

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Editor’s note: A profile of Spencer will air Friday. You can find it, and all of our election coverage, at www.stlpublicradio.org.

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