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With Long Mayoral Campaign Near An End, Cara Spencer Says St. Louis Is Ready For Change

St. Louis Alderwoman Cara Spencer, D-20th Ward, answers a question during a mayoral candidate debate on March 20, 2021. The debate was sponsored by St. Louis Public Radio, 9 PBS, 5 On Your Side and the St. Louis American.
David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
Alderwoman Cara Spencer, D-20th Ward, answers a question during a March 30 mayoral candidate debate that was sponsored by St. Louis Public Radio, 9 PBS, 5 On Your Side and the St. Louis American.

St. Louis Alderwoman Cara Spencer got her start in politics because of the pool at Marquette Park, in the south St. Louis neighborhood of Dutchtown.

“It was, I guess, 2014, 2015, I was living a normal life, if you will, a single mom with a normal job,” she said. “And it was that year that the only free public pool here on the south side of our city closed, and there was no plan to reopen it.”

Spencer beat a longtime politician in her first race for the 20th Ward seat and got the pool reopened. Less than a year after handily winning reelection, she set her sights on higher office. Win or lose, Tuesday marks the end of a 14-month campaign to be the city’s chief executive officer.

“I love St. Louis, I believe in us, but we aren't going to solve our problems by just wanting to,” she said. “We need a mayor who's going to do the real hard work of leading, working with dogged determination and optimism.”

The racial divide

One of the city’s most intractable problems is its deep racial divide. It’s a topic that Spencer, who is white, talks about carefully. Her opponent, Treasurer Tishaura Jones, has cited her experience as a Black woman as a factor in the election.

“I acknowledge that being a white person, I don't understand the lived experience of our communities of color,” Spencer saidthis week during a debate sponsored by St. Louis Public Radio, Nine PBS, the St. Louis American and Five On Your Side. “I do acknowledge that the history in our nation of leaders, all leaders failing communities of color creates skepticism, skepticism that is born out of real lived experience. And it is my job as an elected official to break that down not with words, but with actions.”

She pointed to her work in the 20th Ward, one of the city’s most diverse.

“We have been engaged in development here in these neighborhoods that have been equitable not just by investing in affordable housing, but making sure that they're woven into the same neighborhoods the same blocks as market rate development,” she said.

The results of the March primary indicate Spencer benefited from being the only white candidate in the race. But she said her outreach has always been citywide.

“We are keeping an eye on policy, and the message is resonating.”

Fighting crime

Spencer’s message includes a 10-point plan to address violent crime. She’s pledging to bring in focused deterrence, which targets social services to those at the highest risk of being involved in criminal activity. She would also pay attention to one of the most basic services of a police department — answering 911 calls. Right now, she said, 25% of emergency calls made in the city are answered by a recording.

“We know that we have communities that do not trust our police department,” Spencer said. “And when they are engaging, or willing to share vital information with our police department, the first thing we needed to at the very least is pick up the phone.”

Spencer pledged to follow through on recommendations in the Teneo consulting report to reorganize the police department, which would free up officers to do more community policing and investigations. She also promised to formalize policies to share information within the department.

Issues of trust in the police department go much deeper than failure to pick up 911 calls. Spencer said she, like so many others, was outraged when a federal jury this week failed to convict three white St. Louis police officers who beat a Black undercover officer they mistook for a protester.

“Police reform is critical to public safety in general,” she said. “We are putting the many good officers who serve at risk by failing to root out racism within our police department. We’re putting our general public at greater danger as well.”

Spencer said she will refuse to meet with Jeff Roorda, the business manager of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, calling his rhetoric “divisive and counterproductive.” But she pledged to have an open door to rank-and-file officers, and said she would “lean into” the Ethical Society of Police, which advocates for officers of color.

The first 100 days

Implementing her crime plan tops Spencer's to-do list for her first weeks in office. But she is also promising to immediately turn her attention to the budget as well.

“Right off the bat, we’re going to have to get the budget under control, and make sure we understand fully where the budget hole carved out from COVID is,” she said.

St. Louis is set to receive a $500 million infusion from the national American Rescue plan. And unlike with past federal coronavirus relief measures, some of that money can be spent to replace lost revenue.

Alderwoman Cara Spencer, D-20th Ward, talks to State Rep. Tracy McCreery, D-Olivette, as McCreery and other volunteers prepare to knock doors for Spencer on March 20, 2021.
Rachel Lippmann
St. Louis Public Radio
Cara Spencer talks to state Rep. Tracy McCreery, D-Olivette, before McCreery and other volunteers knocked on doors for Spencer on March 20.

In addition to closing budget holes, Spencer would use the money for rental and mortgage assistance, small business relief and vaccinations. She called the amount of assistance “a once-in-a-century opportunity for investing in our community, our city and our region’s future.”

“We need long-term planning to make sure that we have an investment strategy that can really position for the first time in decades, the city for growth,” she said.

Spencer is pledging community involvement in how the money is spent, and transparency in how the decisions are made. Both, she said, are cornerstones of her progressivism.

“A progressive is someone who looks to new ideas, who thinks outside of the traditional way in which St. Louis does business, good government, transparency and issues that are really centered around racial equity and social mobility.”

Both Spencer and Jones say the results of the primary show the city is ready for a change. But those who selected both women in March under a new primary voting system will now have to pick one.

While the two agree on many issues, Spencer said she would take a more hands-on approach as mayor.

“You saw that bear out in the discussion about airport privatization, where we were both opposed to the concept,” she said. “I was working doggedly to fight airport privatization, on a very daily basis, digging in rolling up my sleeves and doing the hard work.”

The hard work will come quickly for whoever is elected. Under the city charter, the mayor is sworn in two weeks after the general election. Spencer said she is already talking to current department heads and thinking about who she would like to have serve in her cabinet.

“I’m always willing to work with anybody, and whether I agree with them or disagree, and that pertains to an individual alderman, the state of Missouri or the legislature,” she said. “That’s one of the hallmarks of my service.”

Regardless of who wins, the city’s chief executive officer will be a single mother of a school-age son. Spencer gets “goosebumps” thinking about the shift it represents.

“It’s about recognizing that in order to get public input, we’re going to have to be flexible,” she said. “It looks a lot different to be a single mom than it does to have a traditional household. And that is a good chunk of our city.”

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Editor’s note: A profile of Jones aired Thursday. You can find it, and all of our election coverage, at www.stlpublicradio.org.

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