Posted on August 13, 2021

The First Black Woman to Run St. Louis Is Shaking Up the City with a War on Normal

Griff Witte, Washington Post, July 30, 2021

It was Juneteenth weekend in St. Louis, and the new mayor was leading the celebrations: She hopscotched from cookouts to charity runs, grooved to classic R&B songs and proclaimed that her city would be among the nation’s first to pay reparations to the descendants of enslaved people.

Two weeks later, Tishaura Jones spent a quiet weekend with her family. In the process, she became the first St. Louis mayor in decades to skip the city’s Fourth of July parade, an event long sponsored by a group with a dubious racial record. St. Louis would need to have some “tough conversations,” Jones said, before she felt comfortable joining the party.

The tale of the two weekends in many ways encapsulates the young tenure of St. Louis’s history-making mayor: The 49-year-old unapologetically embraces her Black identity, champions progressive policy ideas long dismissed as fringe and doesn’t seem to mind who she might alienate along the way.

At a time when other public officials are desperately hoping for a return to normal after more than a year of pandemic-spawned upheaval, Jones is rowing hard in the other direction.

“We’re trying to break people out of normal,” said Jones, sitting amid the faded grandeur of City Hall. “Whatever normal was, that didn’t work for a lot of St. Louis.”

In that pursuit, Jones has growing company. This has been, in many respects, a difficult year for the progressive left of the Democratic Party: Adherents have been marginalized in Washington policy debates. They have been shut out of statewide office. And they fell short in the nation’s marquee mayoral race. In the early Biden era, the moderates have had the momentum.

But the story is different in struggling cities like St. Louis, where voters have, in recent months, rewarded the candidate most willing to try to shake up the status quo.

Jones took office in April, having beaten both moderate and progressive rivals this spring.

Then, in quick succession, challengers from the left dethroned Democratic incumbents in Pittsburgh, Rochester and Buffalo. In Buffalo’s case, the Democratic nominee, India Walton, would become the first self-proclaimed socialist leader of a major American city in half a century should she win the November general election, as is widely expected.

What those places have in common, said St. Louis activist Kayla Reed, is that they are all “migration cities” — destinations for African Americans fleeing the agricultural South in favor of the industrial North during the 20th century. But after decades of discrimination, many of their descendants remain locked in a seemingly permanent underclass.

Now, a year on from the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the mass movement for social justice that followed, those communities are flexing their political muscle to demand leaders who invest in underserved neighborhoods, address long-standing racial disparities and confront police brutality.


“All of that background,” said Reed, who campaigned relentlessly for the new mayor, “creates the reality where Tishaura wins.”


{snip}  At the dawn of the last century, “the Gateway to the West” was a place of global renown, host to both a World’s Fair and an Olympic Games, with a lavish city hall modeled after the one in Paris. By 1950, nearly 900,000 people called St. Louis home.

But today, after a decades-long exodus, the population is down to less than 300,000. Slightly more than 1 in 5 of those people live in poverty, with the city’s median household income about $25,000 lower than the national average.

The city is almost evenly split between White and Black, and the divisions are stark. While some predominantly White sections of St. Louis are affluent — the McCloskeys aimed their guns at protesters outside a mansion in the city’s posh Central West End last summer — the almost exclusively Black north side has suffered. There, abandoned homes and vacant lots are a fixture of the landscape, and residents say gunshots are part of the daily soundtrack.


But the combination of Jones’s election and an influx of half a billion dollars in federal funds under the Biden administration’s pandemic relief plan has raised expectations that the city’s fortunes could be changing.


Beyond committing the city to paying reparations — a move made in concert with 10 other mayors — Jones has closed a medium-security prison, known as the Workhouse. The facility had become infamous for its poor and unsanitary conditions.

She has cut $4 million of police funding, and shifted it to social services. She has pressed the city council — known as the Board of Aldermen — to deliver $5 million of federal aid directly into the hands of the city’s most vulnerable, and threatened to veto any aid legislation that doesn’t fulfill that mission.


After Jones unveiled her police cuts, Republican state legislators threatened to convene a special session to force her to back down. The city’s police union, meanwhile, has been outspoken about the harm that it feels Jones’s plans will do to an already beleaguered force.

“Morale is at an all-time low,” said Jane Dueker, attorney for the St. Louis Police Officers Association. “That’s not what you need in a crime wave.”

St. Louis recorded 263 homicides last year — its highest total in 50 years — as killings surged in cities nationwide. As of this week, there had been 108 homicides — down from last year’s pace, but still far above those of other, similar-size cities, including Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.


While Republicans and police unions would be expected to oppose Jones’s plans, she has also found herself out of step with fellow Democrats.


Within St. Louis, too, Jones has faced resistance from her party. In the heavily Democratic city, there are no Republicans on the Board of Aldermen. But Jones’s election has deepened the schism between progressive and moderate Democrats.

The moderates, led by Board President Lewis Reed, pushed back against Jones’s police cuts — and managed to add back money that makes up for the department’s losses. They also fought the mayor’s plan to send millions in direct payments to residents, arguing that it was dangerously ill-defined. After an epic and acrimonious 12-hour meeting, the mayor got her way — though the ultimate fate of the money remains unresolved.


To Jones and her allies, the political winds are at their backs.

“There’s a changing of the guard,” said Megan Green, a progressive board member who has led efforts to unseat moderates. “The entrenched establishment that we’ve had in this city is losing power.”