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Cara Spencer Is Running To Lead St. Louis Through A Time Of Crisis And Opportunity

The mayoral candidate said she wants to drive down violent crime, stimulate economic growth and development, and reinvest in the city’s struggling schools and neighborhoods.

(Photo via Cara Spencer’s Facebook page)

Cara Spencer is running for St. Louis mayor at a moment when she believes the future of the city and the region are at stake. The city is struggling with rising violent crime and a declining population. At the same time, St. Louis will be receiving half a billion in federal aid in the coming months. 

“We’re facing a moment of crisis and opportunity,” said Spencer, alderperson of the 20th ward. “We have crises on a lot of fronts. But we have a lot of opportunity in front of us as well with the enormity of the federal aid package coming to St. Louis.” With it, Spencer said, the next administration can invest in the long-term growth of St. Louis and begin to reverse decades of population decline.

To do that, Spencer said she wants to drive down violent crime, stimulate economic growth and development, and reinvest in the city’s struggling schools and neighborhoods. 

“The most important issues I see facing the city of St. Louis are extraordinarily high rates of violence, the racial segregation, and the stagnant, depressed regional economy and population loss,” Spencer told The Appeal. “I’ve been a big supporter of good government, transparency, and policies that move the needle forward. … Until we have real change, we’re not going to be able to move our community forward.”

Spencer got into politics in 2015, when the city shut down a public pool near her neighborhood. “That was what a lot of families here relied on in the summer for a healthy thing for kids to do,” Spencer said. So she decided to run against the 20-year incumbent in her ward and won. “The first thing I did was get the pool reopened,” Spencer said.

Since then, she has fought to transfer city-owned vacant buildings to private ownership in order to reduce the number of vacant lots in St. Louis and led the fight against privatizing the St. Louis Lambert International Airport. 

Spencer and city treasurer Tishaura Jones, the two progressive candidates in the March primary, will face each other in the general election on Tuesday. Jones and Spencer were approved by 57 percent and 46 percent of voters respectively in the city’s first election under a new approval voting system, where voters can approve as many candidates as they like. Polls show Jones has a slight lead over Spencer, but it’s close. 

St. Louis’s current mayor, Lyda Krewson, chose not to seek a second term. Before the primary, polling had cast Jones and Lewis Reed, president of the Board of Alders, as the likely victors. But in the end, Reed, a more moderate Democrat who backed tax incentives for developers and supported privatizing the city’s airport, didn’t win a single one of the city’s 28 wards—not even his own.

Some local organizers and community groups who spoke with The Appeal say they are hoping St. Louis’s next mayor will be willing to try something different when it comes to solving the problems that have plagued the city for decades. A coalition of 38 grassroots organizations signed on to a comprehensive policy agenda, The People’s Plan. It puts forth a framework for how the city can move away from policies that have contributed to racial and socioeconomic inequity and endorses policies that could help lift more people out of poverty, end over-policing and mass incarceration, and keep people in their homes. 

Spencer has said she supports rethinking public safety by changing the city’s 911 system to direct some calls to health professionals instead of police, and expanding St. Louis’s Cops and Clinicians program, which sends health professionals to respond to crisis calls alongside police officers. In a candidate forum, Spencer said the city has “some gross inefficiencies in our police department” and that the budget “has to be reoriented.” She indicated that funds should go to a broader range of safety measures, including non-police emergency responders. 

At the same time, Spencer has also pledged to bring a focused deterrence policing strategy to St. Louis to drive down violent crime. The strategy identifies people who police suspect are likely to commit violent crime and offers them social services couched in the threat of harsh prosecution if they break the law. Some local organizers who spoke with The Appeal expressed concern that the approach could lead to more over-policing, while national criminal justice reform advocates familiar with focused deterrence stressed that the program must involve members of the community and offer robust social services in order to be effective. 

“It certainly should not be an enforcement-only strategy or enforcement-mostly strategy,” said David Muhammad, who is the executive director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform and who has worked with cities across the country to implement violence reduction programs. “It’s not carrot and stick. It’s not if you don’t take services you get enforcement.”

Spencer has previously described the focused deterrence strategy as a “carrot and stick” approach, though she told The Appeal she does not intend for her model to be a punitive one. She has repeatedly cited Oakland as a model she would base her administration’s focused deterrence strategy on and has said she would not use the threat of turning off people’s utilities to force compliance.

Activists in St. Louis want the next mayor to close the Workhouse, one of the city’s notorious jails. Both Jones and Spencer have pledged to do so, with Jones saying she will do it in the first 100 days of taking office and Spencer saying she will try to do it by the end of the year.

Spencer has also said if she were elected mayor she would prioritize swiftly dispersing federal funds to the renters who need it to keep people in their homes and would continue funding the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund at least the current level. She did not respond when asked by The Appeal if she would work with the courts to extend local eviction moratoriums. At the same time, campaign finance filings show that Spencer has taken plenty of money from real estate developers. 

“We’ve seen this failure to actually invest in the people who live here right now,” said Kennard Williams, a lead organizer with Action St. Louis and a member of the St. Louis Housing Defense Collective. “We’ve seen continued excuses around keeping an incarceration site open. We’re seeing excuses as to why people can’t access this rental assistance. … We need a mayor who will address these issues in a serious manner and in a manner that treats people with dignity and respect.”