This Election Could Decide St. Louis’s Future
The four candidates vying to replace the mayor are each promising to build a better St. Louis, and in a little over a week, voters will decide which visions they endorse.
St. Louis will soon elect a new mayor, and how the city will respond to calls to reimagine public safety, keep people in their homes, and invest in struggling public schools are all on the line.
The departing mayor, Lyda Krewson, is leaving some controversy in her wake: In June, community members and top city officials called on Krewson to resign after she broadcast on Facebook Live the names and addresses of people who had written her letters demanding police reform. Krewson’s administration also went against guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by dismantling homeless encampments during the pandemic, forcing residents to disperse throughout the city. And she initially resisted calls to close the Workhouse, a detention facility that houses mostly people awaiting trial and has what activists have called “unspeakably hellish” living conditions like infestations of black mold, rats, and cockroaches.
Krewson, who was elected in 2017, isn’t seeking a second term. That leaves voters to choose between four candidates—city treasurer Tishaura Jones, Board of Alders president Lewis Reed, Alderperson Cara Spencer, and utility executive Andrew Jones (no relation to the treasurer)—in the March 2 primary, using an approval voting system for the first time in the city’s history.
The four candidates vying to replace Krewson are each promising to build a better St. Louis, and next week voters will decide which visions they endorse. Under a proposition passed last year, the mayoral election and some other municipal elections are now nonpartisan, and voters can approve as many candidates as they like. The two candidates with the most votes will go on to a runoff to decide the next mayor on April 6.
Reed, Tishaura Jones, and Spencer have all previously run for office as Democrats, while Andrew Jones ran as the Republican candidate in the 2017 mayoral race. The city tends to elect Democrats; St. Louis has not had a Republican mayor since 1949. Reed and Tishaura Jones competed against Krewson in the 2017 Democratic primary. Reed came in third in the seven-way race while Jones came within just 879 votes of Krewson. Spencer has not previously run for mayor but has been a member of the city’s Board of Alders (or City Council) since 2015. Recent polling shows Tishaura Jones and Reed leading over Spencer and Andrew Jones.
While Reed and Spencer have earned the endorsement of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s editorial board, Tishaura Jones appears to be the favorite among unions and community groups, having earned the endorsements of Democracy for America, NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri PAC, Service Employees International Union Missouri State Council, Advocates of Planned Parenthood, the Organization for Black Struggle, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, Action St. Louis Power Project, and a variety of other groups and elected officials.
A coalition of 38 grassroots organizations in St. Louis, including Action STL and the ArchCity Defenders, put together a comprehensive policy agenda designed to improve education, health, housing, and policing systems in St. Louis. The agenda, dubbed The People’s Plan, puts forth a framework for how St. Louis can move away from the sorts of public policies that have contributed to racial and socioeconomic inequity in the city and instead endorses policies that could help lift more people out of poverty, end over-policing and mass incarceration, and distribute resources and taxes equitably.
“For local residents—particularly those who have been ignored, erased, displaced, and at times gaslit by public officials—a new administration could shift policy and budget priorities, and instead of investing in a failed ‘arrest and incarcerate’ public safety model, we could invest in resources that combat poverty [and] racism,” said Z Gorley, communications director for ArchCity Defenders.
The plan has four pillars: “making St. Louis home” by prioritizing universal housing, environmental justice, and livability; investing in the future of St. Louis by ensuring taxes are levied equitably, and education and youth programs are funded adequately; building a more inclusive democracy in the city by making governmental business more transparent and supporting civic engagement; and re-envisioning public safety as something that involves more than just investing in police.
Local organizers and advocates who spoke with The Appeal said they would like to see the next mayoral administration prioritize keeping people in their homes by providing rent relief to tenants, supporting the passage of a tenant bill of rights, and working with the courts to extend eviction moratoriums.
“You can’t beat a virus that requires you to quarantine without a house to quarantine in,” said Kennard Williams, a lead organizer with Action STL, noting that the incremental extensions of the local eviction moratorium aren’t enough to keep people in their homes, since renters will still owe money once the moratorium ends. “Instead we’re seeing consistent duct-taping and quick fixes for a large problem that will come crashing down if people don’t take the right steps to fix it.”
And they’d like to see the city’s next mayor move away from some of the practices of the Krewson administration when it comes to people experiencing homelessness in St. Louis. Instead of dismantling encampments and leaving advocates to secure private funding to shelter people from the fierce winter weather, organizers like Williams want the next mayor to fully fund the Affordable Housing Trust Fund and increase funding for the region’s continuum of care, shelters, and homeless service providers.
“We need a mayor who will address these issues in a serious manner and in a manner that treats people with dignity and respect,” said Williams. “You can’t say you’re a mayor for all of St. Louis if you’re only helping some.”
Having a mayor who will review how the city is investing in the safety of St. Louisans is also a priority for organizers, who note that the city’s decades-long trend of investing heavily in policing has not had the desired effect when it comes to reducing crime or improving clearance rates for violent crimes like murder.
Instead, organizers say they would like to see the next administration take a second look at the police department’s budget and see where funds could be redirected to non-police crisis response teams and violence interrupters. Cities across the country have begun to civilianize certain police functions, like traffic enforcement, forensic analysis, responding to mental health calls. The People’s Plan names a number of units within the St. Louis Police Department that the city could also consider civilianizing, like internal affairs and traffic enforcement.
“We want less of an emphasis on the arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate model and more of an emphasis on getting to the root causes of violent crime in our neighborhoods,” said Johnson Lancaster from the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression, noting that an outsize portion of St. Louis’s budget is spent on policing. “That money should be redirected to social programs that help address some of these needs that we’re talking about.”
Organizers also say they want St. Louis’s next mayor to stop giving tax breaks to developers while failing to adequately fund public education and invest in the everyday people who live in St. Louis.
“I had to get involved, our children are suffering,” said Amanda Davis, an organizer with WEPOWER. “We want the mayor to ensure the developers’ tax breaks are no longer taking money away from our schools. The developers come in, and they give them a TIF [subsidizing their taxes for a set number of years], then they leave after the 10 years and we don’t get any tax money. I’d like for the mayor to take a look at all those TIFs, future TIFs, and make sure that the schools get a portion of that.”
Seeking community input and adhering to community benefit agreements is another priority for organizers, as is earmarking money for early childhood education. Organizers from WEPOWER and the People’s Plan call for a 2 percent budget set-aside for early childhood education, which would provide about $22 million annually.
“It’s hard to separate educational equity from the economic development,” said Charli Cooksey, founder and CEO of WEPOWER. “If the strategy remains the same, for decades and decades and decades there’s been no investment in North St. Louis City. It has led to a population decline and Black folks who are here not having the opportunities they deserve. It has led to school closures. … We want to make sure the mayor leans on their power to make sure economic development happens the right way.”