City Treasurer Tishaura Jones and Alderperson Cara Spencer have secured the most votes in the St. Louis mayoral primary election today, and will go on to the April 6 general election. The other candidates—Board of Alders President Lewis Reed and utility executive Andrew Jones—didn’t make the cut in the city’s first election using an approval voting system.
Final unofficial returns showed Jones ahead with nearly 57 percent of the vote and Spencer with more than 46 percent. Behind them were Reed, with 39 percent, and Andrew Jones, with 14 percent of the vote.
The departing mayor, Lyda Krewson, chose not to seek a second term. She’s leaving some controversy in her wake after repeatedly dismantling homeless encampments during the pandemic and doxxing police reform protesters on Facebook Live, leading to calls for her resignation. She also 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. The facility has yet to close, despite a bill from the Board of Alders promising to do so.
Now the city will choose between two candidates who are both a departure from the status quo. Jones and Spencer have both championed re-envisioning public safety and changing the way the city uses tax incentives to spur development.
During the 2017 Democratic mayoral primary, Jones came within just 879 votes of Krewson. This is the first time Spencer is running for mayor.
Spencer has earned the endorsement of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s editorial board. Jones appears to be the favorite among unions and community groups, having earned the endorsements of Democracy for America, Service Employees International Union Missouri State Council, the Organization for Black Struggle, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, and a variety of other groups and elected officials.
Public safety is a central issue in this year’s mayoral race. Two-hundred sixty-two people were murdered in St. Louis last year, bringing the city’s homicide rate higher than it’s been in 50 years. Only about 30 percent of those cases have been closed.
But in a city that’s been reckoning with racial justice following the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson, many are saying that ramping up policing isn’t the answer.
“We need to divest from harmful systems like the criminal justice system that has been used to cage, control, and surveil communities, largely Black communities … and put that money into resources that make communities safe,” said Jae Shepherd, an organizer with Action STL. “The new administration needs to really look at our city budget,” Shepherd added, noting that a significant portion goes to policing, yet crime is still high. “Obviously arresting and incarcerating people isn’t working.”
Shepherd and others say 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.
Both Jones and Spencer support reducing the scope of policing in favor of alternatives and closing The Workhouse. Jones has also supported ending cash bail for nonviolent offenses and the decriminalizing of sex work.
Cities across the country have begun to shrink the roles and responsibilities of police by shifting traffic enforcement, forensic analysis, and response to mental health calls to other departments. Jones and Spencer have both said they support moving certain functions, like internal affairs and use-of-force investigations, out of the police department.
Asked if she would consider reforms like one passed in Berkeley, California, which shifts traffic enforcement away from the police, Jones said she would “absolutely” consider such a proposal. She said that if she is elected, she would review the police department’s functions to see what “could be enforced by civilians” because the city needs “to transform and reimagine how we respond to citizens.”
Both candidates have expressed support for rethinking the police department’s budget. Currently, the St. Louis Police Department has an operating budget of over $200 million. Jones said she thinks that figure is “too much” and said resources within the city’s Public Safety Department need to be reallocated. Spencer said the city has “some gross inefficiencies in our police department” and that the budget “has to be reoriented.” Both were in favor of funds going to a broader range of safety measures, including non-police emergency responders.
Another top issue for St. Louisans is the looming eviction crisis. Once federal and local eviction moratoria expire, thousands of people could lose their homes—and the city already lacks affordable housing and can’t adequately care for its unsheltered population.
“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 Kennard Williams, a lead organizer with Action STL and a member of the St. Louis Housing Defense Collective. Williams said the next administration needs to “pass a stimulus package that puts money in people’s hands, not to a large nonprofit or anyone overseeing this CARES Act money” and work with the Circuit Court to extend the local eviction moratorium.
Jones has said she would work with the courts to extend the local eviction moratorium, which expires April 5. She and Spencer both said during a recent forum that they support using federal funds to provide rent relief to people who are struggling to pay rent during the pandemic.
Jones and Spencer have both said they support a Tenant Bill of Rights (which would need to be passed by the Board of Alderman or state Legislature), and would continue to fund the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund at at least the current level. Both have also said they would work to increase the amount of funding the trust receives. The city currently budgets over $6.5 million for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which helps create more affordable housing in the city and provides funding for rent, utility, and mortgage assistance programs.
Both candidates said they wouldn’t continue the current administration’s policy of sweeping homeless encampments during the pandemic.
Spencer has said the city ought to pursue a housing-first approach to homelessness, which prioritizes giving people housing without requirements that can create barriers for people experiencing homelessness, like requirements that people come alone or be substance free. Jones has said she would prioritize low-barrier housing, and that she would work with the city’s service providers to ensure that there are enough shelter beds and temporary shelters available for emergency situations, like the recent extreme cold weather.