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The St. Louis Mayoral Race Reflects a Progressive Shift In Local Politics

Two progressive candidates will move on to the general election, while Lewis Reed, a figure in St. Louis’s Democratic party establishment since 1999, couldn’t carry a single ward.

(Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty images.)

The two candidates championing progressive policies won the mayoral primary in St. Louis, meaning that in a few weeks, voters will elect a mayor who has promised to run the city differently. 

City treasurer Tishaura Jones and Alderperson Cara Spencer were approved by 57 percent and 46 percent of voters respectively on March 2 in the city’s first election under a new approval voting system, where voters can approve as many candidates as they like. Lewis Reed, president of the Board of Alders and a figure in the city’s politics since 1999, was approved by 39 percent of voters, while utility executive Andrew Jones trailed even further behind with 14 percent.

St. Louis’s current 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 COVID-19 pandemic and doxing police reform protesters on Facebook Live, which led to calls for her resignation. 

Before the primary, polling had cast Tishaura Jones and Reed 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.

“Over the past five years or so we’ve seen a shift in St. Louis politics, away from the old guards like Lyda Krewson and Lewis Reed,” said Anita Manion, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “They come from decades of Democratic politics in St. Louis that have been very business-friendly, sort of pro-police, and some of the attitudes that, I think, doesn’t resonate with progressive voters or younger voters anymore. This is a changing of the guard that we’re seeing.”

About six and a half years ago in St. Louis County, Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown. Brown’s death, and the deaths of Eric Garner in New York and Trayvon Martin in Florida, gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. Since then, former public defender and Ferguson City Council member Wesley Bell has ousted the longtime St. Louis County prosecutor who failed to charge Brown’s killer. And Cori Bush, a pastor, nurse, and activist who marched in the streets of Ferguson following Brown’s death, has toppled a decades-long political dynasty and become the first Black woman to represent Missouri in Congress. 

During his decades in office, former St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch embraced a tough-on-crime approach and never indicted a single police officer for killing a civilian while on duty. Since taking office in 2019, Bell has departed from his predecessor’s policies by directing his prosecutors to stop prosecuting possession of less than 100 grams of marijuana, end cash bail requests for misdemeanor cases, and stop overcharging people in order to pressure them into plea deals. 

In August, Bush ran against Representative William Lacy Clay for a second time and won. Clay had held the seat since 2001. His father, Bill Clay, had held the seat for 32 years before that, meaning Missouri’s First District had been represented by the Clays since 1969.

This is a changing of the guard that we’re seeing.

Anita Manion assistant professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis

In the years since Michael Brown’s death, former Missouri state representative Kim Gardner also won her 2016 bid for St. Louis circuit attorney by pledging to move away from the office’s punitive practices and hold police officers accountable for use of force.

“A lot of that came on the heels of the shooting of Michael Brown and Black Lives Matter movement. We’ve seen activists in that movement elected, not just Cori Bush but folks to the state legislature and Ferguson City Council,” Manion said. “I think there has been a real shift to grassroots politics in St. Louis making concrete changes.”

Now, with Jones’s and Spencer’s victories over Reed in the primary, that shift is set to continue. No matter who wins in April, the next mayor of St. Louis will be a single mother who supports reimagining public safety, changing the way the city uses tax incentives to spur development, and providing rent relief to St. Louisans who are struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic.

Across the country in recent years, candidates like Bush, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jamaal Bowman, and Ayanna Pressley have ousted the moderate incumbents they ran against by campaigning on promises to buck the political establishment and back policies like Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and reforming the criminal legal system. The incumbents had all been in office for more than a decade.

“In Boston, in Michigan, in New York, these left-wingers are coming in and winning in an upset, picking off establishment politicians, because people are sick of establishment politicians,” said Ken Warren, a professor of political science at St. Louis University. “I think they’re winning—and part of the reason Reed lost was because of this movement, which was too much for him or Lacy Clay to overcome.”

Where neither Reed nor Mayor Krewson have made it a priority to quickly close the Workhouse, the city’s notorious jail, both Spencer and Jones support closing the facility and reinvesting the money saved into social services. Reed has been wary of reforms that would shrink the criminal legal system and is open to expanding policing with aerial surveillance, while both Jones and Spencer support rethinking the police department’s budget and reducing the scope of policing in favor of alternatives, like non-police emergency responders. Jones and Spencer have also both said they support moving certain functions, like internal affairs and use-of-force investigations, out of the police department.

“Jones is simply part of a new wave in politics, and that wave is supported by a lot of younger voters that are opposed to old established type of politics where people really don’t see any changes that have been good for them,” said Warren. “So Cori Bush, Gardner, Jones, Bell and so forth—throughout the United States but particularly in St. Louis—these are all people that were not supported by the establishment … but they win, and they win against what I would say were pretty big odds.”