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Can a Segregated City Get Serious About Equity?

The mayor of St. Louis only has weak official powers. Tishaura Jones says she won't let that stop her from reshaping the city.

Tishaura Jones
St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones. (David Kidd/Governing)
David Kidd
The concrete slabs and steel frames are just starting to come in, but you can already get a sense of how massive the project will be. The new home for a federal agency, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), is the largest development in the history of St. Louis — a million square feet at a cost of $1.7 billion.

The agency has been located in St. Louis for decades, but local officials hope its expansion will position the city to take the lead in the geospatial field more broadly. The agency has entered into a partnership with Harris-Stowe State University, the city’s historically Black university, to train more teachers and workers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). Maxar Technologies, which has an office in downtown St. Louis, is among the companies making the project and the city a center for its diversity and inclusion efforts.

“St. Louis is becoming the solution to the broader problem of industry diversity,” says Jason Hall, CEO of Greater St. Louis, the regional chamber. “By the time we’re cutting the ribbon at NGA, we will be way down the ramp in ensuring existing residents use this as a catalyst for Black wealth creation.”

It’s a bold claim. The NGA site is located north of Delmar Boulevard, which runs the east-west length of the city. It’s just a normal four-lane street, but the “Delmar Divide” acts almost like a Berlin Wall separating the relatively affluent, mostly white central corridor of the city from its overwhelmingly Black and impoverished north side. The differences on either side of Delmar in terms of median household income, crime and life expectancy are staggering.

“The NGA site does represent a huge opportunity for St. Louis,” says Mayor Tishaura Jones, who toured the site last week. “However, I want to pay attention to the neighborhoods that surround the NGA. We have to be intentional about equity and about our investments in those neighborhoods.”

On streets directly surrounding the NGA site, as is the case throughout much of North St. Louis, numerous houses have been boarded up or torn down, leaving behind vacant lots overgrown with vegetation. A nearby church has been abandoned, its interior visible through empty window frames. At a yard filled with vehicles, a trio of men sit around a smoker on plastic chairs until rain drives them back into their trucks.
An abandoned house.
St. Louis has numerous challenges, including a shrinking population, deep pockets of poverty and a high crime rate. (Kidd/Governing)
Jones, who was sworn in on April 19, is the first Black woman to lead St. Louis — one of several major cities that currently have their first Black woman mayors, including Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, New Orleans and San Francisco. Vi Lyles is the first Black woman elected to serve as mayor of Charlotte, N.C.

“Tishaura’s language is that we’re going to address and solve these problems — racism, infrastructure, education, health care, poverty — for Black women,” says Richard Callow, a political consultant who has advised Jones. “If you’ve solved them for Black women, you can solve them for everybody.”

St. Louis’ problems are legion. It is one of the nation’s most segregated cities, with one of the highest murder rates. Its population is shrinking, with 1 in 5 residents living in poverty. Addressing such entrenched problems, along with improving basic services such as schools and public transportation, would be daunting for any mayor. It’s particularly challenging in a city where the office of mayor holds less power than most of its peer cities.

“The structure is set against a mayor of St. Louis being successful, because they just don’t have the power to move an agenda,” says Kenneth Warren, a pollster at St. Louis University. “Not a single mayor since I arrived here in the 1970s has been successful.”

Jones does hold some strong cards. The business community has begun to sing in greater harmony, merging five separate chambers of commerce into Greater St. Louis this year. In a fragmented region, convincing NGA not to move but in fact locate in the center of the city itself was the result of an unusual level of coordination among local, state and federal officials in the area.

And the mayor was handed an enormous gift as she took office. St. Louis will receive $500 million worth of federal funds, courtesy of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) passed by Congress in March. Last month, Jones announced her plan for spending the first $80 million, largely on social service programs including summer jobs, direct cash payments and housing assistance for seniors and residents facing eviction, along with vaccination programs.

“People are ready to come together,” she says. “They see the potential in St. Louis more than they see our challenges, and they don’t see our challenges as insurmountable.”

Daughter of the City

Jones aspired to being a model when she was young. Her father, Virvus Jones, gently suggested she finish college first. (The mayor still talks multiple times a day with her father, who served as city comptroller during the 1990s.) She continues to take her appearance seriously, often favoring flattering red dresses. Before logging onto a Zoom meeting to promote coronavirus vaccinations, hosted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, she checks her makeup and carefully pats her face dry. “Showing up and being camera ready and looking good for my city, that is part of my job as mayor,” she says.

Jones, who is 49, served two terms in the Missouri House before being elected as city treasurer in 2012. She ran for mayor in 2017, falling 800 votes short in the Democratic primary. The city is almost evenly divided between Black and white residents, with much smaller Asian and Hispanic populations. Four years ago, the Black vote was split and Lyda Krewson, who is white, narrowly prevailed. “Lyda was only elected by a little over 30 percent of the population,” says Terry Jones, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis (and no relation to the mayor). “That doesn’t mean the other two-thirds were against her, but it does mean they weren’t for her.”

This year, St. Louis switched to an approval voting method for its March primary, allowing voters to select one or more candidates, with the top two finishers — Jones and Alderwoman Cara Spencer, who is white — proceeding to the April election. Jones won with 52 percent of the vote, the first successful candidate for mayor since 1993 to carry North St. Louis.

The city’s political establishment is changing. St. Louis now has a mayor, prosecutor and member of Congress who are all Black women. The city’s Board of Estimate and Apportionment, which is made up of the mayor, the president of the board of aldermen and the comptroller, has an all-Black membership for the first time. Several new members were elected to the city’s Board of Aldermen this year, giving Jones a progressive majority to work with.

Mayor Jones is closely allied with freshman U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, who has become a lightning rod for criticism from conservatives over tweets looking to “defund the Pentagon” and stating on the Fourth of July that “Black people still aren’t free.”

Jones’ manner can be guarded, but she does not mince words. The mayor’s red laptop is decorated with stickers expressing support for The Squad, a quartet of highly progressive women of color elected to Congress in 2018, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

The sea change in St. Louis reflects larger trends within the Democratic Party but was the result of a confluence of factors, including the police shooting of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson in 2014. His death and a wave of protests drew national attention. Locally, these events inspired increased activism around housing, voting rights, criminal justice and other issues. “I had not thought about running myself, but I just saw this new generation coming in that had this energy and was thinking outside the box,” says Tina Pihl, who won a seat on the Board of Aldermen in April by a 24-vote margin.
Tina Pihl
Tina Pihl, a member of the Board of Aldermen, says the city has failed in the past to make demands of developers looking to expand in hot neighborhoods.
(David Kidd/Governing)
Jones says that the pandemic — and the way it exposed and exacerbated income inequality — left St. Louis voters hungry for change. Although her victory margin was slender, she prevailed in far more wards within the city than Spencer, carrying mixed-race neighborhoods that are home to increasing numbers of white professionals.

“She has a lot more support than a lot of the previous mayors,” says Warren, the SLU pollster. “If you look at her strength ward-wise, she really kicked ass in that election.”

In the 2020 Democratic primary, Bush unseated U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, thanks largely to voters in white, liberal precincts. Clay and his father together had held the seat for half a century. “You have this younger group of educated whites who want to live in the city, are big proponents of the city and want progressive change in the city,” says Terry Jones. “They think maybe an African American is in the best position to carry that out.”

A Weak-Mayor System

St. Louis mayors are set up for failure. The city has independently elected cabinet officers who might normally be appointed by a mayor, including Jones’ former position of treasurer, which oversees parking in the city. The Board of Estimate and Apportionment performs tasks many mayors are able to do themselves, including setting budgets. “For every contract, you need a vote,” says Jones, the UMSL professor. “It gets old in a hurry.”

Fragmentation spreads beyond the city limits. The city of St. Louis is a completely separate entity from St. Louis County, due to the “Great Divorce” of 1875. An effort to merge the city and county into one government failed after former County Executive Steve Stenger — who had been a leading public face of the effort, along with Mayor Krewson — pleaded guilty in 2019 to federal corruption charges. Between them, the city and county have more than 600 elected officials.

The two other members of the Board of Estimate and Apportionment can shut a mayor down, if they choose. Lewis Reed, the president of the Board of Aldermen, who ran against Jones for mayor twice, opposed the quick closure of the city’s medium security prison, as well as the mayor’s plan to spend $80 million in federal funds. But Jones has found an ally in Darlene Green, the city’s long-tenured comptroller. “There will be times where there are differences, but so far, I’m seeing that Tishaura Jones and I are in sync in terms of serving our public,” Green says.

Last week, Green had the mayor’s back as they blocked a Reed proposal for spending $168 million in ARPA funds, which Jones contended did not follow federal guidelines. “This is only the first round of ARPA-funded appropriations, and President Reed is holding up rapid relief because of a disagreement about longer term projects that could be appropriated later,” Green said. “This kind of brinkmanship is a pattern for President Reed.”

Getting policies through the Board of Estimate and Apportionment is only one step. The mayor also needs to get sign-off on most matters from the Board of Aldermen, which has 28 members elected by ward, along with Reed as the president elected citywide. That’s a lot of separate fiefdoms, with the various aldermen each controlling part of the capital budget. “The temptation in St. Louis historically has always been to split everything 28 ways,” says Callow, the consultant.

The upcoming round of redistricting will cut the number of aldermen in half, to 14, thanks to a ballot measure approved in 2012. Ultimately, that could help reduce parochialism. In the short term, the change may benefit the mayor, with aldermen distracted by the question of their own political fates. “They say it’s a weak-mayor system, but I push back, that it’s only as strong or as weak as the person in it,” Jones says.

St. Louis proper accounts for barely more than 10 percent of the metropolitan area population, but Jones understands that as the mayor of its flagship city, she commands outsized attention and has the potential to set an agenda other actors will have to respond to. She received an early endorsement from County Executive Sam Page and has made a point of meeting with officials in neighboring jurisdictions.

“The one thing that surprised me was that we had never met in the mayor’s office, and no mayor had ever asked them, what do they need?” Jones says.

Closing the Workhouse

St. Louis has long had one of the highest murder rates in the country. Last year, the number soared to a level almost a third higher than at any previous point in the last 50 years. The city has the unfortunate distinction of leading the nation in child murders.

Perhaps Jones’ most controversial move so far was to eliminate nearly 100 long-vacant positions from the police force and reduce the department’s budget by $4 million (out of $171 million) to pay for affordable housing, homeless services, victims’ support and civil rights lawyers, which Jones said would do more to address “the root causes” of crime.

Even before Jones took office, St. Louis was experimenting with a “cops and clinicians” program to have social workers respond to emergency calls or ride along with police. Earlier this month, Jones and Bush visited Denver to learn about its program of having social workers and mental health professionals respond to 911 calls without police backup.

“Every time I explain the rationale behind the move that I made with the budget, and showed how studies done right here in St. Louis show that up to 50 percent of calls can be answered by someone other than police — and how deploying the right professional to the right call actually frees up police to do the work that they were trained to do in our academy — people get it,” Jones says.

A recent national study from the Council on Criminal Justice found that mental health-related calls make up less than 5 percent of calls to police and 2 percent of officer time spent on calls.

Jones has taken some knocks for increasing her own security detail even as she cuts the police budget. “Why is the mayor’s security detail made up of police officers instead of social workers?” tweeted Jane Dueker, a lobbyist for the St. Louis Police Officers Association.

Last month, Jones made good on a campaign promise to close the medium security jail known as the Workhouse. Although it was not officially shut down, it was emptied of prisoners on June 17. “The mayor wanted it shut down,” says Jeff Carson, interim corrections commissioner for St. Louis. “She asked if I could close it and I said yes.”
Chain-link fence with barbed wire at the top at the Workhouse in St. Louis.
The city’s medium security prison, known as the Workhouse, which was recently closed by Mayor Jones. Kayla Reed, executive director of Action St. Louis, a racial justice advocacy group, says, “closing the jail is one step in overhauling the way our city thinks about safety and investment.”
(David Kidd/Governing)
Carson said he could never get attention for improvements he’d made, such as modernizing internal infrastructure. For years, the Workhouse had drawn criticism and lawsuits over forced labor, excessive heat and overcrowding. “Thousands of Black people have been held in inhumane conditions simply for being poor in a city that refuses to invest in our communities,” says Kayla Reed, executive director of Action St. Louis, a racial justice advocacy group. “Closing the jail is one step in overhauling the way our city thinks about safety and investment.”

Antiquated Systems

St. Louis is named for a French monarch (Louis IX) and has a chateau-style City Hall. The mayor’s office is decorated with Pre-Raphaelite murals depicting the Louisiana Purchase by Frederick Lincoln Stoddard.

Jones says “antiquated systems” are the most surprising thing that she’s encountered as mayor. It took her a week to figure out how to turn on the lights in her own office, since the electrical panel was hidden several doors down in the office of her communications director. Otherwise, Jones knows her way around City Hall quite well, as a longtime member of the executive branch.
St. Louis is a small enough city that some people harbor a bad feeling about her due to her father’s resignation as comptroller in 1995 following a tax fraud conviction. The elder Jones also has his admirers, including those who remember his prescience in warning the city could get stuck paying off bonds used to finance empty stadiums.

As treasurer, Mayor Jones awarded millions of dollars’ worth of contracts to a firm whose vice president for public finance was convicted in the same case as her father. She was also criticized as treasurer for use of no-bid contracts. Some officials were unhappy when parking revenues weren’t sent to the general fund, although parents liked the fact that she used some meter money to set up college savings accounts for every school-age child in the city.

As mayor, Jones quickly put the brakes on developments that were already either approved at other levels or well underway, demanding more money be devoted to affordable housing and other help for struggling neighborhoods. “We’ve renegotiated the City Foundry project,” she says, referring to an ambitious mixed-use development in the Midtown area. “The developer there immediately saw the value in investing in North St. Louis and putting more money in the affordable housing trust fund, to the tune of almost $1.8 million.”

In effect, the developer agreed to rebate 10 percent worth of tax incentives from the city. Still, it was a risky move at a time when downtown, as in so many other large cities, remains a ghost town at this stage of the pandemic. The city shed residents last year, bringing its total population down below 300,000 for the first time since the mid-19th century, and roughly a third of its size back in the 1950s.

Spreading the Wealth

The percentage of St. Louis residents living in poverty, while high, dropped from 27.8 percent in 2014 to 21.8 percent in 2019. The city, for all its troubles, retains many advantages — its universities, its wealth of financial firms and other white-collar headquarters and its position at the center of the country, with four interstates all converging along the Mississippi River downtown. Mayor Jones believes the city is poised for a turnaround, one that benefits not just a slice of St. Louis but “entire swaths of our city that haven’t been invested in in decades.”

There’s not much argument in St. Louis about the need to attract more capital to the poorer parts of the city, particularly to the north. “The region truly can’t move forward unless everybody does,” says Hall, the Greater St. Louis CEO. “The challenge is that particularly North St. Louis and parts of South City have been left off the agenda.”

The question is how to do it, particularly in a no-growth city and region. Pihl, a partner in the effort to force concessions from the City Foundry development, says the city has failed in the past to make demands of developers looking to expand in hot neighborhoods, or even to ask. “With COVID, we’ve seen the stratification even more,” Pihl says.

Jones stands prepared to use every tool she’s got to spread opportunity throughout her city. She has already put developers on notice that they will have to help the less fortunate, while seeking to redirect the city’s own spending priorities. She says she intends to devote the bulk of the federal funds St. Louis is receiving toward infrastructure and development projects that will pay dividends for years in parts of the city that have long been neglected.

She hasn’t released any specifics yet. Last week, the Board of Aldermen approved her plan for the first $80 million worth of federal funds. It wasn’t easy — it took 10 hours of debate and there were plenty of amendments — but for the most part, the mayor got her way.

Tishaura Jones
Mayor Tishaura Jones, who is 49, served two terms in the Missouri House before being elected as city treasurer in 2012. She ran for mayor in 2017, falling 800 votes short in the Democratic primary. Now that she is the city’s mayor, Jones stands prepared to use every tool she’s got to spread opportunity throughout her city.
(David Kidd/Governing)
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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