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Long Marred By Racism, St. Louis Elects 1st Black Female Mayor

Apr 11, 2021
Originally published on April 12, 2021 11:40 am

Updated April 12, 2021 at 11:48 AM ET

Voters in St. Louis last week delivered a historic victory for Tishaura Jones, the first Black woman elected mayor and the latest triumph for progressive candidates in the St. Louis region.

Amid unrest at local jails, surging gun violence and a pandemic that has disproportionately hurt people of color, Jones said race will no longer be an afterthought in the mayor's office.

"We are done avoiding race and how it holds this region back," she told NPR's All Things Considered.

The current city treasurer, Jones ran on a progressive platform — calling for a "reimagining" of public safety and promising to close the Workhouse, one of the city's pretrial detention centers that has come under fierce scrutiny for inhumane conditions. After being sworn in April 20, she intends to shut down the Workhouse within 100 days.

Voters on Tuesday also fueled a progressive flip of the Board of Aldermen, and recent years have brought a wave of progressive candidates into office, including St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell, U.S. Rep. Cori Bush and Ferguson Mayor Ella Jones.

In discussing her second run for mayor (Jones ran unsuccessfully in the 2017 mayoral election), she brought up her 13-year-old son. Jones recalled the two talking about what, exactly, the mayor does.

"I said, 'The mayor is over the police and trash and firefighters,' and named all the departments," Jones said. "And he said, 'Oh, you'll be over the police? That means I'll be safe.' And that statement just hit me like a ton of bricks because I shouldn't have to run for mayor in order for my son to feel safe."

After a campaign that did not shy from conversations about race and policing, Jones is determined to bring that focus to the mayor's office: "We have not had the opportunity to have those difficult and tough conversations about the systemic racism that permeates every policymaking decision in our region and in our city."

In the interview, Jones was critical of the city's police union. Jeff Roorda, business manager of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, responded to Jones' comments by directing NPR to a statement made after last week's election: "We congratulate all of yesterday's winners and we commit to continue to partner with them or anyone else willing to do the hard work of making this city a better, safer place to live."

The following excerpts from the interview have been edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

On "reimagining" public safety and how to get all parties to engage in good faith

I think our city is shifting. I definitely feel a shift in the air, and we are moving towards having these conversations. I think also our business community is keenly aware of the racism and hyper-segregation in our region that holds us back. Because there are people that I've met, who have relocated to St. Louis who say that, you know, "I've never experienced racism until I moved to St. Louis."

I've also put the police union on notice several times during the campaign that they have to get rid of [St. Louis Police Officers Association business manager] Jeff Roorda if they want a seat at my table. They're in the middle of negotiating their collective bargaining agreement. And if they want to negotiate in good faith, they cannot have him at the table because he has profited off our pain; he continues to gaslight racism in this city and in this region. We have to remove some of the bad actors if we're going to ever move forward.

On the recent surge of gun violence in St. Louis and nationally

I agree totally with President Joe Biden that we need to declare gun violence a public health crisis. In 2013, our state legislature drastically relaxed gun laws that made it easier for people to get access to weapons. As a result, the number of Black and brown deaths from gun violence has skyrocketed. This is a public health crisis.

I also feel like poverty is one of the biggest drivers to gun violence and violence, period, in our region. So, how can we address poverty through workforce development programs, through matching people up with opportunities, and opportunities to thrive, not just survive?

On recent unrest in St. Louis jails, and her promise to close one

We have two facilities. City Justice Center downtown, as well as the Workhouse which is just in the north part of the city. And I remain committed to closing the Workhouse in the first 100 days and making sure we stabilize the situation at the jail downtown.

Now, the other part of that is making sure the U.S. attorney and our local court system, our state court system, start to move people through the system. You know, these facilities were not meant to hold people for hundreds of days. These are all pretrial detainees. The one thing we have to remember, and I'm the daughter of an ex-felon, these are people's fathers, mothers, cousins, brothers — these are people first.

On how she'll know whether she succeeded in the role

My north star is to build a St. Louis where everyone is able to succeed, no matter their skin color, who they love, how they worship or what ZIP code they live in, or any identity they hold. And in the St. Louis that we're going to build, police will not be the only answer when we dial 911. Youth will be at the center of our planning. Our tax revenues are going to fix our leaky civic systems, and their government will be open to them. That's how I know I will have succeeded.

Will Jarvis and Natalie Winston produced and edited the audio version of this story.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A city long marred by racial segregation and disparities elected its first Black woman to be mayor this past week. Tishaura Jones will be the next mayor of St. Louis. She's currently the city's treasurer and a former Democratic member of the Missouri House of Representatives. And her win is just the latest in a run of progressives being elected in the city. In addition to that, she ran a campaign that did not shy away from conversations about race or policing.

And Mayor-elect Tishaura Jones is with us now from St. Louis. Madame Mayor-elect, congratulations. Thank you so much for joining us.

TISHAURA JONES: Yes. Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: What was it that got you interested in public service to begin with? I mean, you were - you're - one of your parents was a former comptroller. I understand that you have a long sort of family history of interest in public service. But what was the spark for you?

JONES: Well, yeah, my dad was the former comptroller, Virvus Jones. But I think the real spark for me was when I ran for state representative in 2007. I almost didn't run because I got pregnant with my child. I'm a single mom, and I just thought that that was something that single moms just did not do, especially with him being a baby.

But I talked to a couple of friends, and they convinced me to really think about it. And I prayed about it, and I felt like this was my calling, and this is the work that God called me to do. So I just ran with it. And then also, my family's been very supportive. So, you know, being a mom and being in public service, I believe that you approach things from a different viewpoint. And I guess the rest, they say, is history.

MARTIN: Is there some particular issue or moment that suggested to you that this is what you had to do?

JONES: For mayor in particular, there were a couple of things. You know, No. 1, I was having a conversation with my son about what the mayor does. And as he gets older - he's 13 years old, and he's 6 foot 1, so he is, you know, tall as an adult. And the rash of shootings of young men by police was a problem for me. And we were having a conversation one day about what the mayor is responsible for. And this was already after I announced that I was going to run. And he says, well, mommy, what does the mayor do? And I said, well, the mayor's over the police and trash and firefighters - you know, named all the departments. And he said, oh, you'll be over the police. That means I'll be safe. And that statement just hit me like a ton of bricks because I shouldn't have to run for mayor in order for my son to feel safe.

And also, in St. Louis, you know, as you talked about in your opening remarks, we have not had the opportunity to have those difficult and tough conversations about the systemic racism that permeates every policymaking decision in our region and in our city. And we're - we are done avoiding race and how it holds this region back.

MARTIN: Well, you know, to that end, I mean, during the campaign, you talked about reimagining public safety, as is the case in a number of cities. I mean, these are the kinds of conversations that are going on now. Some of your predecessors, people who've been elected before you - I'm thinking about Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner in particular - have just been viciously attacked as they've waded into these discussions. I mean, she gets death threats constantly. She's been kind of viciously attacked by union officials representing law enforcement, for example. And I'm just wondering, how do you envision being able to get people to engage in good faith on something like this?

JONES: Well, I think our city is shifting. I think also our business community is keenly aware of the racism and hyper-segregation in our region that holds us back because there are people that I've met who have relocated to St. Louis who say that, you know, I've never experienced racism until I moved to St. Louis. Like I said, I think there's a shift here.

I've also put the police union on notice several times during the campaign that they have to get rid of Jeff Roorda if they want a seat at my table. They're in the middle of negotiating their collective bargaining agreement. And if they want to negotiate in good faith, they cannot have him at the table because he has profited off of our pain. He continues to gaslight racism in this city and in this region. We have to remove some of the bad actors if we're going to ever move forward.

MARTIN: But how is that within the scope of your authority? I mean, they have the right to elect whoever they want, don't they?

JONES: Yeah, they do. They do. But, you know, I'll just continue to push, and we'll see how far we can get.

MARTIN: And also, the other issue that kind of creates a context here is, like a number of other cities, I mean, St. Louis has experienced a spasm of gun violence. I understand that just this...

JONES: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Past week, there were 12 shootings over a 28-hour period in St. Louis. Certainly not the only place to experience this, as President Biden talked about - this kind of spasm of gun violence we're experiencing. But how do you think about this? What do you think is going on?

JONES: Well, I agree totally with President Joe Biden that we need to declare gun violence as a public health crisis. In 2013, our state legislature drastically relaxed gun laws that made it easier for people to get access to weapons. And as a result, the number of Black and brown deaths from gun violence has skyrocketed. And this is a public health crisis.

And so I also feel like poverty is one of the biggest drivers to gun violence and violence, period, in our region. So how can we address poverty through workforce development programs, through matching up people with opportunities - and opportunities to thrive, not just survive?

MARTIN: And what about the St. Louis City Justice Center? I mean, it's come under - that facility has come under a lot of criticism for inhumane treatment of inmates, extended stays, inappropriate COVID protocols. You know, I'm sure you've heard all of it. One of your campaign promises was closing that facility within 100 days. Now, you've just - obviously you've just been elected, but what do you expect that effort to look like?

JONES: Well, we have two facilities. We have the City Justice Center downtown as well as the workhouse, which is just in the north part of the city. And I remain committed to closing the workhouse in the first 100 days and making sure that we stabilize our situation in the jail downtown.

Now, the other part of that is making sure that the U.S. attorney and our local court system, our state court system, starts to move people through the system. You know, these facilities were not meant to hold people for hundreds of days. These are all pretrial detainees. The one thing that we have to remember - and I'm the daughter of an ex-felon - these are people's fathers, mothers, cousins, brothers. These are people first.

MARTIN: So what is going to be your North Star? Like, how will you know if you've succeeded in this role?

JONES: My North Star is to build a St. Louis where everyone is able to succeed no matter their skin color, who they love, how they worship or what zip code they live in or any identity they hold. And in the St. Louis that we're going to build, police will not be the only answer when we dial 911. Youth will be at the center of our planning. Our tax revenues are going to fix our leaky civic systems, and their government will be open to them. That's how I know I will have succeeded.

MARTIN: That was St. Louis Mayor-elect Tishaura Jones. Mayor-elect Jones, thank you so much for joining us. I do hope we'll talk again.

JONES: Yes, absolutely. Looking forward to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.