Jaco: St. Louis changes course; most eligible voters don’t care

Whether St. Louis’s profound shift toward progressives in the March 2 primary can solve the city’s metastasizing problems is debatable. But what’s clear is that more than three-fourths of the city’s eligible voters don’t care.

In the city’s first election under new “approval ranked” rules, progressive city Treasurer Tishaura Jones and progressive 20th Ward Alderwoman Cara Spencer emerged as the two candidates who will face off in the April 6 general election. 

The bad news is that voter participation plummeted, with only 22 percent of eligible voters bothering to show up. The tectonic shift in the direction of St. Louis mayoral politics was accomplished by only 44,568 people, less than the population of Chesterfield. 

The 25th Ward, around Dutchtown and Carondelet, and the 3rd Ward, including College Hill and Hyde Park, are good examples of how most St. Louisans checked out of the entire process. In those two wards, both plagued by rising violent crime rates, turnout was barely 14 percent, with slightly over 800 people bothering to vote in each ward.  City-wide, the entire trajectory of governance in St. Louis was changed, while 78 percent of voters — through alienation, indifference or COVID fear — took a pass. 

That’s bad news for representative democracy in St. Louis. But the good news is that after decades of nibbling around the edges of progressive reform and policies, the 22 percent who bothered to vote decided to shift City Hall away from cautious incrementalism toward an overhaul of city policies and institutions. 

While they were at it, voters also rejected Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed and businessman and perennial GOP candidate Andrew Jones, the two candidates endorsed by the racist-adjacent St. Louis Police Officers Association.

St. Louis being St. Louis, all these hoped-for changes could easily collapse into a smoldering pile of rubble. But as of right now, it appears the southwest city conservative pro-life pro-cop white Catholic Democratic establishment has been relegated to the fringes of power.

St. Louis also being St. Louis when it comes to race, the contest between Jones and Spencer will focus less on policy than on racial identity. 

St. Louis has had two Black mayors in 200 years, heading back-to-back one-term administrations — Freeman Bosley Jr. from 1993 until ’97, and Clarence Harmon from ’97 until 2001. Even though St. Louis is no longer a majority-Black, or even a plurality Black city  (the American Community Survey puts the city’s population at 44.5 percent white, 44.4 percent Black), many believe it’s past time to have another African-American in City Hall. 

The inevitable focus on race will shift attention away from the fact that Jones and Spencer largely agree on a majority of policy questions.

On violent crime and policing, for example, both embrace policing and criminal justice reforms. Spencer would use the Oakland, Calif., model of focused deterrence in high-crime areas, while Jones says the St. Paul, Minn., method of using community organizations in conjunction with police would cut crime. 

Both would re-direct resources to allow counselors and mental health specialists to help answer calls where armed police aren’t needed. Both pledge to reform the city’s dysfunctional 911 call system. Both say distrust between the police and Black communities has to be repaired before crime can be reduced.

Both support universal early childhood programs. Both would reduce the use of Tax Increment Financing, which has given many developments property tax exemptions lasting decades, taking money away from city schools. Both support expanding the Special School District into city schools.

Both are data-driven policy wonks. Jones has degrees in  finance and business administration, and has dealt with both fiscal and policy issues as a state representative and city treasurer. Spencer has a math degree, and had a career crunching algorithms advising corporations on product development before becoming an alderwoman.

But most importantly, both have taken a hammer to the old city model of triangulating governance among corporate donors and interests, political affiliations based almost exclusively on race, and retrograde power brokers such as the city police union.

Whichever one becomes mayor will mark a change at least as big as elected Kim Gardner and Wesley Bell as prosecutors, and Cori Bush as congresswoman.

Which means this contest will come down primarily to personalities and race. Spencer has already alienated many in the Black community with her primary attacks on Lewis Reed, while Jones’ reputation for being thin-skinned could work against her. 

But cosmetics aside, both candidates represent a radical departure from politics as usual in St. Louis. And in a city as troubled as St. Louis, the usual just no longer works.

Charles Jaco

Charles Jaco is a journalist and author. He has worked for NBC News, CNN, KMOX, KTRS, and Fox 2. He is best known for his coverage of the first Gulf War, and for his "legitimate rape" interview with Senate candidate Todd Akin. He is the winner of three George Foster Peabody Awards, and the author of four books.

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