Jaco: St. Louis’ next mayor: the worst job in Missouri

Why bother? No, seriously. Pound for pound, St. Louis is America’s most murderous city. Its percentage loss of population and rate of abandoned buildings are the worst in North American history. It’s home to fewer people than at any time since the Civil War. It can barely afford new garbage trucks. Its racial divide’s the size of the Grand Canyon, its 100-officer-short police department’s fight against rampaging street violence is weighted down by racism and misconduct, and trigger-happy gunslingers kill children as casually as they’d toss a wadded Red Hot Riplets bag out of a car window.

So, seriously, who would want the job? A call to public service is one thing. Signing the papers to take the helm of the Titanic after it hit the iceberg is another. But city Treasurer Tishaura Jones, who grew up on the North Side, and 20th Ward Alderman Cara Spencer, who was a child on the South Side, both want the corner office in Room 200. Why?

“It’s just because of those problems that I want to become Mayor,” Jones told me in a video interview. “I see those as opportunities for improvement. We have a great opportunity with the federal aid that’s on its way to our city ($459 million from the American Rescue Act spread over two years), and we have to be strategic in spending these dollars and make sure that we lay out a long-term strategy for the success and re-birth of St. Louis.”

Spencer was similarly upbeat in an earlier video interview. “We have great assets here. Our built environment in second to none, and we have such great cultural assets. But the potential is limitless. And I’m running for mayor to turn the tide and help our community, our city, our region into one that’s growing again.”

That won’t happen as long as the city has a police force that makes arrests in only one-third of murders in some neighborhoods, and a violent street culture that looks at violence as the first option and at innocent bystanders — including children — as collateral damage.

“We have to put the ‘public’ back in public safety,” Jones said, outlining police reforms, “and transform our public safety culture from considering only arrest and incarceration to one that leads with prevention. That’s making sure the Cure Violence program succeeds. That means looking at focused deterrence. Our business community, our faith community, our philanthropic community, all of these people need to be at the table.”

Spencer agreed that crime is the top priority and that prevention is more effective than after-the-fact arrests and imprisonment. 

“I would take a data-driven approach from prevention programs that have worked in other cities,” she said. “Focused deterrence is the No. 1 program that really has immediate results that help address violence. We have brought in Cure Violence here, and that’s a program that has a long-term impact. We have to identify those individuals that are at the highest risk of violent behavior, and address them head-on. We have to also start a problem landlord unit holding absentee landlords responsible for the crime and the degradation of the communities from abandoned structures.”

Most abandoned, wrecked buildings, and most crime, are on the North Side, over half of the geographic area of the city with less than a quarter of the city’s population, as African-American families flee violent crime, infrastructure collapse, spotty city services and almost no jobs.

How does the next mayor help save north St. Louis?

“We have to be intentional about our investments,” Jones said. “Just as there was intentional investment to re-build the central corridor and downtown, we have to have that same intentional investment in north St. Louis. We have to work with the community to develop solutions that work for and with them.”

Spencer, unlike some white politicos who think the north city limit is at Delmar Boulevard, also says helping the North Side is the key to helping the entire city.

“We have to get serious about investing in north St. Louis,” she said. “We have 30 percent of our population living at or below the poverty line, which is three times the national average. Right here and right now, we need to hold those property owners who are owning and parking their assets in St. Louis accountable. And that’s where developers like Paul McKee need to have their feet held to the fire. And we need to make holding property in north St. Louis and letting it collapse, financially dis-incentivized so absentee landlords can’t do this any more.”

As Jones put it, there’s “not a lot of breathing room” between her positions and Spencer’s.

So the election may come down to a simple proposition: Would you prefer a white female progressive mayor, or a Black one? 

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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