Opinion

Jaco: Red state, blue city, dark future? How the cure for Missouri is St. Louis

It should be no surprise that an organization whose motto is “Eek! Negroes!,” whose attitude toward facts and science is “Burn the witch!” and whose political philosophy is “Trump, ‘cause I got white grievances,” is also a revenge machine. 

Missouri Republicans, whether from rural Piedmont, exurban Wentzville or far suburban white-flight Wildwood, all agree St. Louis is the problem. The solidly blue city and close-in suburbs — home to the state’s best universities, employers, hospitals and culture, and who produce roughly one-fourth of the state’s tax revenue and close to 40 percent of the state’s total GDP — are the enemy.

So the Republican establishment that controls Missouri politics top to bottom wages both cultural and political jihad against the state’s largest urban area on behalf of the “real Missouri” — rural and exurban conservative white people. Some of it’s even legal.

Take Gov. Mike Parson’s move to terminate $300 a month in extra federal jobless benefits as of June 12, two months before the program expires. By ending participation in the federal jobless benefits plan, Parson wants to “force” Missourians to go back to work. While statewide in scope, the order will have the biggest impact in St. Louis.

The Parson philosophy is off-the-shelf Republicanism going back four decades — business owners are virtuous job creators, while workers are parasites gaming the system.

But Parson is being outdone in a fact-free war against St. Louis and its workers by Attorney General Eric Schmitt.

While the GOP-controlled General Assembly is talking about taking away the authority of local health officials to control diseases, Schmitt’s doing something about it. The AG has sued St. Louis County over COVID restrictions, putting the concept of selfish personal “freedom” above public health.

But Schmitt, formerly a “moderate” Republican from Kirkwood who shifted to the hard right once he discovered that’s where Missouri’s right-wing votes and money lived, is an old hand at interfering in St. Louis affairs.

He filed a brief demanding that Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner drop all charges against the gunslinging McCloskeys. He also tried to get “concurrent jurisdiction,” so he could decide which cases would be prosecuted in the city, and bypass Gardner. That flopped. Schmitt helped block Gardner’s effort to get a new trial for Lamar Johnson, serving life for a 1994 murder that The Innocence Project investigated, concluding Johnson didn’t do it. Johnson’s still in prison. 

Attacking a Black female prosecutor for being too soft on Black defendants while being too tough on a rich gun-toting white couple is pretty much a metaphor for everything the Missouri GOP is about. But when it comes to unhinged Trumpian political philosophy, Schmitt is nothing if not consistent. 

Schmitt sued China for “creating” COVID. He sued to overturn Obamacare and strip health insurance from hundreds of thousands of Missourians with pre-existing conditions. He sued in the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn President Joe Biden’s victory in six battleground states, a lawsuit Pennsylvania’s Attorney General called “seditious.”

Every blue city in every red state faces more or less the same problems from state GOP lawmakers and their base TrumpCult voters.

For some, such as San Antonio, Austin, Houston, and Dallas in Texas; Atlanta and Savannah in Georgia; and Raleigh and Charlotte in North Carolina, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Urban growth and an influx of new, blue voters in those states, plus sizable minority populations, raise the hope that within a few election cycles, North Carolina, Georgia, and Texas will turn blue, a process already well under way in states such as Arizona and Virginia.

The key to turning a state away from bigots, science-deniers and Trump Treason Weasels is the success of its cities.

Cities grow, and attract new jobs, which increases population, which eventually leads to demographic, multi-cultural changes, which leads to fewer Republicans being elected. St. Louis city has been shrinking, and the immediate St. Louis metro region has been stagnant for decades. The minority population in Missouri hovers around 13 percent. To change that, and to change the politics of Missouri, St. Louis has to succeed and grow.

Crime, racism, a brain drain, poor neighborhoods and some questionable schools have hollowed out the city. Several city administrations have tried everything from big-ticket projects, such as the failed China Hub, to smaller developments, such as giving away massive property tax abatements to anyone willing to put up a building. Those efforts haven’t worked.

Mayor Tishaura Jones has vowed to upend the entire system.

She’s attacking crime by switching money from raw enforcement to crime prevention and early intervention. She’s stopped two Central Corridor developments by vetoing funding because the tax giveaways are too large. She’s bringing actual community members into planning positions.

St. Louis needs to cut crime, improve the schools and create jobs. But this time, it’s different, because the strategy is new and because there’s something to build upon. Community demands for police reform could help repair the awful relationship between city police and the residents they serve. If trust is rebuilt, more people will talk to cops. If more people talk, more crimes are solved or prevented.

There’s hope with the schools, too. U.S. News’ list of the 10 best public high schools in the state lists the city’s Metro Academic and Classical High School as No. 1, McKinley Classical Leadership Academy as No. 6. Most schools, though, are in much worse shape, largely because of systemic underfunding by the state and a tax base hollowed out by decades of corporate de-regulation. But there’s still something, however small, to build on.

The jobs situation is similar. Technology jobs and start-ups continue to grow in the Central Corridor’s CORTEX region, which came about as part of a co-operative agreement among four area universities. Billions are being poured into the North Side by Uncle Sam for the new National Geospatial Intelligence Agency headquarters. The city is about to come into about half a billion federal dollars as part of the American Rescue Act. All those are building blocks St. Louis can use to create new jobs and new growth.

None of this is easy. You don’t turn around decades of rot in a couple of years. But with the right leadership, St. Louis could be in a position to save itself, and save Missouri while it’s at it.

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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