It’s been nearly 100 days since St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones stood on the white marble staircase of City Hall’s rotunda and was sworn in as mayor — becoming the first Black woman to hold the position.
The city has not always protected its children, she said in her inauguration speech, nor has it fought for every neighborhood or put equity at the center of the city’s planning and development.
St. Louis is a highly divided city. The northern half has suffered decades of disinvestment, while other areas in the city have benefitted from tax incentives for development and job creation. North St. Louis — where Jones grew up and currently lives — is also about 90 percent Black.
Jones promised voters that as mayor she would “transform our city,” yet she acknowledged that it wouldn’t be easy.
“I am aware that I am walking into an office that is tasked with working to solve some of our most pressing challenges: lack of opportunity for our most vulnerable, a broken criminal justice system and a fractured region,” she said.
Now as she nears the 100-day milestone, Jones reflected on how true those words were during an interview with The Independent.
She points to early progress on a number of fronts — shifting $4 million away from police to fund social programs, zeroing out the budget of the controversial jail known as the Workhouse and fixing a barrier for the city’s civilian oversight board to review complaints against police officers.
But none came without drama, with Jones fending off criticism from state officials over accusations she was trying to “defund the police,” grappling with city officials who oppose closing the Workhouse and tussling with the Board of Aldermen president over her plans for federal stimulus funds.
Jones says she’s spent her first days navigating tricky relationships and conflicts, while making sure she shows up 100 percent for the community.
“On Juneteenth, which we celebrated for the first time on a large scale in the city this year, I did six events from 9:30 to 9:30 — with a wardrobe and makeup change in the middle,” Jones said, laughing. “But I’m enjoying the fast pace of it and enjoying how every day is different.”
But the problem Jones says will be her biggest battle, and what may define her legacy as mayor, is gun violence and the city’s record-breaking homicide rate.
And the tools at her disposal to deal with that problem, Jones said, are limited.
“Our gun laws are so lax,” she said. “If you’re over 18, all you need is a valid driver’s license and you can drive to any gun show in St. Charles and get a weapon. Since taking away people’s guns is not an option, we have to address it at the root cause.”
Public safety showdown
Before delving into city politics, Jones served two terms as a state representative, where she became the first Black woman to serve as assistant minority floor leader.
Some of the relationships she formed during her time serving in Jefferson City remain.
For example, with Missouri Gov. Mike Parson.
“The governor and I have a decent relationship because we served together,” Jones said, noting Parson was a state senator when she was in the House. “So it’s pretty much rebuilding that relationship.”
In her first week as mayor, Jones and her team traveled to Jefferson City to meet with the governor and lieutenant governor. Parson tweeted that it was “great to meet” with Jones and her team, naming public safety as one of the topics they discussed.
That relationship was put to the test last month, when Republican lawmakers called on Parson to convene a special session aimed at preventing St. Louis and Kansas City from “defunding” their police departments. Some St. Louis-area legislators have even gone so far as to float the idea of pushing for the state to retake control of St. Louis’ police department.
So far, Parson has not acted on the calls for a special session. But Republican lawmakers already passed legislation that prevents municipalities from decreasing their law enforcement budgets by more than 12 percent over five years.
Parson signed that bill into law last week.
“We’re truly worried that by taking resources away from our law enforcement officers, especially when they need it the most, violent crime will skyrocket,” Rep. Nick Schroer, R-O’Fallon, said at a press conference last month with other suburban GOP elected officials..
At the press conference, Wildwood Mayor Jim Bowlin said that although he didn’t support the idea of “defunding the police,” he was supportive of trying initiatives that would address mental illness and drug addiction differently.
Jones recently sat down with Bowlin and explained more about her public-safety plans and the challenges the city faces with crime.
“We have to address all of the root causes behind why people feel the need to pick up a gun and shoot other people in their neighborhoods,” she said. “You can’t cure the symptom; you have to cure the disease.”
Last summer, a 70-member St. Louis commission — that includes leaders in policing and advocacy groups — issued a recommendation to establish a “civilian public safety response network.” This would allow 911 callers to access mental health workers, community health workers, and social workers to respond to calls that are not about crime.
In a recent interview with The Independent, Bowlin agreed with allocating funding towards that purpose.
“It’s unfair to our police officers to expect them to be a counselor, a social worker and everything else,” he said.
But Jones is going to have a hard time convincing Bowlin — and other suburban leaders — that cutting the police budget to do this will lower crime, he said.
Even though it’s only $4 million out of the police department’s $160 million budget — or about 2 percent — that money should stay within the department, Bowlin said.
“I don’t think you don’t have to rob one to take care of the other, particularly with the federal funds coming into the municipalities,” he said.
While they didn’t entirely agree, Jones said these kinds of conversations were important.
“It’s having these in-person conversations that really tamps down on a lot of the angst and the vitriol that goes back and forth,” she said.
Her goal is to continue to “reach across the aisle” as she did as a state legislator, she said. But it’s a different time, she added, and divisions run deeper.
She said the most difficult part of her job so far had been navigating some of the relationships and the “possible minefields” of the regional leaders.
“These aren’t established relationships,” Jones said. “So just trying to level set, I would say, is the most difficult part.”
Relief funds tussle
The potential political landmines Jones is navigating aren’t reserved only for suburban Republicans.
Her $81 million proposal for the federal American Rescue Plan Act relief funds — including giving $500 to about 10,000 struggling families — resulted in a 10-hour debate at the Board of Aldermen.
Jones initiated a “participatory budgeting” process that invited the community to help decide how the federal relief funds should be spent, eliciting thousands of public comments.
Last week, aldermen passed a bill that largely held intact the mayor’s $80 million proposal for the federal money — with $6.75 million going towards public health and vaccination efforts, $63 million for direct relief, housing and utility assistance, and $14.5 million for violence intervention programs, youth programming and jobs development.
But that bill is held up indefinitely.
Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed added a provision to earmark $53 million for economic development in north St. Louis. However, the city’s attorney says it didn’t specify how it relates to the negative impact of the pandemic, leading the mayor and the comptroller to argue that they can’t approve the bill as it currently stands because it could lead to penalties from the federal government.
Now the mayor and comptroller are waiting to see if Reed will call the aldermen back for a meeting to amend the bill. But in a statement on Friday, Reed said, “There is nothing in the bill that is illegal.”
“The mayor is now insisting on removing language from the bill to stop funds from being set aside for small businesses and economic empowerment in areas of north St. Louis that were hit hardest by COVID-19,” Reed said.
Jones supports investment for North St. Louis, she said, but bill language needs fixing. On Monday, her spokesman said she is “exploring all options” to move forward the emergency relief money for vaccination clinics, homelessness and housing assistance.
St. Louis Comptroller Darlene Green said in a statement that “this kind of brinkmanship is a pattern,” pointing to when Reed blocked the passage of last year’s budget that included emergency housing assistance as well.
Green believes Jones is living up to the promises she made to voters during her campaign.
“She is making a good impression,” Green said, “because she’s shown she is serious about doing the work and tackling the big issues affecting our community.”
This article by Rebecca Rivas is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.