First, a quick disclosure: I have contributed a significant amount of my personal time, and a little money, to the Jones campaign — my endorsement strives to be objective, but is not wholly disinterested.
Deep inequities, magnified by an unprecedented pandemic, economic recession, and nationwide civil unrest have brought our region to a crossroads. The status quo is intolerable and unsustainable. We can either make a long-overdue correction towards justice, equity and democracy, or remain the paradigmatic example of an American city ravaged by racism and unbridled capitalism.
I believe that Tishaura Jones is the leader to meet this moment. She’s a progressive visionary who had the courage to call for the closure of the workhouse and TIF/abatement reform since well before they were popular. She’s a proven executive who as treasurer, was able to wield limited powers creatively to set up baby bonds for children across St. Louis, a beautiful policy that progressives have been dreaming about for centuries. And at the end of the day, she’s the only candidate with the executive experience, citywide coalition, regional partnerships, and national network to transform our city.
Because make no mistake, St. Louis needs to make radical changes. We are trapped in cycles of violence, stagnation and cynicism which reflect crises of justice, equity and democracy. I’ll discuss each crisis and some solutions which Tishaura has proposed in turn.
St. Louis’ “justice” system is the single largest perpetrator of violence in our city. Our anachronistic model of policing and punishment was born out of slavery, and has destroyed thousands of lives over non-violent offenses, ripping detainees away from their jobs, friends and family, all without a trial. SLMPD is the deadliest police department (per capita) in the country, commissioned officers brag about beating up protestors and steal millions of tax payer dollars every year to boot. Underpaid correctional officers have presided over dehumanizing conditions in city jails, and fostered a toxic culture of neglect, abuse and retaliation. Far from deterring crime, the trauma created by the criminal “justice” system’s violence and cruelty has contributed to the city’s epidemic of violence. It has also left the system without a shred of legitimacy or credibility, which helps explain SLMPD’s abysmal 31% homicide solve rate. For all the money our city allocates to SLMPD, the police lack the key resource they need in order to reduce the violent crime rate: the trust of the community.
So, how do we break this cycle of violence? I think we have to start by interrogating a profoundly distorted definition of justice. Specifically, we need to shift from a punitive model which defines justice as a violent outcome — a sentence which erases offenders from our community — to a rehabilitative model which approaches justice as a healing process that perpetrators and survivors must go through, often together, in order to make amends for, and move forward from, a traumatic event. If that feels too idealistic though, here are a few more concrete steps our city can take to reduce violence and foster trust:
- Close the workhouse and dedicate the savings to funding case-management and wrap around support for detainees as they move in and out of the criminal legal system. Tishaura is the only candidate who has come out with a serious plan to CTW.
- Tishaura has also proposed defunding police overtime fraud and supports investing into alternative approaches to public safety such as: expanding diversion programs, establishing a robust victim services program, implementing cure violence with high fidelity, establishing a civilian, trauma informed investigative unit, and more. Cara’s record on re-envisioning public safety leaves much to be desired.
- Expand the Civilian Oversight Board’s investigative jurisdiction to include correctional abuse and incidents of fatal state violence. We can further strengthen it with the power to enforce subpoenas and by closing the loopholes which SLMPD’s Internal Affairs and Force Investigative Units abuse to avoid sharing civilian complaints. Tishaura understands that SLMPD’s disciplinary process is built for abuse, not accountability, and that St. Louisans deserve independent investigations of police misconduct.
- Our next mayor will also have an opportunity to centralize 911 dispatch in a Public Safety Access Point (PSAP) outside of the police department. This project, which Mayor Krewson’s administration has laid the groundwork for, could become a vehicle for equity if paired with state of the art dispatching protocols which default to a non-police response and empower callers to choose whether they want EMS, Fire, Police, Mental Health, and/or Community First Responders.
- Our next mayor also has the power to — through the Director of Public Safety — set new enforcement priorities. A directive setting out rigorous requirements which must be met before executing a custodial arrest represents an opportunity to partially decriminalize low-level misdemeanors like loitering, panhandling, and prostitution.
Breaking down a racist criminal legal system is just the first step towards racial equity. We cannot move forward until we recognize that extreme racial disparities are not natural or inevitable; they are a function of public policy. There’s a reason that every map of St. Louis — life expectancy, poverty, graduation rates, vacancy, evictions, air quality, etc. — looks the same. Centuries of oppression and disinvestment have taken their toll, feeding fear, cynicism and violence, and weakening the norms of trust and reciprocity that stable societies are built on. There is compelling research which suggests that racial segregation, inequality and municipal fragmentation have contributed to our region’s anemic economic growth.
Tishaura understands that equity is a precondition to sustainable growth, and that we have a moral and economic obligation to reinvest in North St. Louis. She’s ready to harness the opportunity presented by the American Rescue Plan’s half billion dollar stimulus to that end, and her plan for the federal stimulus funds is focused on delivering direct relief to St. Louisans and investing in public goods like “affordable housing, public transit, school renovation, free Wi-Fi, community centers, land remediation, upgrading 911 dispatch, workforce development and more.”
It’s worth pausing to contrast this with Alderman Spencer’s plan, because it really encapsulates the fundamental differences between the candidates. Whereas Tishaura’s plan is focused on meeting the needs of the people, Spencer’s three pronged “St. Louis Recovery Plan” (Housing Stabilization, Workforce Development, Small Business) is almost exclusively focused on the needs of the market. Though there’s certainly a place for market based solutions, the shortcomings of this approach are especially clear in the housing stabilization prong of her plan.
Instead of allocating funds to the affordable housing trust fund, Spencer’s plan would allocate roughly $50M to help gut rehabbers flip and rent properties for profit, and another $40M to homeowners for down payment assistance and home repair grants. In Alderwoman Spencer’s own words, the plan is focused on “making the buildings marketable” and “investing in the long-term health of our housing market.” I understand how, from a consultant’s perspective, it makes sense: housing supply expands, rents fall, basic neoclassical economics. But reality isn’t quite so tidy, and the investment seems premature at best, and a recipe for gentrification at worst.
To be clear, with the exception of giving gut rehabbers nearly 10% of our stimulus funds, I like most of Cara’s proposals. But its focus on the market leaves it with two massive blind spots: there’s no serious plan for direct relief, and there’s no menu of public projects and investments. Conversely, Tishaura’s plan has its priorities in order, really digging into the challenges of quickly delivering rental assistance to the families that need it most, and concluding that, “housing is a human right, and I will work to establish and fund a permanent rental assistance fund.”
I also appreciate that Tishaura describes her plan, which includes proposals ranging from a participatory budgeting process to free public wifi, as a starting point, recognizes that “process is policy,” and includes a form for public input. Tishaura also outlines a wide range of potential partnerships — with BiState, SLPS, and the Continuum of Care — to ensure the efficient and equitable distribution of funds. It may not include hard numbers, but it reflects the instincts of a leader committed to building strong coalitions and ensuring that stimulus expenditures are deeply aligned with the needs of the people.
Finally, it’s worth emphasizing that building a more equitable city goes far beyond the stimulus. In fact, because stimulus funds may only be spent through 2024, they are not a sustainable source for recurring operational costs. The annual costs of programs such as universal early childhood education, expanded remedial and technical education, workforce licensing and certification programs, operating and maintaining new shelters, housing, health clinics, and transit, etc. will need to be funded. If we’re serious about equity, that means that we need to be ready to take on a regressive tax regime which disproportionately burdens poor people, and a development strategy designed to funnel resources to wealthy developers. Specifically, we need to explore raising the taxes outlined in the “Funding our Future” prong of the people’s plan. These include taxes on corporate profits, executive compensation, capital gains, large non-profits and more.
Racial equity, in turn, is the first step towards realizing the promise of a democracy rooted in equality: “one person, one vote.” It hasn’t emerged as a salient issue in this campaign, but Tishaura’s commitment to convening a charter commission gives me real hope that we can finally get around to democratizing the city charter.
Various journalists and political scientists have observed that St. Louis’ fractured and decentralized political system renders it virtually ungovernable. I would tweak this insight slightly: our anachronistic charter, which vests principal budgeting authority in the Board of Estimate & Apportionment instead of the Board of Aldermen, and which delegates critical personnel decisions to a wholly independent process governed by the Civil Service Commission, was designed to insulate the levers of power from popular control. This has empowered elites, who have the resources to navigate the bureaucratic labyrinth, and explains why developers crowd the legislative agenda with countless TIFs and tax abatements while everyday educational, health, and housing tragedies go unaddressed.
We need to return power to the people, which means we need to reimagine broken and captured institutions, and redesign them for a robustly participatory democracy. While I don’t claim to have all the answers, I hope that a charter commission considers the following overdue changes:
- Budgets are moral documents which reflect our collective values and priorities. Unfortunately, the city’s budget has grown detached from the priorities of the people. In part, this is because the budget process unfolds in the form of a bureaucratic game, not an open, deliberative process. Potential reforms include those described in the “Building Inclusive Democracy” prong of the people’s plan.
- Unlike the vast majority of charters/constitutions, the City Charter does not provide for its own amendment, which instead is provided for in Article VI, Section 32(a) of the Missouri Constitution. We would be wise to adapt the County’s process, which provides for regular charter commissions.
- Ward reduction is almost upon us, and whether or not ReformSTL’s proposal for an independent redistricting commission passes (and I hope it does!), we will need to redesign the Board of Aldermen as a more functional body. I believe a charter commission should consider the pros and cons of at-large seats, synchronizing local elections w/ the national cycle, replacing the President of the Board of Aldermen with an internally elected speaker of the board, and further ethics, redistricting, and voting reform.
- Finally, we may need to update the city charter in order to realize the promise of local control of the police department. While Prop A placed SLMPD under nominal city authority in 2012, we have yet to wrest full operational and budgetary control. A few changes to consider include: empowering the Mayor to appoint the chief and their senior staff, transferring SLMPD’s problem properties, traffic enforcement, prisoner processing, juvenile, budgeting, supply, IT, communications and other units into the corresponding city departments, and democratizing the civil service commission which, per the local control statute, has “exclusive authority” over police discipline.
Tishaura Jones has an opportunity to channel powerful forces of change into the transformation of city government from an instrument of the elite into a champion for progress. Our city doesn’t need yet another consultant — we’ve got plenty of plans — we need a leader with the courage and coalition to implement them.
We can be a city that makes headlines, not just for our real challenges, but for modeling bold, innovative solutions. We can rein in and defund an out of control police department, and move towards a more humane correctional system. We can wrap our arms around our most vulnerable communities instead of criminalizing them. We can build bus rapid transit, free public wi-fi, greenways, community centers and gardens across our city. We can redesign a charter built for popular containment with budgetary and legislative processes built for popular empowerment. If we’re very lucky, we could even get a chance to redesign our region through a people’s convention empowered to abolish municipal courts and police departments, and pool regional sales, earnings and property taxes.
But that’s years down the line at best. In this moment, I implore anyone who remains undecided to simply listen to black voters, who have spoken, and in no uncertain terms. They understand that Cara will not drive the kind of change that their communities need. She may have progressive values, but she has technocratic instincts, and will, at best, win incremental change. At worst, she will fall right into well worn patterns at city hall, establishing an adversarial and dysfunctional relationship with the Board of Aldermen.
Conversely, Tishaura Jones’ multi-racial working class coalition offers our region a new path forward. She has allies on the Board of Aldermen, including strong support among both the progressive and black caucus, at the Board of Estimate and Apportionment, in the County Executive’s office, and at the state and national level. This speaks to what is perhaps Tishaura’s greatest gift: her ability to transcend historical divides.
I am hopeful that as Mayor, Tishaura will do just that, transcending the false choices between justice and safety, equity and growth, democracy and diversity, city and county. I believe that she can synthesize these in the name of a greater vision, and build a more equitable and sustainable future out of a present teeming with contradictions.
Tishaura is ready to govern, and ready to unify our city. Her diverse coalition represents our region’s greatest hope. Vote accordingly.
- Please for the love of god vote to renew the earnings tax. I wrote about this at length last time around.
- I live in the 6th ward, and don’t get to vote for alder this cycle, but I support #FlipTheBoard.
- School Board: I don’t have kids, and really listen to parents I trust on this, but I’ll be voting for Alisha Sonnier and Natalie Vowell. I’m torn between David Merideth and Daffney Moore for my third vote and will make up my mind on Tuesday.
- MSD: I will be voting for Prop Y and Props 1, 2, 3, 4. I’m not entirely convinced by 5, and am currently plan to vote no until I hear a good reason to support it. There are plenty of good auditing firms and I think it’s healthy to get a new perspective every 5 years.
- Comptroller: the race is uncontested, but I adore Comptroller Green, who has been one of the few bright spots in city government for a long time. I’m looking forward to seeing her and Tishaura work together to reprioritize the city budget at E&A.