Two weeks later, Tishaura Jones spent a quiet weekend with her family. In the process, she became the first St. Louis mayor in decades to skip the city’s Fourth of July parade, an event long sponsored by a group with a dubious racial record. St. Louis would need to have some “tough conversations,” Jones said, before she felt comfortable joining the party.
The tale of the two weekends in many ways encapsulates the young tenure of St. Louis’s history-making mayor: The 49-year-old unapologetically embraces her Black identity, champions progressive policy ideas long dismissed as fringe and doesn’t seem to mind who she might alienate along the way.
At a time when other public officials are desperately hoping for a return to normal after more than a year of pandemic-spawned upheaval, Jones is rowing hard in the other direction.
“We’re trying to break people out of normal,” said Jones, sitting amid the faded grandeur of City Hall. “Whatever normal was, that didn’t work for a lot of St. Louis.”
In that pursuit, Jones has growing company. This has been, in many respects, a difficult year for the progressive left of the Democratic Party: Adherents have been marginalized in Washington policy debates. They have been shut out of statewide office. And they fell short in the nation’s marquee mayoral race. In the early Biden era, the moderates have had the momentum.
But the story is different in struggling cities like St. Louis, where voters have, in recent months, rewarded the candidate most willing to try to shake up the status quo.
Jones took office in April, having beaten both moderate and progressive rivals this spring.
Then, in quick succession, challengers from the left dethroned Democratic incumbents in Pittsburgh, Rochester and Buffalo. In Buffalo’s case, the Democratic nominee, India Walton, would become the first self-proclaimed socialist leader of a major American city in half a century should she win the November general election, as is widely expected.
What those places have in common, said St. Louis activist Kayla Reed, is that they are all “migration cities” — destinations for African Americans fleeing the agricultural South in favor of the industrial North during the 20th century. But after decades of discrimination, many of their descendants remain locked in a seemingly permanent underclass.
Now, a year on from the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the mass movement for social justice that followed, those communities are flexing their political muscle to demand leaders who invest in underserved neighborhoods, address long-standing racial disparities and confront police brutality.
“There aren’t 100,000 people in the streets anymore,” said Reed, who got her start in activism after the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson. But there are activists and groups willing to put their energies behind candidates whose politics align with the movement, as she did with the Jones campaign.
“All of that background,” said Reed, who campaigned relentlessly for the new mayor, “creates the reality where Tishaura wins.”
Whether Jones — or any of the others favored by voters in recent months — can succeed in implementing policies to match their rhetoric carries implications not only for their cities but for progressive politics across America.
Early indications from Jones’s first three months in office suggest that the change in St. Louis over the coming four years could be dramatic. But whether the city is on course to benefit, or further deteriorate, is a subject of sharp disagreement.
The city can ill afford the latter. At the dawn of the last century, “the Gateway to the West” was a place of global renown, host to both a World’s Fair and an Olympic Games, with a lavish city hall modeled after the one in Paris. By 1950, nearly 900,000 people called St. Louis home.
The city is almost evenly split between White and Black, and the divisions are stark. While some predominantly White sections of St. Louis are affluent — the McCloskeys aimed their guns at protesters outside a mansion in the city’s posh Central West End last summer — the almost exclusively Black north side has suffered. There, abandoned homes and vacant lots are a fixture of the landscape, and residents say gunshots are part of the daily soundtrack.
“St. Louis faces some real challenges. We’ve lost employers. We continue to lose population. The homicide rates are up,” said Anita Manion, who teaches politics at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. “We’ve been in decline for a long time.”
But the combination of Jones’s election and an influx of half a billion dollars in federal funds under the Biden administration’s pandemic relief plan has raised expectations that the city’s fortunes could be changing.
“This,” Manion said, “is a big moment for St. Louis.”
Despite a long record in St. Louis politics that included stints as a state representative and city treasurer, Jones campaigned as an anti-establishment candidate who posed a simple question to voters: “Does the current situation work for you?”
Residents, particularly those on the north side, answered that it did not.
“North St. Louis has been forgotten,” said Sharon Adkins, a 68-year-old retiree who said she has watched with alarm as her longtime neighborhood has become increasingly dilapidated. “We needed a mayor for the whole city, not just the Central West End or the south side.”
Jones — raised on the north side, where she still lives as a single mother to a teenage son — has repeatedly promised to be that leader, saying that “cranes in the sky” above the north side are her ultimate aim.
In neighborhoods where weeds grow thick among the potholes of long-neglected streets, it seems a distant prospect. But since her election, which made her the first Black female mayor in St. Louis history, she has moved quickly to prove she’s serious about changing the city’s priorities.
She has cut $4 million of police funding, and shifted it to social services. She has pressed the city council — known as the Board of Aldermen — to deliver $5 million of federal aid directly into the hands of the city’s most vulnerable, and threatened to veto any aid legislation that doesn’t fulfill that mission.
“It’s the number one way we can help people,” Jones said in the City Hall interview. “There aren’t that many problems that giving people more money won’t fix.”
To Reed, the activist, it is the best she could have hoped for.
“She’s kept her promises,” said Reed, who served on Jones’s transition committee and who leads Action St. Louis, an advocacy group. “She’s moving with urgency and clarity.”
But to the mayor’s many critics, it’s movement in the wrong direction.
After Jones unveiled her police cuts, Republican state legislators threatened to convene a special session to force her to back down. The city’s police union, meanwhile, has been outspoken about the harm that it feels Jones’s plans will do to an already beleaguered force.
“Morale is at an all-time low,” said Jane Dueker, attorney for the St. Louis Police Officers Association. “That’s not what you need in a crime wave.”
Budget cuts, Dueker said, will actually do the opposite of what Jones hopes to achieve, by taking police officers out of communities and giving them little chance to rebuild relationships that have been badly strained since the uprising in Ferguson following Brown’s killing by a White officer.
“The officers go from murder call to murder call,” Dueker said. “That’s all they do.”
While Republicans and police unions would be expected to oppose Jones’s plans, she has also found herself out of step with fellow Democrats.
Even as Jones was defending her police cuts this month, President Biden was hosting a group of mayors at the White House to advocate greater spending on law enforcement. Among those on the invite list was Eric Adams, the former police captain who won New York City’s Democratic mayoral primary last month on a platform of cracking down on crime and resisting activist calls to “defund the police.”
Within St. Louis, too, Jones has faced resistance from her party. In the heavily Democratic city, there are no Republicans on the Board of Aldermen. But Jones’s election has deepened the schism between progressive and moderate Democrats.
The moderates, led by Board President Lewis Reed, pushed back against Jones’s police cuts — and managed to add back money that makes up for the department’s losses. They also fought the mayor’s plan to send millions in direct payments to residents, arguing that it was dangerously ill-defined. After an epic and acrimonious 12-hour meeting, the mayor got her way — though the ultimate fate of the money remains unresolved.
Moderate board members complain privately that Jones has been unwilling to compromise. But they also fear publicly crossing her, lest she take aim at them on Twitter or stage a City Hall news conference to call them out by name, as she has with Reed.
To Jones and her allies, the political winds are at their backs.
“There’s a changing of the guard,” said Megan Green, a progressive board member who has led efforts to unseat moderates. “The entrenched establishment that we’ve had in this city is losing power.”
That’s new for St. Louis, Green said, and she doesn’t expect the transition to continue without a fight.
“Any time there’s been the possibility of a progressive, multiracial governing coalition, there is very intentional work to dismantle it,” she said.
The city’s annual Fourth of July parade is connected to one notorious example: The celebration is sponsored by the Veiled Prophet Organization, which historians say was founded as a secret society of White elites in the late 19th century to halt a populist drive for social and economic justice.
That history of thwarted change may help explain why Jones has often dug in when challenged, rather than cut a deal.
Asked about the White House meeting at which Biden urged more spending on police, she politely but firmly dissented.
“That’s just not an area where we’re going to agree,” she said. “It’s not about having more cops.”
Instead, Jones has emphasized the need for greater spending on social services and mental health. She visited Denver this month to study the city’s program for employing social workers to respond to certain 911 calls.
“We’re all about getting to the root causes of violence, and most of them are about poverty,” said Heather Taylor, a former St. Louis police sergeant who is advising the mayor on public safety. “We have not gotten anywhere by trying to arrest our way out of violent crime.”
Taylor, who grew up on the north side of St. Louis and served 20 years on the city’s police force, said the police need better training and smarter tactics, not more money. But she also acknowledged that change will take time, and that residents want urgent relief from the crime battering their communities.
That’s particularly true on the north side, where much of the city’s violent crime is concentrated.
“There are shootings everywhere,” said Laine Jackson, a retired government worker and north side resident. “I have seven kids. None of them live in the city. Who would want to live here?”
Jackson had turned out at her neighborhood Baptist church on a Wednesday evening to hear her mayor lay out plans for turning St. Louis around. Even before Jones spoke, she was given a standing ovation, and she was given another when she finished.
In between, she urged people to get their coronavirus shots and told them how to apply for mortgage relief. She promised greater funding for senior centers and teen job programs. She assured the crowd that those potholes would get filled.
The city had never, in recent memory, had the money it needed. But with federal covid aid pouring in, Jones was able to offer her fellow citizens some hope for brighter days ahead.
And Jackson, for one, was ready to ever-so-cautiously believe.
“There’s a lot of trouble in this city. A lot,” she said. “But this mayor is really trying. It ain’t an overnight thing.”