The day after Tishaura Jones lost the Democratic primary for mayor of St. Louis this week, her hometown newspaper published an editorial suggesting that “a dose of humility” might have made her more appealing to voters.
The finger-wagging missive seems to have misread voters’ reaction to Jones in Tuesday’s election. It was because of her bold dis of the political establishment, in particular the editorial board of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, that she nearly pulled off a stunning upset, coming in second just 888 votes behind the front-running candidate — a difference of two percentage points — in her quest to make history as the city’s first female mayor.
“I feel like ego, patriarchy and sexism won the day and in the end St. Louis lost,” Jones, the city’s treasurer, said in an interview with The Washington Post.
Given that the winner of the primary is a woman, Lyda Krewson, a longtime alderman, Jones’s sexism argument might seem to lack merit. But Jones, 44, is African American and in addition to chafing at media references to her “temperament,” she is particularly disappointed that three black men refused to quit the race, splitting the black vote and possibly costing her the election.
She is not the only one who feels that way.
“How to Stop a Black Woman Becoming Mayor? Use Black Men,” read a critique of the contest by the Collective PAC, a progressive group that supported Jones.
“Black Male Ego Sinks Black Woman Magic in St. Louis Election,” declared a headline on a column for the Root.
“She was clearly the most qualified candidate and the brothers just wouldn’t let her have it,” said Symone D. Sanders, a Democratic strategist. “The brothers did not have the capable, competent and qualified sister’s back.”
Jones served in the Missouri House of Representatives for four years before becoming the city’s treasurer and has been involved in city politics since at least 2002.
Her campaign became a cause celebre for progressives and grass-roots activists around the country after she scorched the Post-Dispatch editorial board in an open letter in which she refused to meet with the members and seek their endorsement.
She called out the editorial page editor for a column in which he said the mayoral candidates needed to “address blight and abate the graffiti that’s killing our city.”
Jones wrote: “What is killing our city is poverty. … What is killing our region is a systemic racism that pervades almost every public and private institution, including your newspaper, and makes it nearly impossible for either North St. Louis or the parts of South St. Louis where African Americans live to get better or safer or healthier or better-educated.” She then laid out her proposals for attacking racial and economic disparities, including criminal justice reforms, increasing the minimum wage and expanding transportation and creating laws to protect tenants.
Jones said she wrote the letter because she had grown increasingly frustrated with the way she was covered by the news media. Stories questioned whether she spent too much time traveling at taxpayers’ expense and often referred to her father’s year-long prison stint for tax fraud. Jones has countered that her travel to check out other cities helped her generate revenue and improve services.
“I describe it as my Fannie Lou Hamer moment,” Jones said, referring to the Mississippi civil rights activist. “I was sick and tired of being jumped on and kicked in the head by our local newspaper editorial board.”
“I was the only black woman left standing. I was attacked more than any other candidate by the local news outlet,” she said. “From my vantage point, as I looked at the attacks, it was laced with the old cover terms people like to use when describing strong women, especially strong black women: She has a bad attitude, she exhibits a bad temperament, those code words, which were written in editorials. The last one said I needed a dose of humility.”
The letter could have blown up in her face, made her appear too radical. Instead, it was widely shared on social media and drew coverage and commentary from liberal online publications. Jones said it marked a turning point for her campaign.
“A lot of people came up to me and said ‘I really appreciate your words, they really spoke to me,’ ” she said. “Our fundraising went through the roof. In 48 hours, we raised $36,000.”
The Collective PAC held a fundraiser for her and sent nearly 24,000 text messages on her behalf to registered black millennial voters in St. Louis. Higher Heights for America, a national group working to get more black women elected to office, promoted Jones’s candidacy on its platforms and rallied women around the country to support her. (In the days after the primary, Higher Heights used the 888-vote difference between Jones and Krewson as a fundraising appeal, urging contributions of $8.88, $88.80 or $888.00. It also encouraged supporters to “Thank Tishaura for running an amazing campaign.”)
Jones’s supporters included Jason Kander, the former Democratic Missouri secretary of state who mounted a surprisingly strong challenge to Republican Sen. Roy Blunt; the Service Employees International Union, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and Mobilize Missouri, a group that grew out of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) presidential primary organization in the state.
Polls showed Jones started out with just a single-digit percentage of potential voter support and in the bottom half of the pack in January. She believes that with a little more time she might have been able to overtake Krewson, an alderman for 20 years who was endorsed by the city’s police union and the outgoing mayor, who had been in office for 16 years. Krewson spent $1.5 million to Jones’s $400,000. Krewson, who is white, got 32 percent of the vote, and Jones got 30 percent, with the other five candidates far behind.
Jones and others think she also might have prevailed had at least one of the three men in the race stepped aside and thrown his support behind her. African Americans make up 49 percent of the city’s residents, whites make up 42 percent, and other races and ethnicities make up 7 percent.
Shortly before the filing deadline, Jones said, Donald Suggs, the owner and publisher of the St. Louis American, the city’s African American weekly, gathered the black candidates together to urge them to winnow their numbers. The only candidate who agreed to sit out the race was Jamilah Nasheed, a state senator.
“In the end, black women stuck together and the black male candidates chose their egos over representative democracy,” said Jessica Byrd, who runs Three Points Strategies and worked on Jones’s campaign. “We missed a huge moment to respond to the time we’re in with the boldest candidate and the one who was chosen by the people.”
Antonio French, an alderman who gained national attention for sending dispatches via social media of the protests roiling the streets of Ferguson, Mo., after the 2014 fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, also was a candidate in the Democratic primary. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch endorsed him.
French dismissed Jones’s argument that his refusing to drop out of the race was motivated by sexism.
“Jones consistently polled in 4th place. It’s hard to ask other candidates to drop out for a candidate polling lower than them,” French said via text. He also said that “a lot of negative ‘Bernie Bros’-style attackings coming from her supporters towards the other black candidates, it really made it tough to negotiate for consensus.”
French came in fourth in the election.
French and Jones did agree on one thing: The abysmal, 28 percent turnout should be a concern for all of the candidates.
“It’s hard to elect change, or even hold status quo accountable, when so few people participate,” French said. “That’s really what black Democrats need to be working on before the next election.”
Jones said: “We had only 28 percent of the electorate show up — 55,000 votes in an electorate of almost 200,000. We need to be seriously looking at ourselves on that.”
She said that despite the outcome, she was energized by the experience and will work to keep the coalition that supported her engaged on the issues she raised in the campaign. “I still have my position as treasurer, and now everybody is watching St. Louis,” she said.
“I see this not as the end, but the beginning, and I’m looking forward to using this platform and continuing to use my office to make people’s lives better,” she said. “A title is good, but win or lose I was gonna stay engaged anyway. The work doesn’t stop.”