Missouri state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal
Courtesy of Maria Chappelle-Nadal

As a child, Missouri state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal suffered from a severe speech impediment that prevented her from speaking clearly.

“There was a disconnection somewhere. What was coming out of my mouth did not match what was in my head,” she told The Root. “R’s came out as W’s; O’s came out as ‘oos.’ I was always insecure, and I am still, about speaking in public and being judged if things came out of my mouth the wrong way.” Years of speech therapy, coupled with singing and public speaking in school, helped her overcome her speech impediment.

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When 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by then-Ferguson, Mo., Police Officer Darren Wilson last year, Chappelle-Nadal, 40, clearly had no problem speaking up for the people in Ferguson, one of the districts she serves.

“When Ferguson happened, there was nothing left to hold back. My tongue was no longer tied,” she said. “I let it all go, not caring who I was going to offend when it came to the status quo or the establishment within St. Louis’ political infrastructure.”  

The senator traveled from her home in St. Louis to join protesters in Ferguson, where she emerged on the national scene as one of several African-American political leaders seeking to improve the racial and economic climate for residents in the area.

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“I just showed up on day one. There was a kid who just got killed, and his body was in the street for four-and-a-half hours,” she said. “I made a conscious decision that as people are hurting, I’m going to be there for them and make sure that I’m a voice, because I know what it’s like not to have a voice.”

A native of University City, Mo., Chappelle-Nadal says that her cultural and ethnic roots help explain her personality and outspokenness. Her father, Alonzo Chappelle, who died in 2008, was African American and a city marshal in St. Louis. Her mother, Cecilia Nadal, who is Puerto Rican, has held several titles, including teacher and business owner.

“My mouth is totally Puerto Rican; that’s why you can’t put me in a box, and if you add that to me being black, you will also be put in your place,” she said. “You’re not going to tell me what to say or think. I’m going to talk about what I’m thinking and feeling.”

Chappelle-Nadal’s first elected office was as a member of the Missouri House of Representatives, which she held from 2004 to 2010. In 2010 she was one of four directors elected to the University City Board of Education, a district that serves approximately 3,200 students.

At age 35 she was elected to the Missouri Senate, with an office overlooking the bluffs near Round Prairie Township, Mo., where her third great-grandmother, Maria Robnitt), worked as a slave and then an indentured servant. In 1870, when she was 35, Robnitt was included in the first census that counted former slaves.

“I am representing her and I am taking full ownership of every right that is given to me but was taken from her,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “I want to leave a legacy as a person who was fearless, courageous, a fighter, and one who is willing to uncover what needs to be uncovered for justice.”

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Mark Odom, who is Chappelle-Nadal’s mentor and has known her for 15 years, said she is “one of the most humble people” he has ever met.

“People said that she wouldn’t get a college education, and she did. Folks said she wasn’t politically connected enough to win a successful state representative bid, and she did. They said she couldn’t win a school board race and a state senatorial bid in the same year, but she did,” said Odom.

Carol Smith, library director at Adams State University in Alamosa, Colo., has known the senator since 2008 and calls her a personal role model and hero. “Anyone who meets her recognizes that she is one of those unique politicians who actually possesses all the qualities we desire but all too rarely see in politicians,” she said. “She’s principled, she is courageous, she is honest and she has sincere concern for others.”

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The senator has frequently criticized Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, expressing her anger regarding his absence in the community and failure to visit Ferguson in the days following Brown’s death. She has addressed him on national cable networks such as CNN and MSNBC, during protests and particularly on Twitter.

Chappelle-Nadal said that she eventually had to make a choice between protesting the injustices faced by people in Ferguson and the surrounding area and using her position to do something about it. “I refuse to be a part of the status quo. I refuse to be silent, to uphold a system, to support a system that will allow denigration of other people,” she said.

After the Department of Justice released a report on March 4 highlighting the widespread racial bias of the Ferguson Police Department, Chappelle-Nadal called for the resignation of Police Chief Tom Jackson and disbandment of the Ferguson Police Department and suggested that Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III step down.

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“The DOJ report was truthful … and revealing to those that have been living blindly and in comfort,” she said. “To people that have lived the Ferguson reality, nothing new was revealed.”

After the report, several officials resigned, including city manager John Shaw, municipal Judge Ronald Brockmeyer, Police Chief Thomas Jackson and two police officers. In addition, Court Clerk Mary Ann Twitty and three other employees were fired.

In the last three months, she has introduced several bills that not only will ensure that police interactions with citizens focus on de-escalation but also will restrict the use of deadly force, protect protesters, and level economic and educational opportunities.

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The day Jackson resigned, she sponsored the Fair and Impartial Policing Act, S.B. 559. The policy was designed, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, to remove racial discrimination from police practices and tactics. The act includes mandates such as documentation of pedestrian stops, training on racial bias, and the creation of partnerships between law enforcement and community groups to build trust.

“I will do whatever is within my power to advance what benefits the entire region that I represent,” she said. “I use my voice to execute a plan. Sometimes it takes a verbal agitator to realize true change.”