If there was a nexus between the Black Lives Matter movement and the pussy-hat-wearing, International Day of Women post-Trump-election movement, it should have been the St. Louis Democratic primary for mayor on Tuesday.
St. Louis has never had a female mayor, and the top two candidates were Lyda Krewson, a 64-year-old white alderman with the endorsement of the problematic St. Louis Police Department, and Tishaura Jones, a 44-year-old black incumbent city treasurer active with Black Lives Matter since the Ferguson, Mo., uprising. In a city that is majority black, somehow Jones lost to Krewson by a mere 888 votes (30.4 percent to 32 percent), less than a city block. Her loss shines the light on how sexism, racism and incompetence by black political leadership continue to stymie black progress even in this age of “resistance.”
Jones, like Marilyn Mosby in Baltimore and Nina Turner in Cleveland, is part of a vanguard of black female activist-politicians who have arisen in the last several years to challenge the racial and gender status quo of major cities in America. St. Louis, despite being a majority-black city, has remained primarily in the hands of the white minority because whites have crossed party lines to coalesce around whatever white candidate is running for mayor, and city districts have been gerrymandered to diffuse black political power. Opportunities for black political advancement are few and far between, and this year’s mayoral race was one of those chances.
When Jones, whose prominence as St. Louis city treasurer skyrocketed because of her outspoken activism post-Ferguson, jumped into the race, conventional wisdom said that the top four black candidates would cancel one another out, allowing Krewson to win. As Jones gained in the polls, especially after ethering the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for systematic racism, and once she got the powerful endorsement of former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, one of the other black candidates, all of them men, needed to go. It was the only chance for St. Louis’ black residents to finally get progressive representation. It didn’t happen.
“I’m going to be honest: The men decided to stay in this race because of their ego. And where are we now? We still have the status quo candidate that’s going to be in that office for the next four years,” Jones said in an interview with the Post-Dispatch after the election.
The other main black candidates—Alderman Jeffery Boyd (who received 2.7 percent of the vote); Alderman Antonio French (15.8 percent), who shot to national stardom as one of the main must-follows on Twitter during Ferguson in 2014; and, finally, Lewis Reed, president of the Board of Alderman (18.3 percent), who had lost the mayor’s race in 2014 by almost 10 percent—needed to think of the collective good instead of their own political egos. Had just one of these men dropped out of the race, St. Louis would likely have elected its first African-American woman as mayor. Yet they persisted.
“I’m really disappointed that the ego, patriarchy and sexism won the day yesterday,” Jones told The Root. “When all the black candidates met before filing closed, only the black women decided to work together and support each other. When will we come together for the common good? Even if all the men in the race got together and decided to go with one male candidate, we would have had a much different outcome.”
To be fair, there is plenty of blame to go around for this debacle in St. Louis, and much of if is self-imposed wounds. Similar to the poor turnout in the first postriot Ferguson elections, there was a 6 percent increase in mayoral primary voters between the 2013 and 2017 elections, but it was still only 28 percent of eligible voters in the city. There are 196,150 registered voters in St. Louis, but only 55,635 turned out. It makes Jones’ 888-loss margin all the more disturbing.
Jones’ loss is symptomatic of a larger problem in the black community when it comes to navigating race and gender in state and municipal politics. All too often, while black male politicians want to maintain old lines of succession, patriarchy and Democratic Party politics, black women are locked out, and white voters, always willing to put race ahead of gender, stay winning.
That’s why 96 percent of black women rallied behind Hillary Clinton while 14 percent of black men voted for Donald Trump. That’s why the mostly male members of the Congressional Black Caucus could support white candidate Chris Van Hollen over a black woman, Donna Edwards, for the Senate from Maryland (one of the safest seats in the nation). Then say nothing when Van Hollen won and hired only one black senior staffer despite once representing a district that is 30 percent African American. Politically, black men are in “the sunken place.”
Quentin James, CEO of Collective PAC, an organization dedicated to raising money for progressive black candidates, raised money and sent out texts on behalf of Jones for mayor. James also wrote an angry op-ed about the sexist dynamics of the St. Louis race and pointed out to The Root that black progress can’t happen until we get candidates who are focused on black policy, not just their own power.
An African-American political observer of St. Louis politics who spoke on condition of anonymity was even more candid: “We fucking endorse white people and get nothing out of it! A random fucking white woman is mayor of St. Louis because black people can’t get their fucking act together.”
In the short term, St. Louis is the loser. Krewson will continue the city’s slow, long walk to political and economic irrelevance, and the city’s black majority will get blocked out of what passes for economic development. In the long term, this race should be a sobering lesson for the upcoming races in Miami, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, New York and dozens of other municipalities across America this year. Black political leaders need to become more organized and more sophisticated and recognize that low turnout and petty infighting are never a recipe for black empowerment.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story stated that Sen. Van Hollen had “hired no black staffers.” No Democratic senator who represents an area with more than 20 percent of African-American voters has hired any any African Americans for the positions of chief of staff, legislative director and communications director, commonly referred to as senior staff. Van Hollen has hired African-American staffers, and hired an African-American woman as director of external relations and community outreach, which has been deemed a senior staff position for his office.