Hazel Erby, A Towering Figure In St. Louis County Politics, Dies At 75
By her own admission, Hazel Erby wasn’t the most obvious choice to become the first Black woman to serve on the St. Louis County Council.
The University City native had served as a committeewoman when Charlie Dooley vacated the 1st District council seat after being appointed county executive. As Erby recounted, she was “drafted” into a role in which she would make a seismic impact on county policy and politics.
“I attended a meeting one morning, I was it,” she said during a 2014 episode of Politically Speaking. “I was the candidate.”
Erby died Friday at age 75. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2018 but continued to serve as councilwoman, then as the county’s first director of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Scores of people paid tribute to her political and policy leadership, including Rita Days — her successor on the council.
“It’s going to be a void,” said Days, D-Bel Nor.
From committeewoman to political leader
Erby, a graduate of Vashon High School, attended Lincoln University and Harris-Stowe State University. In addition to holding a multitude of professional jobs helping seniors and people with substance abuse, Erby served as the committeewoman for University Township for a number of years.
After she succeeded Dooley in 2004, she played a major role in a multitude of policy debates — most notably an effort to establish benchmarks for racial minorities and women to be a part of county construction projects. Those efforts paid off in 2018.
“It’s been a long journey,” Erby said in 2018. “I appreciate the accolades, but I’ve had excellent support from people in the community who fought for this for a long, long time. They worked with me to draft the legislation, because I didn’t know about figures or whatever. I just knew that it wasn’t fair. We needed to level the playing field.”
Perhaps Erby’s defining moment as a public figure came in 2014, right after a Ferguson police officer shot and killed Michael Brown.
The shooting came days after a bitter Democratic primary that saw Steve Stenger defeat Dooley. Erby eventually led a group of Black political leaders in a group called the Fannie Lou Hamer Coalition that took the unprecedented step of endorsing Stenger’s Republican opponent, Rick Stream.
Mike Jones, a longtime aide to Dooley and observer of regional politics, said that moment was critical in galvanizing and organizing Black people into a force to be reckoned with.
“I think it opened the door or paved the road for the next generation of Black leadership that is emerging and is more policy-based, more goal-centered,” Jones said. “And I think without Hazel Erby, there would have been no Fannie Lou Hamer. I don’t think any of that would have been possible.”
Stream ended up losing narrowly to Stenger in November 2014. And Erby entered 2015 as the only person on the council who was an opponent of Stenger. But over time, more and more of the council joined with Erby to fight Stenger’s agenda — until 2019, when seven out of seven members were considered Stenger adversaries.
Both Days and Jones pointed out that Erby was adept at attracting powerful coalitions.
“And it was not necessarily a coalition of like minds,” Days said. “She was trying to bring people together who maybe were not of like mind, and try to get the best product out of whatever it is that we needed. And what is best for the community. And I think that’s her legacy.”
When Stenger resigned while facing corruption charges, some Black political leaders wanted Erby to be his successor. The council instead chose Sam Page, who subsequently appointed her director of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. But the two former allies had a bitter falling-out. And Erby ended up filing a pending discrimination lawsuit against the county after she was dismissed from her job.
“Hazel Erby was a passionate advocate for those she represented,” Page said in a tweet Friday. “My thoughts are with Hazel’s family.”
An ongoing legacy
Erby was part of a group of powerful Black women who hold significant political influence in the St. Louis region. It includes U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, D-St. Louis County, and St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones.
“Hazel Erby was a trailblazer for Black women in elected office in this region,” Tishaura Jones said in a tweet.
She also served as a mentor to scores of elected and nonelected political figures throughout the years. Mike Jones said what made Erby unique among elected officials was how “her moral compass was the foundation of her politics.”
“She was not a transactional politician,” Mike Jones said. “And even if you were to disagree with her at a tactical or strategic level, the one thing you could never question is her motives. And that’s unique in this business. I think that’s what made her special and that’s why she’ll be remembered.”
While Mike Jones said Erby’s legacy is set within St. Louis County politics, he adds she holds an important place in the history of Black politics in St. Louis County.
“At the end of the day, if they ever build a Mount Rushmore for that — she’ll be one of the four,” he said.
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum