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Government, Politics & Issues

Mayoral Debate Gets Testy, Pushes Candidates To Reflect On St. Louis’ Racial Divide

St. Louis Mayoral candidates Cara Spencer (left) and Tishaura Jones on Tuesday, March 30, 2021 participated in a debate hosted by St. Louis Public Radio, Nine PBS, 5 On Your Side and the St. Louis American.
David Kovaluk
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St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis mayoral candidates Cara Spencer (left) and Tishaura Jones on Tuesday participated in a debate Tuesday hosted by St. Louis Public Radio, Nine PBS, 5 On Your Side and the St. Louis American.

The final televised debate before Tuesday’s St. Louis mayoral election featured several combative exchanges between Treasurer Tishaura Jones and Alderwoman Cara Spencer, with each candidate sharply questioning how their opponent ran their campaigns and served in office.

But perhaps the most striking moment of the debate was the two candidates’ reflections on St. Louis’ racial divide.

The two candidates were asked if a white person could know enough about being Black in St. Louis to effectively lead a largely Black city. That’s been the case since 2001, when Francis Slay captured the mayor’s office after eight years of an African American serving in that role.

Jones said while there have been examples of white allies, white people like Spencer don’t have the lived experiences of African Americans.

“A white person doesn’t have to tell their white children how to act when they’re stopped by the police,” Jones said. “That’s a conversation that I have with my son every time my son leaves the house. A white person doesn’t have to worry about their children getting hit by a stray bullet when he’s outside. That’s something I worry about my son, and almost happened several times in our neighborhood.”

“While I appreciate the role of white allies in this movement of progress, I don’t believe that they have the lived experiences to lead a majority-minority city,” she added.

During her turn to answer that question, Spencer said she believed she had “the right tools, the right perspective and the right experience in leading this city.”

“My experience working with the 20th Ward, the most diverse ward in the city of St. Louis, has given me the tools,” Spencer said. “I know how to work with people — all kinds of people. I know how to have a tough conversation and bring all kinds of people to the table. But I do acknowledge that the history in our nation of leaders, all leaders, failing communities of color creates skepticism — skepticism that is borne out of real lived experience.”

“And it is my job as an elected official to break that down not with words, but with actions,” she added.

Watch the full debate:

St. Louis Mayoral Debate | March 30, 2021

Policing and race

Both candidates provided their reactions to a mixed verdict handed down this week to three white police officers accused of beating a Black undercover officer.

“I was horrified by the verdict,” Spencer said. “I know so many police officers within the police department who are officers of color who have experienced racism within our police department. I know so many residents in the city of St. Louis who have experienced racism at the hands of our police department — and that is why police reform is critical to public safety in general.”

Jones said it was important to address the “elephant in the room” — that there are “two police unions, one for Black officers and one for white officers.” That’s in reference to the Ethical Society of Police, which advocates for officers of color, and the St. Louis Police Officers Association.

“And until police can trust each other, how can we trust them? Or how can our community develop trust in the police department?” Jones said. “We have some real work to do. We can’t reform out of this — we have to transform our way out of this. We have to transform the culture and the entire police department that leads with an arrest-and-incarcerate model to one that leads with prevention.”

St. Louis Mayoral candidate Tishaura Jones on Tuesday, March 30, 2021 participated in a debate against Cara Spencer (not pictured) hosted by St. Louis Public Radio, Nine PBS, 5 On Your Side and the St. Louis American.
David Kovaluk
St. Louis mayoral candidate Tishaura Jones listens to a question in a debate against Cara Spencer on Tuesday.

The candidates were also asked if they would meet with Jeff Roorda, a former Democratic state lawmaker from Jefferson County who serves as the business manager for the St. Louis Police Officers Association.

Spencer said she’s been calling for the association to fire Roorda for years, adding that his “rhetoric has been divisive and counterproductive in moving our city forward.”

Jones said Roorda is “no longer welcome at our table.”

“And if the Police Officers Association wants a seat at my table, they will get rid of Jeff Roorda,” she said.

Combative debate

Spencer and Jones repeatedly traded jabs during Tuesday’s debate, especially over campaign finance issues and their tenure in office.

One notable exchange came when the candidates were asked how they would spend more than $500 million that’s coming to the city from the latest federal coronavirus effort, the American Rescue Plan. Spencer used that question to say that Jones “has a track record of issuing no-bid contracts.”

“I will ensure when I’m elected mayor that we will have an open auditing process throughout this spending of this unprecedented amount of money,” Spencer said. “We need to recognize that this $500 million is once-in-a-century for the city of St. Louis to change the course of our city’s history.”

St. Louis Mayoral candidates Cara Spencer and Tishaura Jones on Tuesday, March 30, 2021 participated in a debate hosted by St. Louis Public Radio, Nine PBS, 5 On Your Side and the St. Louis American.
David Kovaluk
St. Louis mayoral candidate Cara Spencer makes a point during a televised debate with Tishaura Jones on Tuesday.

While noting that state Auditor Nicole Galloway gave her office a “good” rating, Jones questioned why Spencer reported a number of contributions later than she should have in recent Missouri Ethics Commission filings.

“It’s funny that the alderwoman brings up no-bid contracts and transparency when she failed to report $13,000 to her own campaign,” Jones said. “So if she can’t report that, how do we trust her to spend $500 million?”

Spencer replied: “There was not a single contribution to my campaign that wasn’t reported.”

“While there was a small hiccup in the time it was reported, under no circumstance did we fail to report a single issue,” Spencer said. “On the other hand, if we’re going to talk about transparency we should talk about how transparent the treasurer’s office currently is. If you go to the St. Louis treasurer’s website right now and look up the 2020 report, it’s a whopping one page to describe the ongoing financial happenings of our treasurer’s office and our parking fund.”

Jones responded, “We are very transparent, you can go to stltreasurer.org and look up our transparency portal and see for yourself.”

The debate was sponsored by Nine PBS, the St. Louis American, Five On Your Side and St. Louis Public Radio.

St. Louis Mayoral candidates Cara Spencer (left) and Tishaura Jones on Tuesday, March 30, 2021 participated in a debate hosted by St. Louis Public Radio, Nine PBS, 5 On Your Side and the St. Louis American.
David Kovaluk
St. Louis mayoral candidates Cara Spencer (left) and Tishaura Jones share the stage Tuesday at Nine PBS, separated by a plexiglass divider.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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