7 Takeaways From A History-Making Election Night In St. Louis
Tishaura Jones’ election as St. Louis Mayor on Tuesday night was the epitome of perseverance.
After falling painfully short in her 2017 bid for mayor, Jones roared back in 2020 with a resounding reelection as treasurer. And with her more than 2,000- vote win Tuesday, she will be the first Black woman to become mayor.
Jones will face a raft of big challenges and a host of unprecedented opportunities.
Jones forged a diverse geographic coalition
One of the reasons Jones was seen as the frontrunner in Tuesday’s election revolved around geography. She had historic appeal in largely Black wards around the city and a number of high-voting white or integrated wards. The big question was whether that coalition would hold if Alderwoman Cara Spencer got big margins in southwestern and central corridor wards.
According to ward-by-ward results, the answer is yes. In addition to crushing Spencer in north St. Louis, Jones racked up solid victories south of Delmar in the 6th, 8th, 15th and 25th Wards. She also prevailed in Spencer’s 20th Ward, as well as narrowly winning the 9th and 17th Wards.
This is a break from the past few mayoral races, in which the winner didn’t receive significant support north of Delmar, where the population is heavily African American. While Spencer’s main source of support was in largely white wards, Jones did do well in several multiracial (6th, 8th, 9th, 17th, 20th and 25th) wards.
“I believe that the voters wanted to see this shift,” Jones said Tuesday night. “It’s time. St. Louis has never had a Black woman mayor. Now we join several cities across the country that have Black women mayors that I respect and admire. So I look forward to engaging with them as well.”
Spencer’s strength in high-turnout wards kept things close
One of the reasons the race was so close was because Spencer won solid victories in wards with high turnout. Of the 10 wards in which she won, eight had more than 30 percent turnout — including the 16th Ward, where more than 42% of voters showed up.
Many of the wards Jones won had relatively low turnout — including at least one, the 22nd, where only 18.3% of voters came out. But Jones capturing solid wins in at least four high-turnout wards (the 6th, 8th, 9th and 15th) likely put victory for Spencer out of reach.
Spencer’s showing could set her up well if she wants to run for a citywide post in the future, especially if she can improve her performance in some of the multiracial wards in which Jones prevailed.
Turnout was actually pretty good
One of the things that made the 2021 mayoral contest different from past ones is that the April general election was more decisive than the March primary. That’s because voters used a new system known as approval voting that allowed people to vote for as many candidates as they wanted in March — and, a month later, between the top two vote-getters.
Turnout on Tuesday was a little over 29%, which may seem low but was higher than the March 2017 mayoral primary in which Lyda Krewson narrowly edged out Jones. The turnout Tuesday likely helped Jones, especially since some of the wards Spencer won (like the 12th, 16th and 23rd) have solid records of turning out during April elections.
Opportunities on the Board of Estimate and Apportionment
Even though the mayor of St. Louis is often the most high-profile elected leader in the region, the officeholder doesn’t have unlimited power. The ability to push through major pieces of legislation that cost a significant amount of money depends on getting buy-in from the two other members of the Board of Estimate and Apportionment — St. Louis Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed and Comptroller Darlene Green.
This is the first time the Board of E&A will feature three Black members. The fact that Jones and Reed said they would have endorsed each other if they didn’t make it past the March primary at least starts out that relationship on a good foot.
After meeting with Krewson on Wednesday, Jones noted that she had plenty of background about the dynamics of the Board of E&A since her dad, former Comptroller Virvus Jones, was a member. She also said that she talked with both Reed and Green on Wednesday.
"You criticize privately, but praise publicly," said Jones, noting that was a key lesson from watching her father serve as comptroller. "When you have disagreements, you have those behind closed doors and you don't air your dirty laundry for the rest of the world to see. And so hopefully, that's the sort of tone that I'd like to set."
One of the first big tests for the relationship of this trio is how to divide more than $500 million of federal COVID-19 relief funds. If Jones, Reed and Green have similar goals on how to spend the money, it could remove one source of acrimony as Jones pursues policy change in St. Louis.
The relationship of St. Louis and St. Louis County leaders
It wasn’t lost on some regional political observers that St. Louis County Executive Sam Page and St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell endorsed Jones. The Page endorsement was especially notable, as it could provide an opportunity to restart the stalled Board of Freeholders process to build more tangible bridges between the city and the county.
How long that relationship lasts, though, isn’t certain. Page is up for reelection next year, and he’s faced fairly significant political challenges over the past few months — especially from the county’s Black political community. So if Page’s political woes persist, it could make forging city-county bonds more difficult.
A new Board of Aldermen
Jones’ victory was clearly Tuesday’s biggest headline, but the results for Board of Aldermen races were also significant.
The “Flip the Board” progressive effort that officials like Alderwoman Megan Green endorsed was wildly successful, with favored candidates winning in the 5th, 12th, 13th and 17th Wards. Three of the victors, James Page of the 5th Ward, Bill Stephens of the 12th and Anne Schweitzer of the 13th, knocked off incumbents, while Tina Pihl of the 17th narrowly defeated Michelle Sherod in an open race.
Aldermanic coalitions tend to be fluid and subject to realignment depending on the issue. But Jones will have a lot of backup on the board to enact elements of her agenda, especially if there’s support from Black Caucus members who initially supported Reed in March.
But the board is set to be cut in half in 2023. And how some of the aldermen fare during that election could showcase whether the left-of-center contingent is here to stay or is a flash in the pan.
Jones’ first key appointment
One of the first things Jones will have to do as mayor is appoint a replacement to her soon-to-be vacant treasurer post. And her decision could prompt a game of musical chairs throughout St. Louis politics.
Some of the potential contenders include St. Louis Recorder of Deeds Michael Butler, state Sen. Karla May, former state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, Alderman Shane Cohn and Green. If Jones picks Butler, she would also get to appoint a new recorder of deeds. So picking any of these people would spark special elections for either municipal or state legislative posts.
On the other hand, the domino effect could be stalled if Jones appoints someone who is not currently in elected office. Some have suggested, for instance, Sherod as a treasurer candidate. But Jones will still have plenty of people to choose from to become heads of city departments. And some of her selections could be elected officials.
Jones doesn’t have much time to soak in her victory. She’ll take her oath of office April 20, which means big changes in St. Louis politics and government are imminent.
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum