After facing intense heat from some of his party’s African-American leaders, Gov. Jay Nixon is tapping a former St. Louis-area senator to serve as a liaison to the state’s poor and minority communities.
Nixon’s office announced he was using an executive order to create the Office of Community Engagement. It will be tasked with “facilitating communication with Missourians and informing policy solutions for the unique challenges facing low-income and minority communities.” The governor appointed former Senate Minority Leader Maida Coleman to serve as the agency’s director and former St. Louis Municipal Court Judge Marvin Teer as deputy director.
“Across our state, Missouri communities are facing serious issues involving race, educational and economic opportunities, and poverty,” Nixon said in a statement. “The Office of Community Engagement will be responsible for facilitating meaningful communication about these issues that will yield concrete results.”
The governor’s press release stated that the Office of Community Engagement would be housed under the Office of Administration. Among other things, it would be responsible for:
- Engaging communities, public and private sector leaders, clergy and citizens across the state in communication “regarding critical issues affecting Missouri communities.”
- Developing “policies and strategies to foster greater prosperity and opportunity for all Missourians.”
- Making recommendations to the Department of Economic Development, Missouri Community Service Commission, Missouri Housing Development Commission and other boards, commissions and agencies “that administer programs designed to assist low-income individuals, urban neighborhoods, community redevelopment and similar activities.”
- Recommending individuals to the administration for appointment to boards, commissions and agencies of the state.
A southeast Missouri native, Coleman served briefly in the Missouri House before winning a special election to the Missouri Senate. As the first African-American woman to become Senate minority leader, the St. Louis Democrat led her caucus during a particularly combative time in the chamber’s history. Senate Democrats were often the last bastion of opposition to then-Gov. Matt Blunt’s initiatives, which resulted in lengthy and bitter filibusters in the General Assembly’s upper chamber.
When she left the legislature due to term limits after the 2008 session, Coleman ran an unsuccessful campaign in 2009 against St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay. She initially entered the Democratic primary, but ran as an independent after another candidate with the last name of “Coleman” entered the contest.
Since that time, Coleman has had several jobs with Nixon’s administration. She has most recently served as the executive director of the Missouri Workforce Investment Board at the Department of Economic Development.
“From small towns to big cities, every Missouri community faces its own unique challenges – and that’s especially true in areas where poverty rates are high and economic opportunities are limited,” Coleman said in a statement. “That is why I am excited about this opportunity to deepen our understanding of the issues confronting our communities and to help develop policies that will help all Missourians prosper and thrive.”
Some African-American political leaders have lambasted Nixon’s conduct since a Ferguson police officer shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in August. For instance, state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, spent much of a nearly hour-long speech during veto session questioning Nixon’s commitment to African-Americans – and criticizing the governor for not showing up in Ferguson sooner.
And on Wednesday, a group of black elected officials from St. Louis County repeated their criticism of Nixon for not removing St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch from the investigation of Brown's shooting by Officer Darren Wilson. Among other things, McCulloch’s detractors question his fairness because McCulloch's father – a police officer – was killed by a black suspect.
Soon after the executive order was announced, U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, issued a statement commending the governor.
“I am hopeful that this new office will engage citizens at the grass roots level in Ferguson, and across our state, to begin the long-overdue, difficult conversation about the very real disparities based on race and poverty which have produced a lack of jobs and opportunity and unequal treatment by the judicial system,” Clay said.
"I want to be part of the solution"
In an interview, Coleman told St. Louis Public Radio that the aftermath of Brown’s shooting death “is an issue that is so big that it’s not going to be solved completely on a local level.” She added “the state needed to play a big role in finding solutions.”
“And I want to be part of that solution – and believe that I can,” she said.
While her new agency is coming from a state level, Coleman said she wants to work with people to make local governments better. That’s important, she said, since many African-Americans who have come to Ferguson to protest Brown's death expressed dissatisfaction with how local governments treat them.
“We all suffer when anyone else in society suffers. And I think that as a state, we do have to lead,” Coleman said. “We can provide so much more to people in need. And I understand the frustration with big government, especially when the local governments that they live in … haven’t been meeting their needs.”
“Our goal here is to change that. To listen to people. To listen to their ideas,” she added. “To come up with some solutions and some policies that are going to benefit all Missourians.”
Asked whether the harsh criticism of Nixon from some African-American politicians would make her job more difficult, Coleman said: “I’m going to be available whenever and wherever someone is available to talk to me about real important change in the way we all do business in this state.”
“For those who don’t have the best relationship with the governor, all I can say is when you’re in a leadership role you’re going to make decisions that some people like and some people don’t,” she said. “We all have to deal with what’s best for the people we serve and put aside whatever the personal issues are. Because this is bigger than all of the politics.”
“I would just hope that we’re all going at it for the same reason,” she added. “And that is to help those who need help get more of an opportunity to have a better life.”