ST. LOUIS • As a Democratic incumbent in a safe Democratic district, state Sen. Robin Wright-Jones normally could expect big bucks to flow to her re-election campaign.
But four months before the Aug. 7 primary election, her treasury stood at just $12.30. On Friday, her campaign website was still "under construction."
Support dried up after Wright-Jones scrambled last year to explain why her books didn't balance and why she bought clothing, groceries and shoes with campaign funds.
Her troubles drew two Democratic House members into the race to represent the state Senate's 5th District, which covers the eastern half of St. Louis.
Hoping to replace Wright-Jones are Reps. Jamilah Nasheed, a brash community activist who has made waves in Jefferson City by working closely with Republicans, and Rep. Jeanette Mott Oxford, an unabashed liberal and openly gay legislator who is known for being armed with data to support her chief cause: a more progressive tax code.
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay is backing Nasheed even though she helped lead a recall effort against him four years ago. Since then, the two have teamed up on legislation to give the city control over its police department and to retain the city's earnings tax.
"She's not going to be a rubber stamp, and I don't expect one," Slay said. "She is independent. I do think that on many things that have counted for the city, she's been there, she's carried the ball, she got things done."
Wright-Jones contends that the three-way race was engineered by the powers-that-be in the city to split the black vote between Wright-Jones and Nasheed, vaulting Oxford into office. Wright-Jones and Nasheed are black; Oxford is white.
"Let's call it triangulation," Wright-Jones said. "In St. Louis politics, you know if there's two blacks and one white, the odd man is going to walk through the middle."
For her part, Oxford said she agonized over the fact that St. Louis would not have a black state senator if she wins.
In the end, she said she decided that her own track record of working "to get real barriers out of people's lives" would be better for racial justice than electing Wright-Jones, who has "lost credibility" with constituents, or Nasheed, who is "just all over the map and cuts deals."
No Republican filed for the Senate seat, so next week's primary election will determine who represents the 5th District for the next four years.
St. Louis has had at least one African-American state senator for over a half-century, since Theodore McNeal was elected in the old 7th District in 1960.
Currently, the city has one black senator —Wright-Jones — and one white senator — Joe Keaveny, who represents the 4th District. Keaveny's seat is not up for election this year.
Wright-Jones, 62, won the 5th District seat in 2008 after serving six years in the House. A real estate broker and former teacher, she is the ex-wife of Mike Jones, a senior policy adviser to County Executive Charlie Dooley.
Wright-Jones rarely makes speeches on the Senate floor. But she said she had worked in committees to put her stamp on bills.
"I've always felt like the floor becomes a circus by those who need to be seen and heard all the time," she said. "That's not a need I have."
She contends Slay opposes her because he "wants somebody that he can have control of. He can't control me. I am not a pawn. I am Shirley Chisholm. I am unbought and unbossed. I belong to God, my mother and the voters."
As her main accomplishment, she cited legislation in 2009 that allowed state property to be used for a new bridge over the Mississippi River. Other bills she passed set up a prostate cancer pilot project, required emissions inspection stations to carry liability insurance and eased utility deposits for people with late-payment records.
Wright-Jones said she had drawn endorsements from a number of labor unions, including several firefighters groups, the St. Louis Police Officers Association, the Missouri AFL-CIO and the American Federation of Teachers Local 420.
Still, her fundraising lags her competitors. Wright-Jones raised $14,585 in the last quarter, spent $11,479 and had $3,118 on hand as of June 30.
The Post-Dispatch reported in June 2011 that Wright-Jones had failed to account for what she did with $95,000 in her campaign treasury. Though she tried to put the problems to rest by paying $5,300 in late fees and amending her reports, the disclosures — which showed she spent several thousand dollars for "campaign clothing" and $111 for shoes — raised new questions. State law bars candidates from converting campaign funds to personal use.
Wright-Jones maintains she did nothing wrong.
"It is okay for us to buy shoes and clothing," she said. "That's in the ethics statutes, we can do that when they're linked to campaign issues, and they are. I buy these clothes because I make campaign appearances. I didn't buy a mink coat. These are business clothes."
The Ethics Commission is barred by law from saying whether it is conducting an investigation into Wright-Jones' finances.
NASHEED MAKES WAVES
While Wright-Jones usually keeps a low profile, Nasheed has made a splash in the Legislature. Her path to Jefferson City helps explain the turbulence.
Her father was killed in a drive-by shooting before she was born, and her mother committed suicide when she was 3. Reared by her grandmother in a public housing project, she spent a short time in juvenile detention after knifing a girl in a rival gang.
She converted to Islam, started an African-American bookstore and became a community activist. In 2003 she was arrested for sitting on the tracks at a MetroLink station to protest the agency's lack of minority contracts.
Nasheed, 39, won her House seat in 2006.
She gradually began working with Republicans who control the chamber, and they helped her secure money for dropout recovery programs and advance the bill granting local control of the St. Louis Police Department. That measure passed the House last year but died in the Senate.
She raised hackles in her own party by voting with the GOP to repeal campaign contribution limits in 2008 and to override the Democratic governor's veto of a congressional redistricting plan last year.
Nasheed admits that her vote to lift campaign contribution limits was cast out of pique.
She was mad that Democrats hadn't backed her earlier in the day on her bill expanding a scholarship program in St. Louis Public Schools. So she impulsively cast the decisive 82nd vote needed to eliminate contribution limits.
"It was an emotional vote," Nasheed says. "I've learned. I'm not the same person."
As for voting for a congressional map that left St. Louis with only one congressional district, she said she did that to protect the district represented by Rep. William Lacy Clay and stood by the decision as being "in the best interests of the African-American community."
In the last quarter, Nasheed raised $23,570, spent $38,740 and had $21,240 on hand. She has endorsements from aldermen in five north St. Louis wards and one central-city ward, as well as the mayor and Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce.
Nasheed is stressing "that the city of St. Louis hasn't had an effective senator in over 10 years, and I've been able to work across party lines to get things done."
On a blistering Saturday afternoon, she made her pitch in Old North St. Louis at a barber and beauty shop. She described her opponents — Wright-Jones and Oxford — thusly:
"The one you have right now is self-serving," Nasheed said. "And I'm running against another lady who's a sweetheart, but she's ineffective."
SEEKING TAX REFORM
Oxford disputes Nasheed's jab that she is ineffective.
She said some of her bills — dealing with lead poisoning and insurance for adopted children — had made it across the finish line by being incorporated into colleagues' bills.
She also sees growing support for her push to make online sales subject to the same taxes Main Street businesses pay and to raise the state's cigarette tax, the nation's lowest.
"We are underfunding so many things that need to be funded better," she said.
Oxford, 58, grew up in rural Southern Illinois. Her father worked in a coal mine.
She came to St. Louis in 1986 to go to Eden Seminary but was blocked from ordination in the United Church of Christ in 1988 because she is a lesbian.
She moved on to anti-poverty work, running the Reform Organization of Welfare for nine years. Half the board consisted of people living in poverty.
"It was seeing their lives that made me fight like crazy," she said.
She won her House seat in 2004. She is one of four openly gay members of the Legislature.
Oxford said that as a senator, she would encourage St. Louis area legislators to collaborate on priorities.
"We come down and vilify each other and it ends up hurting our image," she said.
She contrasts her co-operative style with Nasheed's "erratic" record, including her vote to repeal campaign contribution limits out of "rage of the moment."
"You need to vote based on evidence," Oxford said.
Oxford has been endorsed by about a dozen St. Louis Democratic ward organizations, most of them in south St. Louis. She also won the nod in the 21st Ward, Nasheed's home turf.
Oxford is backed by some labor groups, including the Communications Workers of America Local 6355, AFSCME Council 72 and the Missouri National Education Association. Other supporters include the Missouri chapter of the Sierra Club and the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund.
Both she and Wright-Jones were endorsed by Planned Parenthood.
Oxford raised $37,276 in the last quarter, spent $31,497 and had $27,123 on hand as of June 30.
Though her volunteers are canvassing the district, Oxford can't campaign door-to-door. She is slated to have a knee replaced soon. But she said her health wouldn't prevent her from being a senator to be reckoned with — a reference to Nasheed's boasts that she is physically stronger and could stand and filibuster objectionable bills. Former Sen. Chuck Graham filibustered from a wheelchair, Oxford noted.
"Folks on both sides of the aisle trust my honesty," she said. "Republicans who may have trouble with my sexual orientation appreciate that I have my facts right and keep my word."
EDITOR'S NOTE: A photo on an earlier version of this story mistakenly contained a caption from an editorial earlier this year.