Nearly two centuries later, Missouri politicians have a new take on Sen. William L. Marcy’s famous declaration.
Marcy, of New York, is the man credited with the saying: “to the victor belong the spoils” in 1832.
The 19th century senator was referencing President Andrew Jackson’s right to appoint people to certain jobs in the federal government, at a time when there were few civil service protections, and patronage jobs were more in vogue. These days, it seems, there is a thread of political thought that believes it is the loser who should get the spoils. On the federal level, that was ultimately the argument that Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri and others made when they questioned (and continue to question) the veracity of the 2020 presidential election.
What about the voices of voters who supported the losing candidate, Hawley asked, while pandering for their future votes. Indeed, it’s the same reason that he and others of his ilk continue to oppose renaming military bases, or taking down old statues so the country isn’t honoring former Confederate generals. For some reason, there are those in American politics who believe we still should honor the traitors who lost the Civil War. To the losers go the statues, perhaps?
It’s not just at the federal level where this anomaly is playing out. Take a look at the Missouri Legislature, where Republicans refuse to fund Medicaid expansion despite losing an election placing it in the state constitution. This has become a habit in Missouri. When Republicans lose on ethics, minimum wage, labor rules, puppy mills, they seek to undo the will of the voters who won.
Then there’s the ongoing debate over the effort to close the Medium Security Institution in St. Louis, the second of the city’s two jails, known colloquially as the workhouse. Mayor Tishaura O. Jones ran on the platform of closing the workhouse. She won the election. In one of her first actions as mayor, she did exactly what she said she was going to do, and, now, it seems, her critics want to debate the issue.
It’s as though the election didn’t happen. Actually, it’s worse than that. It’s as though the last four or five, or even 30 years didn’t happen. The first time I wrote about the movement to close the workhouse was in 2017, and in that column, I quoted an eloquent opinion written by U.S. District Judge Clyde S. Cahill in 1990 about the workhouse, and the issues surrounding it. Cahill, the city’s first African American federal judge, was presiding over a case about conditions at the workhouse. They were deplorable, he said, but mostly, so was the entire criminal justice system in the city.
“Certain neighborhoods in St. Louis have become the target of intensive police activity, including high surveillance and ‘battering ram’ search warrants,” wrote Cahill, who died in 2004. “Obviously, such intrusive tactics increase that resentment and anger toward law enforcement which always seethes below the surface. These intrusive tactics, coupled with detention because of poverty, lead to a destruction of confidence in the criminal justice system. … Mass detention for petty offenses now may give temporary relief but it only postpones the misery to come.”
Cahill’s indictment of the system has lasting power.
Thirty years later, Jones is the first Black woman to become the city’s mayor, and she’s addressing the underlying issues Cahill wrote about precisely as she said she would in her campaign: She’s beginning the process of closing the workhouse, and she’s shifting some police funding to other strategies to attack the poverty that persists in the neighborhoods that were the subject of Cahill’s attention.
It’s not like either of those positions was a surprise on the morning after Jones was elected, particularly on the issue of the workhouse. Both Jones and her opponent, Alderman Cara Spencer, campaigned on closing the workhouse. In 2020, every member of the Board of Aldermen voted to close the workhouse. Comptroller Darlene Green has long advocated for it, urging previous Mayor Lyda Krewson to begin long-term planning on a closure back in 2019. (The mayor didn’t take Green up on her suggestion). Both candidates for circuit attorney in 2020, Kimberly M. Gardner, who won, and challenger Mary Pat Carl, campaigned on closing the workhouse.
It’s hard to imagine an issue more litigated in the public square, on which all elected officials who could have a say on the issue have done so. Yet, the forces that too often control the public narrative around crime issues — the tough-on-crime crowd — are still raising a stink.
Closing the workhouse would be easier for Jones if the previous administration had followed through with serious planning efforts. It would be easier still if it hadn’t taken three decades to elect a St. Louis mayor who was willing to put Cahill’s words into action.