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A reluctant leader steps forward again: Tishaura Jones makes her case for mayor

From the Meet the St. Louis City mayoral candidates series
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ST. LOUIS • Tishaura Jones describes herself as a leader, but a reluctant one.

In every elected position she’s held — from 8th Ward Democratic committeewoman, state representative and now in her second term as city treasurer — it wasn’t her idea to run, she said; someone encouraged her.

She first ran for office in 2002. Before that, Jones had a career as an administrator at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital.

“I was happy just doing some volunteering and living my life,” she said. “Politics isn’t something I considered being involved in.”

Even now, as one of seven hopefuls running in the March 7 Democratic primary, Jones said it’s the same story: A grass-roots group of citizens calling themselves the “Draft Tishaura” movement prodded her to run for mayor.

She bristles when people suggest she’s been pushed into politics by her father, former city Comptroller Virvus Jones, a force in his time at City Hall who ultimately ended up pleading guilty to tax evasion and serving prison time. In recent years, Virvus Jones has worked as a paid staffer on his daughter’s campaigns.

“I love my dad, but I am my own person,” the younger Jones said. “I make my own decisions.”

For years, she has been sharing her views in local newspapers on race relations, payday lending, MetroLink expansion and other topics.

But even if it looked like she was carefully laying out a mayoral agenda, Jones insists that’s not the case.

“I was very comfortable just being the treasurer,” she said. “I’m very proud of some of the things we’ve started and knowing what they will do for our city’s children.”

Her supporters say her track record as treasurer is evidence that Jones is a woman of action.

In the past, the treasurer’s office was viewed as a low-profile position a sleepy politician could use to coast into retirement.

Under Jones, the office has become something of an advocacy center for financial literacy, offering programs to help people better manage their money and using revenue from parking meters to help needy kids save for college.

“Government is supposed to work for the people, and that is something that I will always try to do,” Jones said.

If she becomes the city’s next mayor, Jones said, she would use the position to enact the kind of citywide reforms she can’t tackle as treasurer.

“My vision for the city is one of prosperity and justice for all,” Jones said, noting that her campaign slogan is “One St. Louis.”

“We need to use whatever tools make sense to ensure that everyone — on both sides of Delmar (Boulevard) — is treated equitably and fairly.”

As a candidate, Jones checks many boxes favored by the city’s young progressives. She favors a citywide plan to establish racial equity; she wants to focus tax incentives on the city’s poorest neighborhoods; and she wants a more data-driven crime strategy to keep nonviolent offenders out of jail through mental health and substance abuse services.

While Jones enjoys a robust social media following, she believes that traditional media has been unfair to her. At a news conference last month, she referred to herself as “the most attacked candidate.”

In the past few years, Jones has been the subject of a number of high-profile stories, on her use of a city-paid car, the 50 trips she took in three years at taxpayer’s expense and a business relationship her office has with a felon who was involved in the same political scandal that led to her father’s prison term.

When questioned, she has defended herself forcefully, arguing that the city authorizes her travel and that other city employees enjoy perks as well. She also has accused the Post-Dispatch and other outlets of racism.

Earlier this month, she accepted an invitation to meet with the Post-Dispatch editorial board. But she skipped the meeting and instead sent a letter criticizing the board for being out of touch. The letter earned her raves on social media as it was analyzed by The Atlantic magazine and tweeted by former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean and others.

In one-on-one conversations, Jones dismisses the media scrutiny and challenges other candidates to match her sincerity.

“We need a mayor who is going to look out for all people,” she said. “I feel uniquely positioned to do that.”

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Koran Addo is a reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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