ST. LOUIS — The rooted spirit of Alex Adank keeps him here. He grew up in St. Louis and wants to raise his family in the city, even though finding the right school was a challenge. He says he likes living around artists and other creative people near Benton Park.
Not that the real estate agent is out of touch. Every day, he goes for a 6-mile jog. His turnaround point is the downtown riverfront, where grain barges still plow through the Mississippi River and coal trains rumble overhead.
“There’s nobody down here,” said Adank, 36. “Sometimes I like to remind myself that I live in a city, too. A shell of one. It was a big great thing before it started to decline.”
Since the 1950s, the population of St. Louis has fallen to 300,000 from 850,000, leaving hollowed-out neighborhoods and thousands of vacant buildings and lots. At Adank’s turnaround, he runs near other signs of decay — spent shell casings, streaks of burned rubber on a blocked-off road leading to the refurbished Arch grounds. Under the Eads Bridge — once a global symbol of innovation — lies a discarded syringe.
Numerous mayors have been elected on the promise to reverse the decline. Now the latest batch of candidates comes forward for the March 2 primary: City Treasurer Tishaura Jones; Aldermanic President Lewis Reed; 20th Ward Alderman Cara Spencer; and utility executive Andrew Jones.
Under a new system adopted by city voters, candidates for municipal offices will be listed without party labels on the ballot. People can vote for — or “approve” — as many candidates for an office as they want under a procedure called “approval voting.” The top two vote-getters in the primary will face each other in a runoff in the April general election.
By the end of it, St. Louis will likely have a leader setting a tone different than the current Mayor Lyda Krewson, who chose not to seek a second term, and her predecessor, Francis Slay, who served an unprecedented four terms.
Regardless, the weak-mayor system of government in St. Louis limits power to make significant changes. But the next leader will still have a bully pulpit and other ways to carry out an agenda and be the face of the city as it works to recover from a global pandemic.
“The next mayor must be the mayor for all of St. Louis,” said Andre Smith, 48, assistant professor of political science at Harris-Stowe State University. “It may be unfair to our past two mayors, but a feeling from a lot of north city residents is that their issues fell on deaf ears at City Hall.”
In the Ville neighborhood, Angela Jones doesn’t have her mind made up. She has questions for the candidates, though.
“What are you doing to bring back homes, economic development, schools, safety?” said Jones, 49, who lives a few blocks from Sumner High School, a historic campus on a list of public schools that may close. “We just have a whole laundry list of things to do.”
Jones, a business systems analyst for a large firm downtown, could live just about anywhere. She grew up in the city and wants to be close to her family. She lives in the 4200 block of North Market Street, in a home she bought new in 2005. Dozens more houses like it were supposed to be built. Development died.
“There’s so many projects that start and don’t get finished,” she said. “It’s sad that we have all this architecture and open lots. It doesn’t make sense.”
On the far South Side, along Holly Hills Boulevard, stately homes are occupied across from Carondelet Park. At least one of the residents there is growing more peeved about hearing gunshots. The resident, whose car was stolen out of the garage, said you can only shrug your shoulders so long about crime in the city.
Then there’s Mark Smith, who grew up in the city and wants to expand his porch for visits with the four children he and his wife reared in the neighborhood, including two Fulbright scholars.
“The issue for my kids is, are there going to be quality jobs in St. Louis,” said Smith, 61.
In his case, he found one as a lawyer. He’s a former president of the St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners who also ran an unsuccessful campaign for Congress in 2004. Now he’s an associate vice chancellor at Washington University.
“I feel a real sense of obligation to the city,” he said. “It’s the heart of the metro area, but there are obviously some issues.” Things like a “framework of institutional racism,” rising pension costs, an unstable tax base and the “Balkanization of the region.”
Over the past decade, the central corridor that runs east and west along Highway 40 (Interstate 64), has been home to most of the city’s growth. Cortex Innovation Community, a 200-acre development subsidized by tax breaks, is the crown jewel. Cortex says it generated $2.1 billion in economic impact in 2018 alone.
More is coming. Two tall construction cranes are at work building an 11-story, “state-of the-art” neuroscience research center for Washington University.
Businesses like DuPont, Square, Alcami, Boeing, Microsoft and Vicia, a “vegetable-forward” restaurant, are already in the Cortex district. Sidewalks cut through the heart of the campus that, according to a sign, were made with modular-bio retention cells so that “tree roots can grow freely, obtaining the nutrients and oxygen required for optimal growth.”
Mark Crumble, 38, about the only person walking through on a recent cold morning, offered a counterbalance to growth. In one hand, he carried a jug of milk, in the other a black boot. A sock hung from his exposed foot. Headed to the MetroLink station, he was on his way to Walmart in the suburbs to get a bigger set of boots.
“I am pretty sure this is the only place in the city where stuff like this can be built, but other places could be beneficial as well, to build places like this,” he said of Cortex.
Diagnosed with schizophrenia after he aged out of the foster care system, his monthly disability check used to cover rent. Like St. Louis, he started falling behind at some point and hasn’t caught back up. He’s been sleeping in a heated stairwell.
“If I had a few steps forward …,” he said.
Each of these four candidates say they can put the best step forward for the city.
In the 2017 Democratic primary, Treasurer Tishaura Jones garnered support in all 28 wards and narrowly lost to Krewson. She’s giving it another shot, with her own blunt style.
“We are not a poor city,” Jones, 48, said at a recent debate. “We are a cheap city because we refuse to invest in what will move our city forward.”
Jones grew up in north St. Louis, close to city politics. Her father, Virvus Jones, was a former city comptroller and alderman who ended up pleading guilty to tax evasion. In an interview, Jones said the absence of her father when he was in prison was a tough experience.
“It makes me more relatable as I look at criminal justice reform,” she said.
In addition to addressing core issues of crime, poverty and economic development — across the whole city — as mayor she vowed to deliver better transparency by hosting lots of town hall meetings.
She said she wants to heal and build relationships, including statewide and beyond. She said she would look to places like Nashville, Tennessee, Indianapolis and Kansas City to possibly replicate what those cities have done to better attract businesses and put “racial equity at the center of decisions.”
“Sometimes St. Louis is standing in our own way,” she said.
Jones first served in elected office as Democratic committeewoman of the 8th Ward, an area that includes the Shaw and Garden District neighborhoods. She went on to be a state representative, and is now early in her third term as treasurer, an elected post of notable power in St. Louis because it administers parking revenue. Jones points to her expansion of the office to include money management seminars for the public and college savings accounts for kindergartners opened with $50 in city seed money.
After graduating from Affton High School through the desegregation program, Jones earned a degree in finance at Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia. She also has a master’s in health administration from St. Louis University. Before entering politics, she worked as an administrator at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital.
Jones, a single mother, lives in the West End neighborhood near Ivory Perry Park with her 13-year-old son.
Of the four mayoral candidates, Aldermanic President Lewis Reed, 58, has the longest record in elective office — stretching back to his eight-year tenure as 6th Ward alderman, which began in 1999, before he won his current post in 2007.
He also has the most political and governmental power of the four.
In his current role as aldermanic president, which is elected citywide, he decides what committees consider proposed legislation and presides over the Board of Aldermen’s weekly meetings. Now in his fourth term, he’s been a longtime member of the Board of Estimate and Apportionment, the three-person panel that is the final arbiter of city fiscal decisions.
Reed’s authority and political longevity also makes him vulnerable to potential criticism from opponents for any of the hundreds of votes he’s cast on issues and more than two decades of other actions and political stands. This is his third try for mayor. He lost to incumbent Francis Slay in the 2013 Democratic primary and finished third in a seven-way race in the 2017 primary.
Reed sided with Krewson in supporting the city’s controversial consideration of leasing St. Louis Lambert International Airport to a private company. After Krewson abandoned the idea in December 2019, Reed last spring took the lead on reviving it at City Hall after the Carpenters Union and NAACP announced a petition drive to put the issue on the ballot.
Both the petition proposal and Reed’s alternate version, had voters approved, would have required the city to go through with a lease deal if a bidder pledged at least $1 billion upfront for various projects. A main goal of the plans, which were eventually dropped, was rebuilding dilapidated areas, many in north St. Louis.
Reed has also been out front on several issues related to crime, including prodding other city leaders to spend money on body cameras for police and on the Cure Violence Program.
Reed’s own family has been hit hard by crime. His nephew was shot to death in St. Louis in 2018. In 1982, his brother, Eugene, was slain in Joliet, Illinois, where Reed grew up in a family of nine children. His mother was a cook, his father a mechanic.
“We were not a politically connected family, but my parents taught us to use our voices and to stand for those things that were right and just,” Reed said at a recent debate.
After attending Southern Illinois University Edwardsville on a wrestling scholarship, studying math and computer science, Reed stayed in the area. Before politics, he was the manager of data networks for SSM Health Businesses.
Reed and his wife, attorney Mary Entrup, live in the Compton Heights neighborhood. They have two grown sons and a grandson. Reed also has two adult daughters from a previous marriage.
Alderman Cara Spencer said she was first motivated to run for political office in 2015 because she was upset that nothing was being done about the Marquette Park pool’s being closed in the 20th Ward. After unseating the 20-year incumbent in the Democratic primary, she helped get the pool open.
In 2019, she easily won reelection in the ward, which spans parts of Dutchtown, Gravois Park and Marine Villa, where Spencer lives with her 9-year-old son and four chickens out back.
“When I first took office, I had a hard time convincing people to purchase homes,” said Spencer, 42. “Now we are a fast-growing community that has a wide range of development. We have new construction going on in Gravois Park for the first time in decades.”
During her two terms, she’s been known to take on progressive topics beyond her ward. Perhaps most significant, she was a leading opponent of the privatization of Lambert.
She also sponsored legislation to create air quality controls at vacant building demolition sites, including those near schools. She pushed other bills to curtail payday lending and guns in parks. She has fought to limit public funding of private development projects.
Now she wants to broaden her reach and leadership responsibilities as mayor. She said it’s past time to get serious about addressing crime, racism and poverty, as well as the budget, which she predicts will have “major deficits” before it gets better.
“It’s going to take grit and stubborn optimism. We can turn our city around,” she said. “I want to be the mayor who looks at these challenges and rolls up my sleeves and gets to work.”
Spencer grew up in the St. Louis region. Her mother was raised in East St. Louis and north St. Louis County. Her father managed a floating riverfront restaurant before moving the family from the city to the suburbs. She’s a graduate of Parkway South High School, where she was a cheerleader, soccer player and a founding member of a national championship women’s solar bike team.
She was the first in her family to earn a college degree. She majored in math at Truman State University. For 15 years, she worked as a mathematical modeler who predicted market behavior for a health care consulting firm. To run for mayor, the single mother left her position as executive director of the Consumers Council of Missouri.
“I am the only candidate here who hasn’t run for mayor before,” she said. “I do have a different approach.”
Odd man out
Andrew Jones Jr. looked down the street from his front porch in the Botanical Heights neighborhood on a recent day and shook his head. The nice homes were built in 2005. It’s been hard to keep families in them after their children turn 5.
“I’ve had two successive neighbors that left because of the school district,” said Jones, 60. “They were great neighbors. There are a few other neighbors here who are leaving because of the school system and the crime and all the other things.”
Hitting closer, he wishes his grandchildren would someday be willing not only to visit from the suburbs, but move to the city. That yearning motivated him to run for mayor.
“I am just like every other citizen in this city,” said Jones. “I am tired of where the city is going. It is certainly at a precipice of absolute decline.”
“I am doing it to raise another voice,” he said.
The self-proclaimed “odd man out” in the race said St. Louis needs a strong leader who is accountable, willing to stand out front, own up and make necessary changes, like cutting “fluff” from the budget that wastes his tax dollars and does nothing to improve municipal services or lure businesses.
“The city is not in a position where we can move forward, and the same people who have been involved with this politically, to get it where it is now, are still involved,” he said. “They continue to do the exact same thing.”
Jones grew up in a working class family in East St. Louis, playing football and basketball at the former Assumption High School. He studied business administration at Lincoln University and went on to earn advanced degrees from Webster University and Washington University.
Over two decades, he rose through the ranks at Ameren, first as a union employee in motor transportation, lastly as a marketing manager. He is now vice president of business development and marketing at the Greenville-based Southwestern Electric Cooperative, which provides power to a swath of southern Illinois.
Jones and his wife, Shelia, a manager at Ameren, have two daughters and three grandchildren.
In this Series
- 7 updates