Understanding a St. Louis Mayoral Candidate’s Viral Takedown of a Local Newspaper
From the Atlantic City Lab
Just in case you have any questions about Tishaura Jones’s letter slamming the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s editorial board, CityLab has you covered.
The campaign for St. Louis’s next mayor heated up last week when one of its candidates, Tishaura O. Jones, the city’s treasurer, decided to skip a meeting with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s editorial board. It appears that she is unconcerned with obtaining the newspaper’s endorsement. We know this because she wrote a letter to a member of the editorial board, Tod Robberson, stating as much. The letter ran in the St. Louis American, the city’s African-American newspaper, and has since become a viral sensation. But for national readers, it might be helpful to add some context and explanation. So we’ve footnoted it for you. Below is the full annotated (and illustrated) text of Jones’ letter.
Two weeks ago, you used some of your ink to outline what questions you would be asking of mayoral candidates. You complained that “decades of sustained, abject neglect by city leaders have allowed a bombed-out graffiti-covered, war-zone image to prevail.” You said you were afraid to walk your dog at night and you called for a plan to “address blight and abate the graffiti that’s killing our city.1
You just moved here. It isn’t your city, yet.2 And graffiti is not what’s killing it.
What is killing our city is poverty. Since you’re new and you live in a great neighborhood, you probably don’t know that the poverty rate doubled during Mayor Francis G. Slay’s 16-year tenure.4
What is killing our region is a systemic racism that pervades almost every public and private institution, including your newspaper5, and makes it nearly impossible for either North St. Louis or the parts of South St. Louis where African Americans live to get better or safer or healthier or better-educated.6
St. Louis needs to change. I am not afraid to say that. And I don’t mean the polite incremental kind that Alderwoman Lyda Krewson promises. I mean change.7
I will look at every issue through a racial equity lens. I will ask if every decision we make helps those who have been disenfranchised, red-lined and flat-out ignored for way too long.8
I will look through each and every program in city government and make the changes necessary to ensure that government is working for those people. From participatory budgeting9 to the modernizing of services, I will take steps to make city government easier to navigate, easier to participate in and easier to understand.
I’ll ask police officers and firefighters what would make their jobs easier.10 I’ll put social workers into the police department so that trained practitioners will be doing the jobs police officers aren’t trained to do.11
We do not need to invent new programs for much of what I plan to change. There are programs all over the country we can learn from and that we can adopt. I know this because I’ve traveled to see them. I know that galls your writer who wrote that I am “high-flying” and should be grounded. I suspect she meant that I was “uppity” or had a “bad attitude,” but didn’t have the honesty (or courage) to be that overt.12
I plan to work hard as your mayor, but I do not plan to waste time ignoring things that are working well elsewhere. We have too much at stake in this community to do any differently, and we have too much to do.
It’s the same way I have run the Treasurer’s Office. When I was elected, I found an office that did a lot of things inefficiently, and I looked for ideas for how to improve. Over the past four years, I modernized parking and launched a major effort to change lives practically with the Office of Financial Empowerment.13
You described that as “just doing my job” and wrote that the white guy you endorsed would have done the same thing. At least two of you have lived in Texas, so you will understand what I mean when I call that bullsh*t.
As mayor, I’ll take the same approach.
I’m not against using tax incentives for development. But, I want to make sure that we are using those incentives for blighted areas as intended and those we are coupling those tax incentives with community benefit agreements. Community benefit agreements can make sure there is a priority for those who are living in the area to get the jobs created by the development, that these jobs are living-wage jobs, and that they lead to real investment in the community.
For decades, St. Louis has jumped around, investing here, giving tax breaks there, without any real reason for why or where. As a result, subsidy has often gone to the parts of the city that need it least. That practice needs to stop. We need a comprehensive plan for the entire city—one that recognizes that more needs to be outside the central corridor.14
I will work to close down that rat hole of a Workhouse.15 Taxpayers spend millions of dollars a year to keep that place open to accommodate many people who do not need to be there, or be there so often. I’ll put the same resources into mental-health services, substance-abuse centers, re-entry programs, and job training.16
We also need to work with the rest of the region to ensure that they are doing their fair share around homelessness, not just dropping people off downtown or incarcerating them.17
Too many people who live in North St. Louis have a hard time getting to centers of employment and recreation because we do not have transportation options that work for them. I’ll make that a priority, headlined with planning and development of a North-Side light rail system.18
We need to protect our most vulnerable citizens by expanding access to responsible banking and credit,19 by insisting on a minimum wage that is a livable wage20, by instituting paid family leave policies.21
We need to create a Tenant’s Bill of Rights so that renters across our city have the tools they need to ensure their housing is livable and safe. We need to do what we can as a City to make sure we are laying a foundation that allows all citizens to be successful and to thrive.22
I think you were in Texas during Ferguson. If so, you may have missed what happened here: We woke up. Black people woke up. Allies stood up. Young people spoke up. Our best minds listened and produced a pair of remarkable documents, the Forward Through Ferguson report and the For the Sake of All report, that are blueprints for the next four years of a mayor.
I understand that the Post-Dispatch is hurting right now. I hear that soon you will have to lay off more employees. With readership down to below 100,000, it makes sense why you would resort to a more inflammatory news reporting style to boost readership.23
There are some talented reporters at the Post who are very good at their jobs. I’ve had the privilege of talking with many of them. They have written about me fairly, objectively, and positively. I appreciate criticism when it’s due.
But what the editorial board and certain other reporters have done is nothing short of thinly veiled racism24 and preference for the status quo past. Something this city has had enough of.
I think there might be enough city voters who are with me and are ready to vote for that change in March and April. After we do that, you and your dog will be safer. And maybe you will consider hiring an African-American editorial writer.25
- Jones is referencing this January 25 column from editorial board writer Tod Robberson. His exact quote: “What keeps me awake at night is the vast sea of blight primarily afflicting north St. Louis. I’ve lived in some tough places—Beirut, Bogota, Mexico City and San Salvador, among others. It shames me to count St. Louis among the areas where decades of sustained, abject neglect by city leaders have allowed a bombed-out, graffiti-covered, war-zone image to prevail. If anyone at City Hall cares, he or she is certainly being quiet about it.… I live in one of the city’s safer neighborhoods, and I don’t walk my dog at night without constantly looking over my shoulder.” ↩
- According to this article Robberson arrived at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in January 2016. He’s a Houston native, but as he wrote in his column above, he’s also lived in some really bad places. ↩
- Of course, graffiti can’t kill a city. When properly engaged, it can actually help cities. As for what’s actually hurting St. Louis, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis’ 2016 community development outlook survey listed the top 13 negative impacts on low- and moderate-income St. Louis communities. None of them included graffiti. ↩
- The math doesn’t quite add up here. It is true that between 2000 and 2013 the number of residents living below the federal poverty line in St. Louis’ suburbs increased by 53 percent. The same didn’t hold true, though, in the city itself. According to Census data, seen in the charts above, 20.8 percent of St. Louis families lived below poverty levels in 1999. That rose to 27.1 percent between 2011 and 2015. ↩
- In the St. Louis magazine October 2014 article “The Story of Segregation,” Joseph Jones mentions that he was told that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch once “had a policy of not writing about civil-rights activities.” Also, in 2014, Benjamin Crump, attorney for Michael Brown’s family, publicly chided the Post-Dispatch of “racist speculation” around Brown’s background. (More on that below). ↩
- In his October 2014 article “The Making of Ferguson: Public Policies at the Root of its Troubles,” Richard Rothstein writes, “A century of evidence demonstrates that St. Louis was segregated by interlocking and racially explicit public policies of zoning, public housing, and suburban finance, and by publicly endorsed segregation policies of the real estate, banking, and insurance industries. These governmental policies interacted with public labor market and employment policies that denied African Americans access to jobs available to comparably skilled whites. When these mutually reinforcing public policies conspired with private prejudice to turn St. Louis’s African-American communities into slums, public officials razed those slums to devote acreage to more profitable (and less unsightly) uses.” ↩
- The Riverfront Times calls Krewson a “centrist.” Writes Doyle Murphy, Krewson platform “is not a revolutionary platform, or even unique among a Democratic field with at least three, maybe four or even five legitimate contenders. But then Krewson is not a revolutionary. Her twenty-year political career has been defined by a centrist resume. … Her personal style is direct but civil in the model of soon-to-be former Mayor Francis Slay.” ↩
- The Public Policy Research Center estimated that St. Louis’ regional gross domestic product in 2012 would have been 10 percent higher if not for the area’s racial income gap. The Forward Through Ferguson commission calls for a 25-year managed fund to support regional racial equity infrastructure, including capacity-building, needs and training assessments, and research analysis. Also read ”The Story of Segregation in St. Louis” and ”Drawing Lessons From a Segregated History” ↩
- Read, “A Budget By (and For) the People” to learn more on participatory budgeting. ↩
- According to the Pew Research Center, “Police in large departments (with 2,600 officers or more) are about three times as likely as those in small departments to say they are never asked for their input. Just 8% of police in departments of fewer than 500 officers say they are never asked for input on decisions that will affect them. By comparison, 27% of police in departments with at least 2,600 officers say the same.” ↩
- Dallas police chief David Brown said last year: “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country. We are. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it. … Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem; let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, let’s give it to the cops. … That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.” ↩
- Local news outlets recently made hay of Jones’ frequent travel for conferences and to meet with other city officials. As city treasurer, Jones took dozens of trips since 2012, which cost taxpayers roughly $27,000. Jones response: “In St. Louis, we have our heads stuck in the sand … That travel that I’ve taken is no different than the travel of any other executive who wants to learn more about bringing change to their organization or to the city.” Other frequent-flier city executives: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who took over 50 trips in his first 2 and a half years as mayor, at a cost of roughly $325,000 to taxpayers. It cost Seattle taxpayers nearly $50,000 to send Mayor Ed Murray and other city officials to Israel in 2015. ↩
- The Post-Dispatch article that references Jones’ travel schedule still gave her credit for her work as treasurer, writing that she saved the city $5 million by refinancing its parking debt, and modernizing the parking meter system so that people could pay via mobile apps. She’s also credited with starting the Office of Financial Empowerment, which features a program that provides savings accounts for all public school kindergartners, seeding each with a $50 deposit. ↩
- Pretty much all of St. Louis mayoral candidates agree that tax incentives for development in the city are flawed, or, at least that it’s time to expand the incentives benefits beyond the city’s downtown and central corridor. A recent analysis of the city’s economic development policies conducted by The PFM Group recommended that the city come up with a city-wide plan to better target its incentives. ↩
- The informal name for St. Louis’ Medium Security Institution city jail. ↩
- Many people in St. Louis have been calling for the closure of the Workhouse, which has become notorious for dangerous health hazards, violence, and sexual assault. It costs St. Louis taxpayers around $16 million annually to run it. A substantial number of prisoners there suffer from mental health problems or substance abuse. ↩
- St. Louis’s human services director, Bill Siedhoff, told AP in 2012 about the city’s homeless problem: “It’s a big problem. It’s one we’ve talked about for a long time. There’s just been no response from these surrounding areas. They think it’s fine for the city to pick up this responsibility and for them to contribute nothing.” Read these articles: “Downtown St. Louis residents criticize city, say homeless problems worsening,” November 4, 2016. “As Downtown St. Louis Weighs Its Homeless Problem, All Eyes Are on Larry Rice,” November 30, 2016. American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare report: “From Mass Incarceration to Smart Decarceration.” ↩
- The Forward Through Ferguson commission reports that 73 percent of St. Louis public transportation commuters are black, compared with 18 percent who are white. The Northside-Southside extension of the local Metrolink rail system would link low-income African American families in the north parts of the city to job opportunities in other parts of the city. The city’s current mayor, Francis Slay, has been a huge backer of this project. Jones also backed this expansion as treasurer and put up $2 million of her own office’s funds to study it. What’s holding it up is St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger, who believes that the city needs to get more public buy-in from surrounding neighborhoods before moving forward. ↩
- The Forward Through Ferguson Commission reports: “In 2013, 13 percent of Black loan applicants in the St. Louis metro were denied their applications for conventional housing based on insufficient cash, compared to 7 percent of White applicants denied for the same reason.”Meanwhile, a new study published in Urban Affairs Review ties the recession to an expansion in fringe banking venues, such as check-cashing operations, which prey upon the vulnerabilities of the poor. ↩
- Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens and the Republican-dominated legislature are looking to do away with the prevailing wage law in the state—which is far below the living wage labor activists have been calling for. Meanwhile, those activists are still hoping to boost the current minimum wage in St. Louis from the lowly $7.65 an hour to almost double that: $15 an hour. ↩
- Large companies in the region, including Anheuser-Busch and Nestlé, have been offering expanded family leave to its employees. Meanwhile, the Missouri Paid Leave Coalition is hoping such policies will become law around the state. ↩
- The Forward through Ferguson commision reports that approximately 43 percent of renters in St. Louis are overburdened with housing costs. Meanwhile, in 2010, the number of households in the City of St. Louis paying more than 50 percent of income on housing costs was 9,340 for white households, compared to 17,380 for black households (St. Louis City, 2014). ↩
- According to an St. Louis Business Journal article from February 3 about the Post-Dispatch’s recent offers to buyout some of its veteran reporters, the newspapers profits went up between 2015 and 2016. However, the paper’s operating revenue balanced out to $614.4 million last year, which is down from $648.5 million in 2015. Meanwhile, print circulation numbers for third quarter 2016 dropped to 98,104 for weekday papers and 157,543 for Sunday, from 110,818 for same quarter weekday circulation and 180,047 for Sunday circulation in 2015. ↩
- On his blog, former Post-Dispatch columnist Sylvester Brown Jr., recently wrote about what he calls the “recent hit jobs” by the Post-Dispatch against Jones, referring to the article on her travel costs (See Footnote 12). “Let me say upfront that I have no dog in this race,” wrote Jones. “Although I have big respect for some of the other candidates, I can’t help but question why so much emphasis has been placed on destroying Jones’ campaign. … Keep in mind, this is the same newspaper that in 16 years, has never questioned the trips, business or family connections or “taxpayer money” Mayor Slay’s spent traveling, lobbying, wining & dining or profiting off rich developers and downtown interest’s donations.” ↩
- This is from the Post-Dispatch’s own audit of the newspaper’s diversity goals: “Last year, the Post-Dispatch filled three prominent jobs with white men. …As of February, overall the Post-Dispatch newsroom staff was 17 percent non-white and management was 19 percent non-white, according to figures provided by the company. That puts it roughly on par with other newspapers in the United States. …But the gap widens considerably when it comes to blacks. Blacks make up nearly 21 percent of the population in the city and those five other counties. The percentage of blacks on the Post-Dispatch staff is just eight percent. That is 10 people among the 118 in the newsroom.” ↩