Editorial: We recommend Cara Spencer for St. Louis Mayor

Post Dispatch

St. Louis is poised for a new era of leadership with the certainty that one of two single moms — Alderman Cara Spencer or Treasurer Tishaura Jones — will become the next mayor after Tuesday’s election. Both have proven their ability to overcome hardship and endure all the challenges that come with raising a child while meeting the constant demands of elective office. Given this city’s often brutal political climate, both deserve credit for grit and perseverance against overwhelming odds. They are fighters, and that’s exactly what St. Louis needs to bring about transformative change.

That said, their divergent records in office leave no question in our mind which woman is best suited to lead the city forward. This newspaper recommends Cara Spencer as the city’s next mayor. She is a tireless, hands-on activist for change who refuses to settle for status-quo complacency.

If imposing safety at a dangerous intersection in her 20th Ward means going out and planting her own stop sign in protest of city inaction, she’s got the guts — and shovel — to do it. If leadership means spending countless hours to monitor meetings and inform the public about secretive efforts to privatize the St. Louis airport, Spencer will do it. If halting abusive practices means driving street by street and compiling a computer database of slumlords to pressure them into cleaning up derelict buildings in her ward, Spencer does it. She’s got a record of street-level involvement that few other politicians in this city can match.

Anyone who has toured trendy Cherokee Street in her ward but also has taken time to drive the backstreets and alleys can recognize instantly the challenges Spencer has faced in trying to improve the 20th Ward. She worked to transfer more than half of the city-owned vacant properties in her ward into private hands. Building permits in her ward increased 1,200% during her terms in office.

Spencer won election in 2015 in a ward with an overwhelmingly Black population, then came back to win reelection by a landslide in 2019 despite a concerted effort by monied airport-privatization interests to oust her. They tried using the worst, most racially divisive tactics, yet that effort failed miserably. The 20th Ward Black community rallied behind Spencer.

Is she combative? Absolutely. Does her brash style ruffle feathers? Without question. This Editorial Board has clashed with Spencer repeatedly on issues such as the Close the Workhouse campaign (she supports it; we have major reservations about the practicality). She was too quick to criticize outgoing Mayor Lyda Krewson’s decision to clear out a downtown park where a homeless encampment formed in the early days of the pandemic.

But here’s the thing: Spencer doesn’t treat her critics as automatic enemies. When she gets involved in controversy, it’s because she’s out there on the streets informing herself and engaging in the real-life challenges that confront St. Louisans.

Her professional background as a mathematician and corporate strategic adviser ideally suits her as mayor to keep closer tabs on city finances and end the inefficient, sometimes corrupt practices that keep St. Louis from reaching its full potential. As regional business leaders saw during a recent candidates’ forum, Spencer knows how to meet employers on their turf and speak their language.

Jones doesn’t always inspire that kind of business confidence. Her record as treasurer merits voter suspicion, especially the awarding of a $7 million parking-services contract to Hudson and Associates LLC, whose owner is a longtime top Jones campaign donor. Though Jones claims the contract was awarded through a competitive bidding process, the bid-evaluation process was tweaked by Jones’ staffers to favor Hudson.

Jones asserted in a televised debate this week that a state audit of her office last year gave her “the second-highest rating” and that there was “nothing nefarious about this contract.” That’s disingenuous at best. The state audit was finished long before the parking-services contract even existed. It was not part of the audit, and everything about it was nefarious. Citing the pandemic, Jones suspended parking enforcement for the first two months of the contract yet continued to pay Hudson for nothing. Her office later asserted that city payments during that downtime went toward training Hudson workers. But the contract mentions no responsibility of city taxpayers to pay for Hudson workers’ on-the-job training. In fact, they were supposed to arrive fully trained from Day One.

Jones shrugs off these details as no big deal. But these provide glimpses of how she would operate as mayor. Notable among her biggest mayoral campaign donors is Jeff Rainford, chief of staff to then-Mayor Francis Slay and a key lobbyist promoting airport privatization. We shudder to think of how people like Rainford would use their insider connections with Jones to put privatization or other sweetheart deals back on the agenda.

To her credit, Jones has transformed parking in the city by replacing coin-operated meters with modern ones that can be activated with a cellphone app. But even that should give voters pause, since one of Jones’ original campaign pledges when running for treasurer was to get her office out of the parking business altogether. Once elected, she recognized parking services for the cash cow it is. Now she refuses to cede control.

Jones launched what was supposed to be a privately funded effort to help St. Louis children build their own college-education savings accounts. Using political stealth, she found a way instead to fund it with public money. As of 2019, 13,500 children had their own accounts with $900,000 in funds, or about $67 each. The intent is laudable, but in reality, the money is barely enough per capita to cover a day’s worth of college expenses. And that’s what Jones touts among her biggest successes.

Voters should worry about how the vacancy in the treasurer’s office would be filled if Jones were to become mayor. City law allows the mayor to fill such a vacancy, meaning Jones would get to name her own successor. That’s a dangerous power to entrust to someone with her track record.

Jones has done a good job managing the city’s investment portfolio. But her interpersonal skills need improvement. Not everybody deserves to be targeted with harsh, hurtful labels simply for questioning her performance in office. Spencer, by contrast, has found ways to keep the dialogue going with her critics rather than browbeating them into silence.

Regardless of who wins, the next mayor can be certain that the criticism will fly thick and fast. St. Louisans need a mayor who can engage, take the heat, and win over critics through political persuasion, not name-calling. St. Louisans need someone who has clearly defined plans and can cite a record of on-the-ground action rather than a series of catchy but meaningless slogans. Cara Spencer is the right person for the mayor’s job.

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