A Twist of Faith

From her small-town Baptist roots to her run for public office, Jeanette Mott Oxford has relied on her religious convictions to overcome fear and prejudice -- including her own.

Later, when Jeanette went through his personal papers, she found unpaid credit slips from the old general store. She stumbled back into her childhood, where everyone had been treated with dignity and respect, and just because someone couldn't pay their bill or couldn't overcome alcoholism or didn't fall in love with a member of the opposite sex didn't mean they were less worthy in the eyes of God. How then, Jeanette wondered, could her father teach her to be prejudiced against black people?

It was fear born of ignorance. Raymond Oxford wasn't around black people, so he was afraid they might hurt his daughter: Just as politicians who had never experienced poverty were afraid poor people would take advantage of them. Just as people who didn't understand homosexuality were afraid gays and lesbians would corrupt their churches, their children and their chain of command.

It was a vicious inbred circle of fear, and for the following nine years that she led ROWEL, Jeanette's battle against prejudice was as much against her own as it was against society's.

For the nine years that she led the Reform Organization for Welfare (ROWEL), Jeanette Mott Oxford's battle against prejudice was as much against her own as it was against society's.
Jennifer Silverberg
For the nine years that she led the Reform Organization for Welfare (ROWEL), Jeanette Mott Oxford's battle against prejudice was as much against her own as it was against society's.

By 1998, ROWEL's membership ballooned from 550 to 1,500 and its annual income increased from $70,000 to more than $300,000. In Jefferson City, the group successfully worked to cut the state's 3-cent sales tax on food, to ensure that welfare-to-work participants were covered by the same health and safety laws as other workers and to make sure the state provided medically necessary transportation for Medicaid patients.

But ROWEL's success turned Jeanette's hands-on job into that of a distant bureaucrat. There were more employees to deal with, more grant proposals to write; there was more paperwork to fill out. In addition, Jeanette's nine years of lobbying in Jefferson City taught her that the more disadvantaged people were, the less they were represented in the political process. Although some urban lawmakers tried to help, the vast majority turned their legislative attentions toward those constituents who best funded their campaigns.

The rhetoric, especially since the introduction in 1996 of a federal welfare-reform bill, pushed by the new Republican Congress and later signed by President Bill Clinton, was that the welfare system was making poor people dependent on it. That it made them lazy. That it made them drug addicts and child abusers and thieves. What Jeanette learned in her nine years at ROWEL was that generational poverty stemmed, for the most part, from the constant need to survive.

She learned that the government only provided about 15 percent of the true cost of living to people on welfare, yet if they found work and thus lost their public assistance, they usually still couldn't pay their bills. She learned that in 30 percent of all utility disconnections, the families ended up moving, because they couldn't pay the bill, and because so few people had cars or trucks with which to move, they ended up leaving most of their belongings behind. She also learned that each move usually took the family to cheaper and cheaper housing until, eventually, they ended up in substandard housing where, for a good part of the year, there was no electricity or heat. How could children become well educated when they were forced to study in the cold by candlelight?

And the rhetoric was bought by Democrats and Republicans alike. To Jeanette, who grew up on the speeches of Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy, there wasn't much difference between the two parties anymore.

When the state representative from her district, Ron Auer, announced he was retiring, it didn't take long for Jeanette to decide to run. The district, which includes parts of Benton Park, Soulard, Tower Grove and Compton Heights, is heavily Democratic. In the previous election, in 1998, it didn't even attract a Republican candidate. It was about as ethnically, racially and economically diverse as a district in St. Louis could be, and there was a significant gay and lesbian population as well.

After Jeanette made her decision privately in the summer of '99, she quietly started putting together her platform. She would work to reform the state tax system so that it was based on a sliding scale and on the ability to pay. She would work to lower health-care costs and increase the minimum wage. She would seek to provide higher-quality childcare, better public transportation, better-equipped schools. She would live up to the standards of her childhood Democratic idols and represent everyone (even the smattering of white, straight, upper-income Republicans) who lived in her district. She would also leave her position at ROWEL, because she didn't believe lawmaking was the part-time job so many other state legislators seemed to think it was. Becoming an elected official was the social activist's dream come true. Instead of cajoling and pleading and arguing with legislators to change the laws, she could change the laws herself.

But Jeanette's private ambition was paralyzed when another Democratic candidate, Russ Carnahan, the son of Gov. Mel Carnahan, announced that he, too, would run for the district's House seat. How could she possibly win the August 2000 primary against the governor's son? And did she even want to win against the governor's son? Russ Carnahan was a progressive, and she was a strong supporter of his father, who was challenging the Republican incumbent, U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft, in the November 2000 election. Maybe, she realized with horror, God didn't even want her to run. She hadn't, after all, really asked him.

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