Let the Dems keep hating: Jamilah Nasheed could pull off the political coup of the century

Oh, shit. Mayor Francis G. Slay looks pissed. He came all the way up to this town hall meeting at Mount Airy Missionary Baptist Church in the Fourth Ward of north St. Louis to talk about the benefits of city-county unification. And the host, State Representative Jamilah Nasheed — a fellow Democrat! — has the nerve to ambush him.

"Uh, Mayor, lemme just pose one question to you," she has just said. "And this is something that we need to have a little dialogue going..."

She wasn't supposed to ask anything like this.

State Representative Jamilah Nasheed: I'm 
black before I'm a Democrat.
Jennifer Silverberg
State Representative Jamilah Nasheed: I'm black before I'm a Democrat.
State Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal is one of many Democrats who question Nasheed's loyalty to the party.
Jennifer Silverberg
State Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal is one of many Democrats who question Nasheed's loyalty to the party.

"We have a major issue in the city of St. Louis with race relations, and I would like for you to touch on that," she continued. "What can we do, as elected officials, community organizations as a whole, to try to bridge that racial gap here in the city?"

Slay's lips purse, his eyes tighten, and he shifts his weight as she asks the question. But he jumps right in with the answer.

"I think we need to stand up," he asserts into the microphone. "All of us need to stand up. One of the things I found in the city of St. Louis, you know, one of the things about the city of St. Louis is it is one of the most — on a block-by-block basis — one of the most integrated cities in America. One of the most integrated cities in America on a block-by-block basis."

There are murmurs in the crowd, which is almost all black. Dozens of constituents furrow their brows and whisper to each other. Sitting in the front row, leaning back with her right arm on the pew, Nasheed is grinning with her chin up.

"We certainly have our segregated areas," the mayor says. "There are certain areas that are certainly almost exclusively African American. But very few exclusively black neighborhoods in the city anymore. The point is, overall, the city is more integrated than the vast majority of cities — of major cities— in America. We live in one of the most integrated cities in America."

"Uh-uhhnnn. Not on my block!" shouts a white-haired woman.

"Where do you live?" a woman in a blue shirt mutters under her breath.

The mayor keeps talking. He says something about how lots of immigrants and gays live in St. Louis. And something about economic empowerment for the black community. And then something about how the county doesn't have enough racial discourse. But the murmuring is growing louder and distracting many listeners.

"So I think that we should be proud of ourselves," the mayor concludes. "But I don't think we should lose sight of the fact that as a community we've made a lot of strides together. And by working together we can make it work."

Nasheed stands up and struts to the side of Mayor Slay. She turns on a high heel and faces the audience.

"We're gonna take a couple of questions from the mayor now," she says with a proud smile.

This is why so many Democrats don't like Jamilah Nasheed. This irreverence. This unpredictability. This...cockiness. From a third-term state rep! Who the hell does she think she is putting the mayor on the spot like this? Who the hell does she think she is voting with Republicans on those bills? Who the hell does she think she is trying to get local control passed?

Who the hell does Jamilah Nasheed think she is?


Jamilah Nasheed knows that just about half of the politicians in her own party don't like her. They almost kicked her out of the caucus back in April. But she doesn't care. She may be a former gang member with no college degree, but she's also becoming one of the most powerful Democrats in Missouri.

After the mayor leaves, it's Nasheed's turn to speak.

"How many of you are familiar with local control of the St. Louis police department?" she asks.

Six or seven hands raise.

"Well, I'm the sponsor of that bill," she says. "For over 150 years we haven't had control of our police department."

Mmmmm-hhhmmm...

The crowd responds to her like she's a preacher giving a sermon.

"We spend two-thirds of our budget on it, but we don't control the department."

Uh-huh. That's right...

Nasheed, who is 38, has a round face with parenthetical cheekbones and a prominent forehead. Her thin black glasses and gray pantsuit give her the air of a high school principal. But her unapologetic swagger betrays her days as an activist for minority rights.

"What I wanted to do is bring local control back home, because if we bring local control back home, police officers are held accountable. They know that the state controls them. That's why they don't respond to you. Because you can't do nothing about it."

OK. OK...

She speaks with sureness and soul, slowing and speeding and stopping her cadence, bounding between octaves. She describes the political process simply and dramatically, like a mother telling her child a bedtime story, methodically eee-nun-ceee-ating some words and rhyming some phrases. She paces up and down the center aisle so she can look each constituent in the eye.

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