A couple of years later she opened a bookstore called Sankofa, which means "to return to your roots" in Akan, the west African language. It became a hub for local activists. By the late '90s, she was protesting for minority employment rights with Eric Vickers, a popular community activist who would later become her first campaign manager. In 1999, she blocked I-70 alongside Al Sharpton and sat in the back of a paddy wagon with him.

"That was the first time I went to jail for a positive cause," she says with a staccato chuckle. "Oh man, that was fun. I felt good. I went to jail for something positive."

In 2003, to protest the lack of minority workers on a MetroLink project, she and Vickers sat on the train tracks at the Forest Park station. The next day, above the fold on the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Metro section, there was Nasheed, stone-faced and dressed in black from head wrap to shoes, getting carried off the tracks by a half-dozen police officers.

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.

"MetroLink was the first time that she started getting attention across the board, not just in the black community," says Vickers. "That gave her a larger profile."

Between fighting the power and shifts at the bookstore (which closed in 2006), she got married, adopted her young cousin, earned her GED and worked as a consultant on political campaigns — for names including Claire McCaskill, Irene J. Smith, Charles Troupe and Yaphettt El-Amin.

By 2006, her colleagues were pushing her to run for office, to fix the system from The Inside. The seat for 60th District state representative opened up. Nasheed ran and won. Soon after, she enrolled at a community college.


The most successful push for local control in Missouri history kicked off 80 miles south of St. Louis, in a small town called Perryville, at an old family-owned restaurant called Park-Et. It was 2009, and Mayor Slay had driven all the way down to meet with Tilley, the House majority leader at the time. Tilley had earned a reputation for being open-minded and putting principles over partisanship. Slay knew that if he wanted local control, his best shot was to sway Tilley. He did.

"I'm a conservative Republican that believes that local people should make local decisions," Tilley says. "If I wouldn't advocate for the state to run Perryville's police department, how in good conscience can I advocate that they run St. Louis'?"

When the 2010 legislative session began, Nasheed sponsored the local-control bill and Tilley cosponsored it. The two had developed a friendship over the years, one that extended beyond the capitol (Nasheed attended Tilley's 40th birthday party this past June). So for Tilley, a bill that made sense became a bill worth fighting for.

"When you have a friend who really cares deeply about an issue, it's hard not to want to help them get it done," he says. "There's a lot of issues I agree with where I don't take a personal interest to get it done, because there's just so many issues out there. This is one where a combination of good governance and the fact that Representative Nasheed was pushing it made it more of a priority."

The bill passed out of committee for the first time ever but failed on the floor. This year, Tilley made a point to sit down with every Republican to explain the merits of local control. With the most powerful man in the building lobbying hard for a bill that didn't affect anyone outside St. Louis, the rural votes swung, and local control passed with room to spare.

Once again, the Republicans came through for Nasheed.

"Were it not for the relationship that she developed with the Republicans, no way this would have happened," says Vickers, who has pushed for local control since the '80s. "Local control was seen as something that the legislature would never do. For her to be able to pull it off at this point is really an incredible legislative feat."

When the bill got to the Senate, it faced strong resistance. Chappelle-Nadal led the opposition, proclaiming that the bill would threaten the benefits of police officers. The bill that passed the House was only two pages, and while city hall assured the police union that its benefits under the state statue would carry over, the union wanted to see it in writing.

By this point, though, both sides were motivated to compromise.

"The likelihood was that we weren't gonna be able to get it passed without some kind of compromise," says Slay. "And that was fine with us. We wanted a compromise."

For the union, local control seemed unavoidable. In November, 61 percent of St. Louis voters checked "yes" on Proposition L, a proposal to measure public support for local control. Billionaire Rex Sinquefield was pushing to get a local-control ballot initiative for 2012. Plus, the bill breezed through the House, signifying a paradigm shift in how legislators perceived local control. If this was going to happen, Roorda and the union decided, they might as well help shape it.

In May, the sides reached an agreement. The bill expanded to more than twenty pages and explicitly protected the officers' benefits. The union and the police board, with Slay's support, constructed their first-ever collective-bargaining agreement.

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