By Sarah Fenske
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Danny Wicentowski
By Jessica Lussenhop
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
"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.
"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."
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."
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.
She tells the audience how she got the local-control bill passed out of the Missouri House of Representatives for the first time in 150 years. She tells them how it never reached the Senate floor because it was "held hostage" by outstate senators with no stake in the issue who demanded tax reform. She tells them that the battle's not over yet and that the bill will pass if it's brought up in the special session in September. But she doesn't tell them that she cried that night in May when the bill died.
No, now is not the time to show weakness. These are her people, and she is their leader, fighting for them in Jefferson City against the overwhelming forces — Democrat and Republican — trying to keep their bootstraps buried in concrete.
The people trust her because they know she is one of them. She hustled and brawled and scrapped through the projects, got locked up in juvenile hall for stabbing somebody, dropped out of high school and then somehow reached political office, where she is now working to steer her people's daughters and nephews and grandkids away from the life she escaped.
So now she hustles and brawls and scraps through Jefferson City. She represents the most dangerous district in the most dangerous city in America, a district that is liberal and black in a state that leans conservative and white. Her loyalties lie only with those who can help her improve the 60th District, no matter what side of the ideological spectrum they fall on. She votes against party lines, calls the Republican Speaker of the House Steven Tilley one of her good friends and says things like, "I'm black before I'm a Democrat."
She's an outlier in American politics. In an era when partisan divides define the discourse, she is an ex-activist liberal black Muslim female who has built enough relationships across the aisle to pass the most improbable bill in Missouri history through a GOP-heavy House.
Her constituents have her back. She ran unopposed in her last reelection primary and took 75 percent of the vote two years before that. She explains to the audience how she voted against the Democrats in the U.S. Congress redistricting debate. How she was willing to let the Democrats lose a seat to ensure that Congressman William "Lacy" Clay Jr., who is black, keeps his.
"And after I did that, guess what? The progressive Democrats said, 'We're kicking you out of the caucus!'"
Oh no. Uh-uhhnnn...
"'We are taking your committeeships—'"
She pauses and nods as she sees Alderman Sam Moore in the front row pointing to his watch.
"Sam says wrap it up," she says. "Are y'all tired of listening to me?"
There is a serious standing order from Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal to her staff: Call the police if Jamilah Nasheed ever enters the office.
"She has a different background than I do — less-civilized, I guess," Chappelle-Nadal says, before catching herself and rephrasing. "We have two different backgrounds. One is a little bit more cordial. And one is a little bit more street and aggressive."
Of all the Democrats who have beef with Nasheed, Chappelle-Nadal is surely the outspoken leader of the pack. She sits impeccably postured at Meshuggah Café in University City, which lies in her district. She's happy to explain why the Democrats have a problem with Nasheed.
"She confronts everyone," she calmly says, hands folded on the table. "This is her m.o. and that's how she tries to get things done. She tries to jump on people. It doesn't belong in the political process."
The women have a history. In 1998 Nasheed worked on Chappelle-Nadal's campaign. But once Nasheed got into office and started voting with the Republicans, their relationship disintegrated. It got so bad that, when the two ran into each other at a Lil Wayne concert in April, they exchanged verbal jabs. Nasheed claims (and tweeted) Chappelle-Nadal threatened to stab her, which Chappelle-Nadal denies. Nasheed calls Chappelle-Nadal "mentally unstable," which Chapelle-Nadal also denies. Tensions between the two have been particularly high since Chappelle-Nadal took a public and passionate stand against Nasheed's local-control bill, arguing that it didn't protect police officers' rights.
But to Chappelle-Nadal, Nasheed's gravest sin is "her alliance with the Republican party." She perks up as she prepares to list all those times Nasheed voted against the Democrats.
"It's just a preponderance of stuff," she says. "It's a whole bunch of stuff. Let me call Ron Casey real quick."
She picks up her Blackberry and scrolls through the address book, searching for state Representative Casey's number.
"So she's effective in the sense that she gets stuff done with the Republicans," she says, pulling the phone to her ear. "She'll say, 'Because I'm getting stuff for my people.' Her district is one of the poorest. I'm not too sure how much she's gotten...
"Hey, Ron, how are you?" she says. "I'm good, I'm good.... We're talking about Jamilah, your favorite person.... So tell me, I'm trying to remember all of the bad votes she's taken over the years.... OK, hold on, let me put you on speaker phone, hold on..."
She lays the Blackberry on the table.
"What else has she voted for in the past?" she asks, louder than usual as she leans toward the phone.
"You know what, the list is endless," responds Casey, his voice crackling over the line. "Her allegiance to — I mean, I really think that it's more to the Republicans than it is to us."
Nasheed started biting at the Democratic party her first year in office. In 2007 she was the only elected official to publicly support a recall of Mayor Slay, after he demoted the first black fire chief in St. Louis history.
A few months later she looked to pass her first piece of legislation, a bill to make students in the city's unaccredited school district eligible for the state-funded A+ Scholarship Program. It passed the House easily but was kicked back for another vote after the Senate added a provision that allowed the scholarships to be used at Ranken Technical College, a private vocational school. The teachers union protested what they saw as a "voucher bill," the Democrats voted with them, and the bill failed. Nasheed couldn't believe it. Her party had turned against her bill, turned against her.
But it was still early in the day. Using an obscure procedural rule, she had a chance to bring the bill back to the floor. She just needed to get the votes first.
So she called a friend, a lobbyist for Anheuser-Busch who had some pull with the GOP. The lobbyist made a few phone calls. Then the bill was voted on again. It needed 82 votes and passed with 90, with Republicans filling the holes left by the Democrats. But Nasheed was still pissed. She vowed to get back at the Democrats by voting against them on whatever bill was next on the agenda, which happened to be a controversial proposal to repeal limits on campaign contributions.
"It got to 81 votes, and there was a long pause, because they weren't able to get that 82," Nasheed says. "I said, 'Bam!' and pushed 82, and the Democrats go, 'Noooo!' I mean, it was just like a roar. 'No, Jamilah! Nooo! Don't do it! Don't do it! Don't do it!' And the majority leader was like, 'Change that! Change it!' I was like, 'Where were you guys when I needed you just a second ago?' That's when all hell broke loose with me and the Democrats. It hasn't been the same since."
Rumors swirled that Nasheed traded her vote on the campaign-limits bill for Republican support on the scholarship bill. She denies that this was the case.
"I swear to God no one came to me. I didn't cut any deals," she says. "At that point I was just mad."
The rumors, though, have never quite subsided. In April, the St. Louis American reported that anonymous Democrats accused Nasheed of giving Republicans votes in exchange for being named chair of the Urban Affairs Committee (which Tilley calls untrue and absurd). The American noted, "It is no secret that Nasheed... has been making deals with Republicans."
Her critics note that, while the vast majority of her votes align with Democrats, Nasheed went against party lines on three high-profile bills. She was one of fourteen Democrats to vote for a bill restricting abortions after twenty weeks (she is pro-life), one of eight Democrats to vote for a compromise on puppy-mill regulations and one of four Democrats to vote for the Republican-sponsored redistricting bill that would eliminate the seat of Democrat congressman Russ Carnahan.
The latter stirred the most trouble. Nasheed and three other members of the Black Caucus said that they were willing to lose a Democratic seat so long as they could protect Clay's seat. Nasheed famously reasoned, "I'm black before I'm a Democrat." Democratic leadership considered kicking them out of the party's caucus, but the membership voted it down.
Meanwhile, her ties with Republicans have been useful considering they hold a two-thirds majority in the state House and a three-fourths majority in the state Senate. In addition to the scholarships, she was able to secure more than $1 million in state funding for a dropout recovery program and a science and math tutoring center. And when local control reached the floor, her GOP colleagues across the aisle went to bat for her.
The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department is run by the five-member Board of Police Commissioners. One member is the mayor. The other four are citizens appointed by the governor. While the city determines the department's budget, the police commissioners decide how the money gets doled out — from what new strategies should be enforced to who gets laid off.
Which is a problem for the man in Room 200 of St. Louis City Hall.
"If the citizens have a problem with the department, if something goes wrong, people call the mayor," says Mayor Slay. "And that's the way it should be. That's the way it is everywhere else. But I'm one of five members on a police board, and, in many cases where it counts, the mayor will get outvoted."
Slay describes one time when a board member (whom he wouldn't name) held the city's public safety hostage in order to squeeze more money from the budget for the department.
"He said, 'If you don't give us the money we want, then we'll just reduce the number on the police department, give everybody a pay raise, and when crime goes up, we're gonna blame you,'" says Slay, as one shiny black shoe taps the plush red carpet.
So Mayor Slay has a lot riding on local control. He's been pushing for it for five years now. This is one of those issues you put at the top of the political résumé: "First mayor in St. Louis history to regain control of city's police department." Looks good in ink.
Slay is a jowly but lean man with Irish eyes, a friar bald spot and an innately amiable demeanor. He walks a thin rhetorical line as he rallies for local control: He must convince people that the structure of the police department needs to be changed, without insinuating that the officers are doing a piss-poor job or that there is a crime problem in St. Louis.
To those who say the system is effective the way it is, Slay counters by asking: If state control works so well, why doesn't any city outside Missouri do it?
To those who argue that local control would politicize the department, Slay counters that the department is already politicized. He points to that time in February 2010 when commissioner Vincent Bommarito used his post to try to get his nephew off the hook for a DUI. Then he mentions the time commissioner Todd Epstein, appointed by Governor Matt Blunt, was unseated as board president when two new members, appointed by Governor Jay Nixon, voted to replace him with another Nixon appointment.
And the city of St. Louis hasn't been able to do anything about it. Instead, the fate of a local-control bill lies with a bunch of outstate, rural legislators with no stake in the matter. That's why Slay's legs are restless as he sits in his high-ceilinged, mahogany-doored office.
"When I went up to Jeff City to ask for this originally," he says, "it was kind of funny how this was received. Like this was gonna be something different and scary. When all we were asking for is what virtually every other city in America has."
There's a myth that state control of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department came out of the Civil War, that segregationist governor Claiborne Jackson took the reins of the department because St. Louis was a Union city and he wanted to control its massive arsenal.
But that story is only half-true, notes Allen Wagner, who wrote Good Order and Safety: A History of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, 1861-1906. While Jackson did use state control to advance the Confederate cause, state control wasn't his idea.
The first bill proposing state control was filed in 1859 by a state senator from St. Louis named Charles Drake. At the time, state- controlled police departments were popular in big cities across America. New York started the trend in 1857, and soon Philadelphia, Boston, Cincinnati, Chicago, Baltimore and San Francisco all followed. But Drake's bill never got out of committee.
A year later, Erastus Wells, a St. Louis alderman, took a cross-country trip and asked the mayors he met a simple question: Who has the best police department? Told the Baltimore Police Department, he drafted a bill to build the St. Louis police department in Baltimore's image and handed it to the legislators in Jefferson City. The bill passed in March 1861.
The power struggle between Mayor James Thomas and the commissioners began almost immediately after the Civil War. By 1867, Thomas was so frustrated that he stopped showing up at board meetings. When his term ended in 1869, Thomas declared that the city should control its own police department.
"And that was the first time anybody tried to bring local control back to St. Louis," says Wagner.
Over the next 150 years, New York, Chicago and all those other big cities returned police control to city hall. The fad had passed. Since Baltimore made the change in 1962, St. Louis has been the only city in America yet to switch back.(The only outlier, Kansas City, was granted local control in 1932 then voted in 1979 to switch back to state control, where it remains.)
St. Louis never got close. Before last year, a local-control bill had never even passed out of committee.
Slay blames the union representing officers, the St. Louis Police Officers Association, which had always been against local control.
"And then," he adds, "you've got a lot of disinterested individuals throughout the entire state of Missouri who basically didn't want to get in the middle of a fight with the cops."
The union had its reasons.
"Our big concern," says business manager Jeff Roorda, "was always that the things we fought so hard for — our benefits, our labor rights, our rights with respect to appealing discipline — that those things we've fought for so long and so hard were protected."
The city charter provides ordinances in the event that St. Louis regains police control. But because they were written almost 100 years ago, they're well below today's standards: There's no mention of benefits for widows and children of those killed in action nor financial assistance for those who pursue further education. The police union worried that if control returns to the city, they could lose some benefits.
Over the years there's been the block of outstate legislators who back the police no matter what and the block of outstate legislators who don't want to risk political capital by getting involved. The status quo has persisted.
This is the Fourth Ward. It's pretty bad around here," says Nasheed, as she navigates her off-white Ford SUV through empty streets in the middle of the day.
"Oh, look at that," she says matter-of-factly, glaring out her driver's side window at a crumbling three-story house with an entire side wall missing, exposing its interior like a dollhouse.
The whole block is decaying: graffitied boards on shattered windows. Weeds rising over and blanketing stoops. Vacant corner stores. Piles of brick and shards of wood decorating empty lots.
She crosses into the 21st Ward and turns onto Vandeventer Avenue. She slows down as she passes a row of abandoned buildings that look like they used to be apartments.
"This is an important block of mine," she says softly. "That door right there, that's the door my mom came out of after she committed suicide. That door right there..."
That door right there is where Jamilah Nasheed lived back when her name was Jenise Williams and everybody called her Niecy.
She didn't learn about her mom until she was seven and noticed that all her friends said "mom" while she said "grandma." So her grandmother explained the difference between "mom" and "grandma" and then explained that her mom killed herself when Nasheed was two. That's also when she learned about her dad. Less than a week after coming home from the Vietnam War, and a few months before Nasheed was born, her dad was killed in a drive-by shooting while he played craps outside the Pruitt-Igoe housing project.
So Nasheed and her three brothers were raised by their grandmother in the Darst-Webbe project. The four of them lived off $500 of government assistance every month. The budget shrunk as the days passed. By midmonth, the family often subsisted on cheese bread and sugar bread.
To get a little cash in their pockets, Lil' Niecy and her brothers shined shoes. She used the money to buy candy wholesale. Then she'd set up shop at the bottom floor of her apartment and sell whatever she didn't eat, making a solid profit each day before the neighborhood boys would run up and steal as many sweets as they could fit in their pockets.
She spent most of her free time with her twin brother, Jahid. They were inseparable. A couple of low-level hoodlums, they threw rocks at windows and picked fights, which they always won.
"They were the baddest kids in the projects," says Nasheed's older brother, Jason Williams.
After a few years she graduated from Now and Laters and penny cookies to weed and crack and heroin. It was the mid-'80s, and north St. Louis was a drug boomtown.
"That was part of the project life," she says. "Materialism was very high, and it influenced a lot of us. And we wanted it, and we couldn't get it. And our parents couldn't get it."
So Lil' Niecy — rockin' gold teeth, gold rings, bright silk shirt and Jheri curl — slanged her product. She carried a gun before reaching her teens.
Nobody messed with Lil' Niecy.
"She was a fighter," says Williams. "She was a good fighter. All the boys were scared to fight her 'cause she would beat them up."
When she was thirteen, she started a gang with a dozen or so friends. They were called "El Control," and they wore matching white-and-blue T-shirts whenever they went out together, roaming the neighborhood and sneaking into nightclubs. If a rival gang from another building — and it always seemed to be the girls from the Peabody houses — stepped onto their turf, they rumbled. Usually Lil' Niecy busted girls' faces with brass knuckles. But one time she stabbed a girl in the chest and spent a week in juvenile detention.
She got in so many fights that Darst-Webbe's manager kicked her out of the complex and banned her from the grounds. (The family moved to another apartment a few blocks away.) She dropped out of school in tenth grade, after her guidance counselor told her that she was so far behind that she had no chance to graduate. A year later, Jahid was convicted on conspiracy to commit murder and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Nasheed was devastated.
"The environment sucked him up, and he wasn't able to get out of it," she says. "A lot of guys that I grew up with, they didn't make it through. A lot of them became drug addicts or ended up jailed. Many of them were murdered."
She found herself reflecting on her life, searching for meaning.
"I didn't believe in God," she says. "I felt that, if there was a God, then why am I living in these conditions? Or why did he take my mother? Why did he take my father?"
So she channeled her anguish toward books and spent her days at Progressive Emporium, a local bookstore. She met activists, discussed current events and read Na'im Akbar and Malcolm X. Raised Baptist, she started going to the mosque. When she was nineteen, she converted to Islam, and Jenise became Jamilah — Jheri curl and gold rings replaced by a headscarf and flowing African dresses.
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.
"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.
The police union announced its approval of the bill on the final day of the legislative session. The block of opposition vanished. But the bill was held up by a group of senators who wanted cuts on historic and low-income tax credits in return. The bill died before reaching the floor for a vote.
The votes are there, though, and just about everybody thinks passage is inevitable, either in September's special session or in the 2012 session.
"I don't see any real reason why it wouldn't pass, given that all the folks on both sides have worked out the issues," says House Minority Leader Mike Talboy.
"I think I have the votes to do it," says Senator Joseph Keaveny, sponsor of the Senate bill.
"As the bill stands, I'm OK with it," says Chappelle-Nadal.
"With each passing day it looks more and more likely," says Roorda. "I can't find anyone who thinks this is unlikely."
"I'm not aware of any opposition to the bill at this time," says Slay.
St. Louis politics are not defined by Republican versus Democrat, because there usually aren't any Republicans in St. Louis politics. When votes split in city hall, the political divide is north of Delmar Boulevard versus south of Delmar Boulevard.
"We have two Democratic parties," says Nasheed. "We have the black Democratic party and the white Democratic party. When the primaries come up, whites vote for this guy, and blacks vote for that guy."
That is the political atmosphere that molded Nasheed, and that is the mindset she brings to Jefferson City. She doesn't live and die with the party because she doesn't believe the party lives and dies with her. The Democrats controlled St. Louis when her father was shot. The Democrats controlled St. Louis when she lived off of sugar bread. The Democrats controlled St. Louis when her apartment's courtyard was lined with junkies and dried blood.
"My eyes saw bodies on the street," she says. "You know how if you hear gunshots, you run away from it? It was so much of the norm for us that we would run toward it to see who it was, and we would see bodies. So now, after thinking about it, what did that do to me?"
So she doesn't fight for the Democrats. She fights for the son whose brother got shot, the niece who cuts class, and the grandmother who's seen too many teardrops and closed caskets.
And if the Democrats are down to help her out with that, all the better.
So how's everything?" Nasheed says into her Blackberry. "Are you working with your clients to get some cash in for Citizens to Elect Jamilah Nasheed? I know you are."
She sits at her black lacquered dining room table. Beside her is political consultant Ronnie Richardson, and he is holding a sheet of paper listing names — lobbyists and rich people — and anticipated contributions.
During her last campaign, in 2010, Nasheed raised more than $54,000; in her last contested race, she raised more than $90,000. She'll be on the ballot again in 2012.
"So, tell me this here," she says. "What are we looking like for a special session?...What are you hearing?...Uh huh...OK...and local control? Yeah...well, we're moving into election cycle, so you know there's a lot of political pandering going on right now..."
She mentions that the Democrats proposed a state representative redistricting map that moved her and Penny Hubbard, who also voted with the Republicans on the redistricting bill, into the same district.
"That's the punishment that the Democrats have given us, right? That's so cute," she says to the lobbyist or rich person. "However, I don't think the Republicans will sign on to the Democrats' map..."
When the call ends, Richardson marks down the $1,500 they just raised. Nasheed crosses her legs, adjusts her glasses and lets out a sigh.
This is her least favorite part of campaigning, she says — calling all these high rollers who don't even live in her district, begging for money. No, she'd much rather pound the pavement, knock on doors, shake hands with her people. Just like she did in her first campaign more than twenty years ago.
It wasn't an ordinary political beginning. She was fifteen, and the manager of the Darst-Webbe project was kicking her out for fighting too much. She asked him to give her another chance.
OK, he said: If you can get enough neighbors to sign a petition, you can stay. So she pounded the pavement, climbed all nine floors of her building, knocking on doors until she collected more than 300 signatures. He relented. She was allowed to stay. Then a week later she got into a fight and was kicked out for good.