Tishaura Jones, Beloved by Progressives, Hopes to Transcend the City's Racial Divide

Tishaura Jones has twice been elected as the city's treasurer.
Tishaura Jones has twice been elected as the city's treasurer. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE JONES CAMPAIGN

Tishaura Jones' mayoral campaign headquarters is based on Delmar Avenue, just east of the heart of the Central West End — and no, she says, it's not silly to ask if the address was chosen with intention. The city's treasurer acknowledges that the campaign's location on Delmar, and only on Delmar, "was deliberate, yes."

The street, now inextricably linked to the infamous phrase "the Delmar Divide," symbolizes the split between black and white St. Louis. It's hardly a new prop in the mayoral contest — Jones' competitor, Jeffrey Boyd, has a campaign sign just down the block, while a recent web video for Antonio French finds him confidently striding down a nearby stretch of the road — but for Jones, it's more than a backdrop. It's also strategy.

Jones' campaign, in both subtle and overt ways, has attacked the notion of black vs. white, north vs. south. She lives in the West End, just north of Delmar, but her campaign hashtag of #onestlouis suggests that the only path to victory spans both sides of the street. To that end, she intends to win votes not only from her north city base, but also from the young white progressives who've begun to shake up the city's status quo. So far, the enthusiastic support she's finding from many white, south-city Berniecrats suggests the plan is no fool's errand.

See also: Profiles of all five leading candidates for mayor

"In choosing #onestlouis, it says that despite everything we've been through — our racial tensions, the community and police's relationship — we have to emerge as one community after that," Jones says. "We have to move forward as one. And in any way that we address any of these ills — education, crime — we have to do it as one."

To get to the leadership position that she seeks, though, she'll have to run up against some time-tested notions of how racial politics play out. Four of the five major candidates for mayor are black, and the conventional wisdom holds that early poll-leader Lyda Krewson, the sole white option, is the beneficiary of a fractured field.

Jones resists that narrative, saying, "The St. Louis electorate is not monolithic. In the most recent election, St. Louis showed it's capable of choosing the best candidate in the field. Vernon Betts won for sheriff; he was among four black candidates for the job. Kim Gardner won circuit attorney in a field that had two white and two black candidates. I think the electorate has shown they want the best candidate, regardless of background. I think we are changing. No, we are changing."

It's not all starry-eyed progressivism. Jones has also secured the services of Mayor Francis Slay's campaign manager, Richard Callow — a big "get" in a hotly contested race. (Callow, says Jones, serves "in an advisory role. Anne Schweitzer is our campaign manager.") She adds, "Our agenda includes things that we're advocating for and are things that I've cared about for a long time. If that agenda dovetails into things that Richard cares about," that's incidental.

In addition to her polished persona, Jones, 44, brings a variety of strengths as a candidate. Her father was an alderman and later the city's comptroller, which could convey some dynastic benefits (maybe — more on that in a minute). And as the city's current treasurer, she's won city-wide office twice, on a reform agenda, as well as serving four years in the Missouri House of Representatives. She believes that experience will allow her a greater understanding of Jefferson City politics than rivals who've served only at the city level.

If she has an Achilles heel, it may be her father's history: Virvus Jones left office with his reputation damaged after being accused of mishandling campaign funds. He was sentenced to a year in federal prison after pleading guilty to cheating on his income taxes. The father-daughter relationship has always been a discussion point, a note of interest to those who wonder how much influence the former comptroller has on her campaign and, potentially, administration.

To be sure, they're close, with the elder Jones frequently called on for campaign season child-care duty for Tishaura Jones' nine-year-old son Aden — and also weighing in on his daughter's behalf on Twitter.

But when the Post-Dispatch recently alleged ethical concerns over Tishaura Jones' hiring of a company that employs her father's former associate, the treasurer went on the offensive, turning what was meant to be a hit piece into a call for second chances.

"I'm a very religious person, and one of my favorite passages is that 'no weapon formed against you shall prosper,'" she says, quoting the Bible. "That was used by the media to taint my campaign. But no daughter is responsible for the sins of the father. I saw that it backfired. People were able to see through what the media was trying to do."

Perhaps that recent P-D piece, or a memorably awkward clash with Elliott Davis of "You Paid For It" fame over her city-paid car, has left Jones somewhat media-wary. For someone who can speak at length on most any topic in public settings, her responses in private are measured, on-topic, addressing the issues without straying from the central point of an answer.

On a recent weekday afternoon, inside the storefront that Schweitzer and Jones keep at a Sunday-best level of detail and organization, Jones sits in a glass cubicle, writing thank you notes by long hand. It's a practice that she says she's always engaged in, dating to her statehouse days, if not earlier.

"Writing thank you notes is very important," she says. "It's an old art. [Constituents] like that personal touch and appreciate it. Even if it's something that could be pre-printed, this is just something I like to do."

The only item that seems permanently affixed to the campaign office desk is a framed ... something. In time, after Jones finishes answering a reporter's serious questions, Schweitzer encourages her to flip the frame, with the two laughing, if only for a moment, almost if ready to reveal a gag.

Nothing like that is forthcoming. Instead, Jones turns the piece to reveal a simple drawing of a buffalo. She tells a story of how buffaloes move directly into storms when on the plains, into the wildness and unpredictability of nature. They're aware, she suggests, that there'll always be an end to the storm and better days to come on the opposite side.

Schweitzer, picking up on the riff, says, "We are all buffalo here. Everybody is tirelessly working towards Tishaura's victory in March, then the election in April. It's a very diverse group, from all over the city, people of different backgrounds. Everybody here's dedicated to the campaign and the cause."

And, seemingly, to the calm, quiet leader in charge.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story provided inaccurate information about the district Tishaura Jones represented in the Missouri House of Representatives. She lives in the West End, but did not represent it in Jefferson City. We regret the error.

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