In Circuit Attorney Race, Four Candidates Vie for St. Louis' Toughest Job

Candidates make their pitch at a recent debate.
Candidates make their pitch at a recent debate. PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI

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Six days after the debate, Jennifer Joyce sits in her wood-covered office on the fourth floor of the Carnahan Courthouse, turning a snow globe in her hands. She gives it a shake.

"This is my Lady Justice snow globe," Joyce says. Gold foil billows around the female figure encased in glass. "Somebody gave it to me because I change this office all the time. I call it snow-globing the office."

Now Joyce's impending departure portends a shake-up that hasn't been seen in the office in more than a decade.

"I care very much about this office, and I care very much about who succeeds me," Joyce says. "The work here is so important, and there's a lot of people doing this work and I'm going to correct any misrepresentation by anybody."

That's why the debate worried her. The stakes are too high for platitudes and fuzzy propositions about bringing trust back to the office. The next circuit attorney won't have any time for on-the-job training, she says. There is work to be done, and it waits on nobody.

But even Joyce can admit when she's gone too far. Little more than two hours after the debate ended, Joyce backtracked on her Twitter barrage. She tweeted at Reed, "[M]y apologies. Looks like I'm the one who lacked balance. By all accounts you did a great job."

The difference between her initial tweets and the apology, Joyce says, was a conversation with Bruce Franks, an activist who makes it his habit to bridge the divide between protesters and the police. He had reached out to Joyce and chided her over her easy dismissal of the debate. Joyce apparently took his words to heart.

"It was pretty unfair of me to not be at the debate. This is a young woman who cares really passionately about this stuff and worked really hard on this," Joyce says of Reed. "By all accounts the questions were fair. I was prejudging what she was going to do, and that's exactly the thing that protesters do that annoys me. I realized that was a mistake on my part."

It's not often that Joyce reverses a position. On her desk sits a plaque with the words "I'm Responsible," the same kind Rudy Giuliani kept on his desk while mayor of New York City. Over the last several years, Joyce earned a reputation for being prickly on Twitter, willing to throw down in defense of her office for any perceived slight or misrepresentation. Trying to budge Joyce from a position can often be a doomed effort.

She acknowledges that she overreacted to the debate criticism, but she also knows what the next Circuit Attorney will be walking into. It won't be anything like an echo chamber of progressives.

"They're going to have to know what they're doing," she says.

It's not just a matter of years spent in the office. Joyce had only six years in the prosecutor's office before winning the circuit attorney post in 2000. But unlike Hamacher or Gardner, Joyce had worked multiple homicide cases and spent her years in the high-stakes child abuse unit.

Not one to mince words, Joyce offers a simple assessment of Hamacher. "I don't think Patrick has the experience to do this job," she says.

Joyce has similar problems with Gardner. She can pound the bully pulpit about bringing trust back to the office, but to Joyce it sounds like empty political fury.

"Kim was a prosecutor here for five years. She's had that experience where victims are afraid to come forward or afraid to cooperate and we have to dismiss the case. Why is it now, when she sits in that chair, that all of a sudden all the victims are going to come forward? It's not that easy."

If there's one point about the job that Joyce wants to get across, it's just that: There is nothing easy about being circuit attorney. The holder of that title will find him or herself threatened and pressured on all sides, pushed by police unions, legislators, mayors and high-powered attorneys. The next circuit attorney may look out their window one day to see protesters assembling on their lawn, as she did.

"I think this is, in some ways, the most important election," Joyce mused. "I like Kim Gardner a lot. I like Patrick Hamacher a lot. I don't really know Steven Harmon. But nobody is in the same league, in my view, as Mary Pat."

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