In the first televised debate since the mayoral primary, St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones asserted she was ready to lead the city with her experience and professional relationships, while Alderwoman Cara Spencer drove home the fact that she will come prepared to lead with a 10-point plan to address the city’s violent crime rates.
Not surprisingly, given the uptick in violent crime in recent years, the majority of questions centered on crime, policing and public safety. Those questions were asked Tuesday evening on Fox2Now by a panel of local journalists, as well as by community members who submitted their inquiries online.
That panel consisted of Linda Lockhart, representing the Greater St. Louis Association of Black Journalists and the St. Louis Press Club; Michael Calhoun, a reporter with KMOX Radio; and Gilbert Bailon, editor-in-chief of the St. Louis Post Dispatch.
Lockhart kicked off the debate after opening statements, asking how the candidates planned to address the root causes of crime.
Both candidates acknowledged the need to reestablish trust between community members and the police.
“We need to put the public back in public safety,” Jones said, an idea she reiterated throughout the night. “And that means making sure that we are deploying the right person to the right call. Not only has St. Louis experienced its most violent year in decades, we also are top in the nation for gun violence by our officers.”
Jones said the city needs to pivot from an “arrest and incarcerate model” to a prevention-centered model. In an answer to a later question about the over 150 vacancies at the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, Jones said that about half of the calls that come in to dispatch can be responded to by mental health and social work professionals.
Spencer gave an outline of her 10-point plan to address crime, which starts with focused deterrence, a crime prevention method the alderwoman said is data-driven and proven to reduce homicides by up to 50%. Jones said she also supports focused deterrence.
“Like many of our viewers tonight, crime is personal for me — I was the victim of a violent crime myself so I know how important it is,” Spencer said. “That’s why when I decided to run for mayor I got serious about looking at what the city can and should be doing, taking from cities that have effectively addressed violence I put together a comprehensive 10-step plan to start to address crime on day one.”
As for issues surrounding the City Justice Center jail and the Workhouse, both candidates said they would close the workhouse and renovate the CJC. Jones said she would close it within the first 100 days of her administration, while Spencer said she would need to evaluate the city’s needs before making a decision on a closure date.
The two women had different takes when it came to a question about how they would support Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner’s reform agenda and her office’s relationship with the city police department.
Jones said she has supported Gardner for eight years and would work to ensure Gardner’s diversion programs find funding (noting the Board of Alderman has denied these programs money) and she would insist on the ousting of Jeff Roorda, the public face of the police union.
“If they don’t get rid of him, they don’t have a seat at my table,” Jones said, also adding later in the night, when asked, that as mayor she would interview Police Chief John Hayden to ensure he was the right person to continue heading the department.
“Everything is on the table, every position is on the table, there are no sacred cows here,” Jones said.
Spencer said she would confer with other stakeholders when it came to whether she would keep Hayden in his position.
“This is not a question that I will not answer alone,” she said.
In regards to Gardner, Spencer’s focus was on rebuilding the relationship between the prosecutor’s officer and the police department. She said she supports Gardner’s reform agenda.
“We need a path for justice in our court system, if we don’t have a path through our courts we will see justice continue to play out in the streets,” Spencer said.
In other topics, Calhoun asked about tax incentives and what each candidate thought was the proper balance in the city’s use of them.
Spencer said that while incentivizing development is an important piece to driving investment into the city of St. Louis, the city “must be judicious” in using them. She said if elected she would reorient the St. Louis Development Corporation (SLDC) to be proactive and work with communities to develop a plan to understand what incentives can be supported.
“I have been fighting back when the deals don’t make sense down at City Hall since the day I got down there,” Spencer said.
Jones said she would use the city’s money and resources toward intentional investment, and believes the city has overused the incentives in some areas. Her plan is to also reorient SLDC to make it more focused on neighborhoods and recruit a new director who has experience in developing other cities.
“Just like we saw intentional investment in downtown and the central corridor, we saw disinvestment in areas of north St. Louis and parts of south St. Louis,” Jones said. “And so it should be no surprise that those areas are hollowing out because we have not used our development incentives to go into those areas.”
Other topics covered in the debate were public schools, city hall innovation, regional cooperation and allocating the $500 million federal stimulus the city is slated to begin receiving in May.
The one-hour debate can be watched at https://bit.ly/2P0cxqN.