The results of the August 7 Democratic primary has St. Louis all atwitter (pardon the pun). There were historic victories that could change the political calculus of St. Louis, and while it was a great night, we need to put it in context. Getting the right players in the right positions is the beginning of the process, not the end.
Wesley Bell’s victory over Bob McCulloch in the St. Louis County prosecutor’s race had the same historical significance as Bill Clay’s election to Congress and Freeman Bosley Jr.’s election as mayor of St. Louis, because Bell’s victory, like those of Clay and Bosley, redefined black political possibilities. Bell’s winning strategy had to include substantial numbers of white voters, which he attracted without diluting his commitment to criminal justice reform or running away from the black community.
Bell is now positioned to implement life-changing reforms to St. Louis County’s criminal justice system and has the potential to provide national leadership to this existential issue for black Americans. The injustices of the American criminal justice are intentional; there are powerful forces that will fight to the bitter end to maintain the status quo. Bell has many well-wishers, but he also has something else: real enemies. These enemies are dangerous and relentless, so he needs to remember the last instruction that the referee gives to fighters: protect yourself at all times.
Karla May’s trouncing of incumbent state Senator Jake Hummel to win the Democratic nomination for the 4th Senate District seat and Brian Williams beating two veteran state representatives to win the Democratic nomination for the 14th Senate District seat will create another historical political first for St. Louis’ African-American community after the general election in November. With state Senator Jamilah Nasheed already representing the 5th Senate District, after the general election there will be three African Americans from St. Louis seated in the Missouri Senate for the first time.
Nasheed and May are experienced, skilled legislators who are in their political prime. Williams, though a newcomer to elective office, has an impressive resume of governmental and political experience that will make him a quick study. Each has the political IQ and skill to be individually successful, but in this case the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. If they work together as a team – with their colleague from Kansas City, state Senator Shalonn “Kiki” Curls, they could be a formidable force in the state Senate.
There’s an expression often heard in Jefferson City: The House makes noise, the Senate makes the laws. Nothing happens in the State of Missouri without the consent of the Missouri Senate. The black community in St. Louis is now politically positioned to wield outsized influence in Missouri’s most powerful political body.
The August 7 Democratic primary was also the coming out party for the Fannie Lou Hamer Democratic Coalition and the St. Louis County Council. What Fannie Lou Hamer and the County Council have in common is 1st District Councilwoman Hazel Erby. Under Erby’s leadership, Fannie Lou Hamer has solidified its place as a go-to player in county politics, and has become an engaged and articulate voice on behalf of the black community. With an impressive ground game and an active social media presence, this coalition of black elected officials is reshaping St. Louis County’s political landscape.
The emergence of the County Council as a political juggernaut is the most underappreciated political story of last year. Historically, the council has been mostly a rubber stamp for whoever is the county executive. But Council Chair Sam Page and Erby, the vice chair, have teamed up to craft a solid governing coalition that is a formidable counterweight to the county executive. Erby and Page didn’t start as allies, but have built a multiracial, bipartisan coalition.
These candidates – Bell, May, Williams and Erby – are all authentic expressions of black political aspirations. They are black political leaders produced by the black community for the black community. But they all share another important characteristic: Each has been successful because they had skill to expand their political reach and build diverse coalitions without undermining their commitment to the black community. Black authenticity and the ability to build and leverage diverse, multiracial, multicultural coalitions are essential qualities for successful 21st century black political leadership.
Mike Jones is a former senior staffer in St. Louis city and county government and current member of the Missouri State Board of Education and The St. Louis American editorial board. In 2016 and 2017, he was awarded Best Serious Columnist for all of the state’s large weeklies by the Missouri Press Association.