In the sixth chapter of Isaiah, God asks a profound compound question: “Who shall I send, who will go for us?”
This compound question has two answers, one obvious and one not so obvious. The obvious answer is God could send anyone He chose. But His other question was: Who wanted to go? This existential question, asked in the time of Isaiah, is the recurring question asked by oppressed people ever since. Who will go for us? And real leadership is about understanding what it means to say, “Send me.”
On August 5, 2014, after two years of baseless character assassination by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, incumbent Charlie Dooley lost the Democratic nomination for county executive to Stevie Stenger. Dooley was betrayed by most of organized labor and the white county Democratic establishment, though he had always supported both.
The mood that night among African-American county political leaders was not sadness but anger. Two days later, Berkeley Mayor Ted Hoskins hosted a meeting where the question was how to retaliate. A consensus emerged that Stenger should not be supported and his white Democratic allies needed to be actively opposed.
How to do it, and who would do it?
During that discussion, St. Louis County Councilwoman Hazel Erby said this political mistreatment and disrespect had gone on too long and she was sick and tired of it. It was with her phrasing in that moment that the Fannie Lou Hamer Democratic Coalition was born and christened. It’s also when Hazel Erby had her Isaiah moment. She said, “Send me.”
With less than 12 weeks before the November 4 General Election and no financial resources, she stepped forward to lead the effort to take on the Democratic establishment on behalf of the black community. She organized and galvanized black elected officials across six townships. They endorsed the Republican nominee for county executive, and their unified collective effort came within 1,800 votes of defeating Stenger.
While they didn’t change the outcome of the race, they did change the political calculus of St. Louis County and the political relationship between black politics and the retrograde Democratic Party in the county, whose only real value to the black community is they aren’t Republicans, barely.
On the St. Louis County Council, Hazel Erby has been a ferocious champion of the needs of the African-American community while being an advocate for the interests of all county residents. She has been an honest broker with allies and adversaries, all the while maintaining a humility, graciousness and generosity of spirit that is seldom, if ever, seen in St. Louis politics.
It’s appropriate to note the political role that women of color, particularly black women, are playing in this historic political moment, saving America from its worse self. Black women, who have long pulled the wagon for the Democratic Party, are now taking their well-earned place as the leaders and drivers of the party. And while it doesn’t always feel like it, there are black women in St. Louis helping to make this political history.
Hazel did not see herself playing this role at this point in life. But there is another question that is asked in the Old Testament that Hazel had to answer. By extension it speaks to some in this emerging generation of black women, who have the skills to lead, but for a myriad of reasons may be reluctant to answer the call.
You will find the question in Esther, one of two books in the Bible named after a woman: “And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
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, and in 2018 he was awarded Best Serious Columnist in the nation by the National Newspapers Association.