Maida Coleman is no stranger to hard work or hard times. She learned to get her hands dirty growing up in rural Missouri, and in the 1990s bounced back from bankruptcy.
Last month, Coleman turned in signatures to run for the top job in St. Louis City Hall as an Independent. The former state senator and state Senate minority floor leader said her political and personal experiences will earn her enough votes to defeat incumbent Mayor Francis G. Slay and bring about the change needed in this city.
The Fox Park resident brought that message on Tuesday when she spoke to residents at Metropolitan Village Nursing Home.
“She made me feel so comfortable,” said resident Myrtle Favors of her first time meeting Coleman. “She made you feel cheerful for when you go vote for her. It’s time for a change.”
If she wins, Coleman will become this city’s first female mayor.
The eldest of eight children, Maida Jean Coleman was born on July 1, 1954.
She grew up in Sikeston, where she had to use an outhouse until age 17 and spent her summers picking cotton. Her mother worked part-time as a sales clerk and her stepfather was a laborer. Once a month, the family drove to the county seat to obtain an allocation of free government commodities, including cheese, canned meat, beans and rice.
“When you’re the eldest you take on a lot of responsibility, especially when you live in the country,” Coleman said. “So hard work is not a problem for me. It’s just a means to get to something better.”
Her love for education led her to a better life.
She attended Lincoln University in Jefferson City for journalism and put herself through college by working two jobs. She later married, moved to St. Louis in 1984 and worked as a reporter at the St. Louis American.
She later worked in non-profit housing and real estate management before becoming assistant director of housing for the St. Louis Housing Authority.
It was former Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White, Coleman said, who sparked her interest in politics by inviting her to a meeting in the 7th Ward.
Coleman was director of the Missouri Secretary of State’s field office in St. Louis before being elected to the Missouri House of Representatives in 2000. She later entered the state Senate, where term limits forced her to leave. She was elected as assistant Minority Floor Leader and then as Minority Floor Leader in 2004, where she served for four years. In the late 1990s, divorced and with three children, Coleman lost her job and found herself in serious financial trouble.
“The hardest decision I ever had to make was filing bankruptcy,” Coleman said.
In the past, her financial problems have hurt her political fortunes. She abandoned a bid for state auditor in 2006 after it was disclosed she had previously filed for bankruptcy.
Still, Coleman says the way she worked through her bankruptcy and paid off all her debt shows she can handle a financial crisis..
“I didn’t have financial problems because of foolish spending but because I was raising three children and I was unemployed,” she said. “Was it painful to do? Yes, but I’m no better than anybody else is. You have to do what you have to do to make your life better and others’.”
On Monday morning out of her campaign office on Lafayette and Tucker streets, Coleman was busy taking phone calls and scheduling appointments trying to garner support and money for her grass-roots campaign.
“The unfortunate part of a race is the nonstop raising money,” said Coleman, who started the mayoral race with zero dollars and less than a handful of volunteers, compared to Slay’s $2.8 million and 10 full-time staffers. Now she is running her campaign with the help of three full-time staffers and lots of volunteers.
“A vote is worth more than a dollar any day,” she said. “Money doesn’t win elections, people win elections.”
She encountered a setback on Jan. 2, the last filing day, when she had planned to file as a Democratic candidate for the mayoral primary, only to find out another black woman named “Coleman” – Denise Watson-Wesley Coleman, an attorney – had filed. Coleman cried foul.
“I decided I wouldn’t play those silly political games but file as an Independent,” said Coleman, who had been a Democrat her entire career.
In her campaign, she emphasizes her reputation as a consensus builder in the state Legislature. In her 20 years in politics, Coleman has sponsored or co-sponsored more than 325 bills, including SB95 that stiffens requirements for property owners with regard to lead paint.
She accused Slay of several things that have gone wrong in the city by ignoring problems in the police department as the only elected police commissioner, dismantling the city school system and blemishing St. Louis’ reputation.
“We’ve been the number one murder capital in this country. We’ve consistently rated high and number one in STDs. We were just listed in Forbes Magazine as one of the 20 most miserable cities to live in,” Coleman said.
“We can’t go down the same road, doing the same things and thinking something better is going to happen.”
Coleman describes her top concerns as education, crime and governmental transparency.
She advocates for creating more magnet schools to improve St. Louis Public Schools and providing further support for teachers, students and parents. To cut crime, she wants to gain local control of the city’s police department – other than Slay, all police commissioners are appointed by the governor – and shore up funds to get more officers on the streets.
She also plans to funnel more resources into the city’s public health department to provide more outreach to slow the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
She plans to use her relationships in Jefferson City to bring more federal stimulus money and jobs to St. Louis. She also wants to make small businesses an integral part of the city by using best practices from other places to keep them afloat. Lastly, she wants to find ways to keep young people in St. Louis.
With so much to do before the general election, Coleman seems undaunted by the fact that if she wins she will become St. Louis’ first female mayor.
“Leadership has no color or gender,” she said.
“Leadership is honesty, integrity and commitment, and that’s what I bring.”
Coleman faces Slay on the April 7 ballot.