St. Louis single mom swept into office on winds of change

ST. LOUIS – Cara Spencer, 36, a long-time South City resident and single mom, is now alderwoman-elect here. She defeated an entrenched incumbent during the March primaries and then successfully faced-off against a so-called “progressive independent,” who not only hired a Republican to run his campaign, but also employed Koch Brother-style tactics in an effort to discredit Spencer – the real progressive.

“We ran a positive campaign,” she told the Peoples World a few days after the Apr. 7 general election here. “We kept it focused on the issues and the residents of Ward 20 responded. Democracy is the real winner in this campaign.”

In the Mar. 4 primary election, Spencer defeated 20-year incumbent, Craig Schmid, and another lesser-known Democratic candidate, with 48 percent of the vote. In an off-year election in a ward with historically low voter turn-out, Spencer’s campaign increased voter participation by nearly 50 percent compared to the most recent off-year aldermanic election.    

In the Apr. 7 general election, Spencer defeated Stephen Jehle, a so-called “progressive independent,” with 70 percent of the vote. Spencer’s campaign again dramatically increased voter turn-out, this time by an even larger percentage, thereby trouncing Jehle – who had hoped that negative campaign tactics would squelch voter turn-out, increasing his margins and chances for winning.

Jehle’s tactics of negativity clearly failed.

Ward 20 is the largest African-American ward on St. Louis’ south-side, working class in character with a high vacant house and crime rate. It has, undoubtedly, been neglected by city investors over the past 20 years, largely due to racist dis-investment policies.

It has recently become one of two target wards for the community-labor based, 501(c)3 non-profit St. Louis Workers’ Education Society, of which Spencer is a supporter. The other target is Ward 9, which is directly to the east of Ward 20. As a non-profit, the Workers’ Education Society did not endorse either candidate.

Spencer’s campaign has larger political implications for a number of reasons.

First, it signals a sea change for Ward 20 residents who will now have a real advocate in City Hall, not another entrenched ‘yes man’ for Mayor Francis Slay, who is currently serving his forth-term and is poised to become mayor for life, which partly explains why voters turned-out in such large numbers.

Second, prior to this election campaign, Spencer had been a long-time community advocate and activist – active in numerous community, small business and transportation-based issues – like the Consumers’ Council of Missouri and the Friends of North-South Metro Link. Unlike her opponent, she brings a wealth of grassroots knowledge and experience, the ability to work with diverse groups – often with conflicting agendas – and a dogged determination to bring good-paying jobs to Ward 20 residents.

Third, by defeating a so-called “independent progressive,” whose smear campaign came directly from the Republican, Koch Brother play-book, she sent a clear message to other opportunist candidates masquerading as independents. Ward 20 voters clearly saw through the lies, attacks and sexism. They spoke in a unified voice, thereby providing Spencer – a real independent progressive – with a mandate for change. Other so-called “independent progressives” should pay close attention.

Fourth, Spencer’s campaign and victory was largely independent of the mainstream Democratic Party apparatus. Rather, it was aided and led by other independent progressive women – like former State Sen. Joan Bray, and City Treasurer Tishaura Jones – who, in many ways, represent the left-flank of  Democratic Party politics here in St. Louis. Former State Rep. Jeanette Mott Oxford, and current State Representative Clem Smith are also part of this larger independent left trend.

Understanding this independent trend requires a nuanced analysis of politics and an objective assessment of the political balance of power within differing spheres of influence that all coalesce under the larger Democratic Party umbrella – an issue that, undoubtedly, confused some well-intentioned progressive voters who unfortunately saw separation from the Democratic Party as the only avenue for change within a two-Party electoral system, which Jehle’s campaign disingenuously emphasized.

Additionally, it is this nuanced analysis – of Spencer’s independence – that lead some Democratic Party operatives to secretly support the opposition and claim the title “independent progressive” in-spite of Jehle’s Republican-libertarian politics.  

In short, some Democratic Party operatives sold their values down the river in order to unsuccessfully maintain a stranglehold on Ward 20’s (small d) democratic apparatus. This partly explains why Spencer’s opposition ran such a fierce, negative and underhanded campaign. They wanted to maintain the status quo. They were the status quo candidate, in spite of their “independent progressive” label.

Fifth, Spencer’s campaign objectively challenged racism and sexism in Ward 20 by empowering women and people of color at every level of the campaign. She will add the voice of a single mom to St. Louis city politics, which is dominated by men, and advocate strongly for the majority black ward.

“The level of community support we’ve received is truly humbling,” Spencer added. “We started this campaign with no institutional support. We were the outsiders. People said we would never beat a 20-year incumbent.

“But, we did the hard work of talking to the voters. Our team knocked on every voter’s door ten or twelve times. Our message of change resonated. People see that we are different. This isn’t about me. It’s about us – the residents of Ward 20.”

Democracy won the day in Ward 20 on April 7th. Bolstered by this victory, a new independent political apparatus is consolidating its presence, which engenders larger political significance for St. Louis City politics. The consolidating of this new apparatus makes this victory the beginning of something special.

Photo: Spencer with Firefighters Local 73.  |  Tony Pecinovsky/PW


Tony Pecinovsky
Tony Pecinovsky

Tony Pecinovsky is the author of "Let Them Tremble: Biographical Interventions Marking 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA" and author/editor of "Faith In The Masses: Essays Celebrating 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA." His forthcoming book is titled "The Cancer of Colonialism: W. Alphaeus Hunton, Black Liberation, and the Daily Worker, 1944-1946." Pecinovsky has appeared on C-SPAN’s "Book TV" and speaks regularly on college and university campuses across the country.