Tishaura Jones was elected Tuesday as the first Black woman mayor of St. Louis, the latest in a recent surge of Black women running for and being voted into positions of power in major U.S. cities.
Jones, the city’s treasurer, was making her second run after losing the 2017 Democratic primary by fewer than 900 votes. During a speech Tuesday night after her runoff victory over Alderman Cara Spencer, Jones indicated her intention to address broad inequities as part of her vision for St. Louis.
“I will not stay silent when I spot racism,” Jones said. “I will not stay silent when I spot homophobia or transphobia. I will not stay silent when I spot xenophobia. I will not stay silent when I spot religious intolerance. I will not stay silent when I spot any injustice.”
Jones’s election is part of an unmistakable trend in American cities: In 2017, Keisha Lance Bottoms became the second Black woman elected mayor of Atlanta and Vi Alexander Lyles became the first Black woman elected mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina. In 2018, LaToya Cantrell became the first woman mayor of New Orleans and London Breed became the first Black woman mayor elected in the city of San Francisco. In 2019, Lori Lightfoot became the first Black woman mayor of Chicago.
This year, Black women are also running for mayor in Boston and New York. As of March 2021, there are 32 women serving as mayors in the 100 largest cities. Seven are Black women.
“We’re seeing a reshape of what executive leadership looks like,” said Kimberly Peeler-Allen, a visiting practitioner at the Center for American Women and Politics who has studied Black women’s political power and is also a co-founder of Higher Heights, which seeks to elect Black women. “Because we’ve seen Black women run and win in legislative bodies, but we have not seen them at the top of the ticket as the ones who are, ‘The buck stops here.’ We have not seen that in concentrated numbers prior to 2017. And I think that is really reshaping how Black women see themselves, and also how the electorate sees Black women’s leadership and the need for Black women’s leadership.”
It’s not just in mayor’s offices. Brenda Choresi Carter is director of the Reflective Democracy Campaign, which tracks the increasing diversity of people in elected office and released its latest report in February. That data shows that from 2016 to 2020, women of color, including Black women, had large increases in political representation in elected city positions.
“The phenomenon of Black women winning mayoral seats isn’t happening in a vacuum,” she said. “There’s actually this real surge of Black women and women of color more broadly in city-level elected offices across the country.”
Carter said the reasons vary based on the political climate of each city. She noted that the bulk of Black women winning office are Democrats, indicating the work ahead for the Republican Party to recruit more candidates of color.
Peeler-Allen said voters are looking for candidates with lived experiences who can help address inequities exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
“People are really recognizing the value of having diverse voices around decision-making tables and the way that women, and particularly Black women, just lead differently,” she said, “It is an opportunity to make sure that all people are included in the conversation.”
In Boston, Kim Janey became acting mayor last month after Marty Walsh resigned to become labor secretary in the Biden administration. She and Andrea Campbell, currently on the city council, are both running to be the first Black woman elected as mayor in that city.
“Women, Black women, have been stepping up to do the work, and we’re winning,” Janey said in the video.
Campbell announced her run back in September. (Other women of color, including Michelle Wu, have also declared their candidacies.) Campbell told The 19th that America is at a pivotal moment amid a national reckoning on race following last year’s demonstrations against police brutality.
“We feel it at the local level here in the city of Boston. And I’ve said from the beginning that Boston has a unique opportunity, and I’m not sure we’ll get it again anytime soon, to address our own painful history when it comes to race and racism, and to eradicate the inequities that exist in our city because of that history,” said Campbell, the first Black woman to serve as city council president in Boston. “But for us to do that we need leadership that is not only bold and courageous and understands those inequities, but has a lived experience and a record of accomplishment addressing those inequities.”
Maya Wiley is among the Black women in a crowded race for mayor of New York City, which will hold its primary in June. She’s one of the leading fundraisers in the race so far, along with former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales, who is Afro-Latina. Wiley said Black women have always been “managers” for their communities.
“We have always been caregivers of our communities, and we have always been looking for solutions for our community members,” she said. “And so that requires executive office. … I think that’s why you see so many of us running now for executive positions, because we want to manage the change we need to make.”
A civil rights activist who formerly served as chief counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio, Wiley said she’s noticed “questions of credibility” from potential voters despite her resume in city government.
“You know, ‘Do you really know how to manage? Are you really qualified?’ You have to work twice as hard,” Wiley said. “…There’s a record to judge me on in terms of management, but instead there’s always this question of whether I’m qualified, that I don’t think would necessarily be the same question if [I] was a man.”
Carter said while there has been an increase in Black women running for office, there are still barriers that contribute to their underrepresentation in elected political office.
“I think in political circles and for powerbrokers — the world of political gatekeepers who decide who’s going to run and who’s going to get the resources for their campaigns — there still is a lot of old, inaccurate conventional wisdom about what a successful or a viable candidate looks like, and that candidate usually does not look like a Black woman,” Carter said. “ …The good news is that the more women, people of color and in this case, Black women, who are elected, and the more they run and win, the more that becomes a discredited notion.”