For Jones, Public Service is in Her Genes
By Krista Rinehart, CSG Leadership Center Coordinator
For Missouri Rep. Tishaura Jones, public service is in the blood. She credits her father, Virvus Jones, a long-time public servant who held a variety of offices including St. Louis comptroller and alderman, with exemplifying the importance of public service and giving back to your community.
“I grew up in a political family,” she said. “My dad held office since the time I was 3. He’s an extraordinary leader in our community and is very well respected. Thanks in part to him, I feel like this is my calling.”
For her part, Jones, a member of the 2011 Toll Fellows class, tries to share her inherited enthusiasm for service and her life’s career choice with the next generation as well.
“I always preach to kids to find something you would do for free and find a way to make a living doing it,” she said. “I was a committeewoman at first and wasn’t paid. I’m finally in a position where I get a little pay for doing what I love. But I have to tell you, I would do it without the pay because I feel like public service is in my genes. It’s what I’m supposed to be doing.”
In addition to her father, Jones credits Missouri native Congresswoman Maxine Waters of California and former state Sen. Paula Carter as providing role models. She also noted that Michelle Obama provides inspiration for women trying to have it all.
The common trait she sees in all these public officials, one that inspires her service as well, is a desire to serve the people.
“All of those great leaders put people first,” she said. “I notice that in watching all of those great examples, they all put their constituents first and that’s what good public service has to be about—the people.”
While providing inspiration, Jones also admits that her desire to help the people of Missouri can leave her frustrated as well. A current case in point is Missouri’s reaction to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
“Missouri is a red state and there are a lot of people fighting the implementation of health care reform,” Jones said. “But at the end of the day, it’s the people who will suffer and, at times, it seems like nobody cares about that as long as they can oppose one man and his plans. That is so frustrating because people are going without medical care that they need and don’t know how their state will respond to this new reality.”
Jones, who has a master’s degree in health administration, is well-versed in the health care debate and believes her state needs to take action.
“Our first task needs to be passing the legislation needed to implement the Affordable Care Act,” she said. “Folks may fight it to the point that the federal government has to step in and that will help no one.”
While she may have formally studied health care, Jones tries to be a student of all the issues. She cites the advice of her father for her deep-rooted desire to be informed.
“My dad always said, ‘It is better to remain silent and have people think you’re a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all possible doubt,’” said Jones. “Because of that advice, I am the kind of person that will study a situation or an issue before speaking out or taking action on something.”
Jones credits her thoughtful approach, as well as fortuitous timing, with her rapid rise through the House ranks. In 2010, she became the first African-American woman to serve as assistant minority leader just two years after taking office.
“I tried to learn the positions and issues before I tried to lead,” she said. “Then when the stars aligned and the person everyone had in mind for the position unexpectedly lost his election, I was able to take the bull by the horns and dive in because I knew what made the caucus tick and what makes the whole House run.”
A self-described “hands-on leader,” Jones is not one to lead by proxy.
“I’m not willing to tell people what to do if I haven’t done it myself,” she said. “That is true in everything I do, from understanding an issue I’m forwarding to my community involvement. When I decided to take up the cause of an area woman’s shelter, I went and met with the people being served there. I put faces and human stories with the names so that I was better able to represent them on the state level.”
In addition to addressing health care, Jones identified education and revenue generation as two priorities facing the legislature.
“We have gone through four cycles of cutting hundreds of millions out of the budget,” said Jones, “but with no new revenue streams. We can’t keep cutting our way to prosperity.”
Jones sees a number of possible new revenue sources, from updating the state’s income tax structure to instituting a sales tax on Internet commerce that could provide healthy new revenue streams. At the same time, she recognizes few issues are more clearly divided along partisan lines than taxes. In the end, she hopes she will be able to play an important role in leading her state forward using her knowledge and relationship skills to build new bridges.
“I try to build relationships across the aisle by identifying where we can agree,” said Jones. “I build relationships and legislation around the areas where we agree versus writing legislation that addresses the areas where we know we don’t agree.