By Karen Robinson-Jacobs
More than 650 miles separate St. Louis’ North County from southern Dallas County, Texas.
But in the heavily African American neighborhoods of the 30th Congressional District, which encompasses Dallas-Fort Worth neighborhoods south and west of downtown, North County native Jasmine Crockett hears echoes of her homeland.
“I see the parallels,” said Crockett, 40, referencing successive dilemmas of crime and gentrification. “One goes from inner-city north, and one goes from inner-city south.”
This month, Crockett, who graduated from Mary Institute, St. Louis Country Day School and also attended Rosati-Kain, faces the toughest challenge of her still fairly young political career.
Early voting began on Valentine’s Day in what could turn into a slugfest – a crowded Democratic primary to replace the only representative the 30th has ever known, retiring Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson.
Crockett and at least eight other Democratic candidates – all African American – are vying to garner at least 51% of the vote by March 2, to avoid a potentially costly runoff. In the reliably Democratic district, the primary is the election that matters.
Crockett, the sole Black freshman member of the Texas House, shot to national prominence last summer as she and fellow Democratic house members fled the state and headed to D.C. to try to forestall a bill critics say would curb voting access.
In this year’s race, she is armed with a not-so-secret weapon: the full-throated endorsement of Johnson.
Johnson, a former nurse who has represented the district since the lines were drawn in the early 1990s, hand-picked Crockett, saying in a statement Crockett is “just the person we need in Congress at this critical time.”
She lauded Crockett’s “focus on equitable economic recovery for all, [and on] reforming the criminal justice system to make it more equitable and accessible for all.”
With that coveted endorsement, along with what Crockett describes as an increasingly brisk fundraising pace and lessons learned in St. Louis about seizing opportunity, the former track athlete hopes to leapfrog from being a neophyte state representative to becoming a freshman lawmaker in Congress. And she hopes to put forth legislation that will benefit urban residents beyond the Lone Star State.
“There are great similarities between where I literally grew up and the district that I seek to represent,” said Crockett, whose father and stepmother remain local residents. “And so if [legislation] benefits my home district here in Dallas, something tells me that it has the potential of also benefiting my home district in St. Louis.”
While Crockett’s political career is still emergent – she began her first term in the Texas statehouse in January 2021 – she’s been running for some time.
She said she ran track in high school, played volleyball, and “was big on Junior Achievement” but “never paid attention really to politics.”
“I’ve never been a fan of it,” she said. “And I’m still not a fan of politics.”
She credits the nod from Johnson with being a key motivator in her current campaign.
As speculation grew about whether the 86-year-old Johnson, who could not be reached for comment, would run again, Crockett said she knew “there was just going to be a lot of interest” in the seat.
“I was like, ‘I don’t know that I have the stamina… I don’t know that I want to deal with all the drama. I’ve been dealing with drama at the Texas House all year,” she said. “I dealt with drama to get here. But getting that call from the congresswoman …
“To have the person that served the district say that you’re the one that’s ready, to [have her] pick you not because you’re friends… not because you’ve been doing it for a long time, but because she watched you and saw potential and saw some things in you that she felt were reminiscent of who she is and who she was, right?”
“I wouldn’t be running, I don’t think, but for her phone call,” she said. “So it’s definitely pivotal in this race for me because it means a lot.”
For one thing, it means follow-on endorsements and stepped-up donations.
One such combo came from Houston Democrat Senfronia Thompson, who joined the Texas Legislature in 1973.
“I hold Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson in very high esteem,” said Thompson, who was central to last summer’s Texas skedaddle. “Based upon her recommendation and from her vantage point I felt that [Crockett] was worthy of my endorsement.”
Thompson has donated at least $1,000 to Crockett’s campaign, according to Federal Election Commission records. She called Crockett a “hard-working person,” adding, “she does research on legislation, has tenacity, drive, [and] interest in issues.”
Thompson said she’s also seen Crockett use her law background to “try to look out for persons who are in need of help, to be a drum major for persons who cannot afford to hire lobbyists.”
Beyond voting rights, Crockett’s signature issues include health care, reproductive justice, criminal justice and environmental justice, according to her website.
During the 2021 Texas session, Crockett proposed more than 60 pieces of legislation, from easing voting restrictions to cutting costs for indigent defendants and removing criminal penalties for having drug paraphernalia. Not a single one passed, according to multiple published reports.
Thompson said freshman legislators often have to “repackage” and “reintroduce” measures to get them through.
Johnson’s blessing has been a boon to Crockett, but the campaign has hardly been a cakewalk.
In a cramped primary that includes a former member of the Texas House and an adviser on Pres. Joe Biden’s 2020 Texas campaign, Crockett is not the leading fundraiser. As of Dec. 31, she ranked fifth in total receipts among primary contenders, with receipts of $101,281, according to data from the election commission.
And she had to answer questions in January, when a video surfaced of a pre-endorsement interview in which she noted Johnson’s support for the infamous 1994 crime bill, and appeared to question how, as a nurse, Johnson was “somehow” a multimillionaire.
Crockett dismissed the video as an act of desperation by a primary rival, according to The Dallas Morning News.
She said her fundraising pace picked up in December and January. She counts among her financial supporters Donald Suggs, publisher of The St. Louis American, and Karla Jurvetson, a California-based psychiatrist and “large-sum donor to Democratic candidates,” according to Influence Watch.
Crockett said she met Jurvetson at a private dinner in D.C. along with the brother of civil rights icon John Lewis, following a march for voting rights.
Jurvetson said she was impressed with Crockett’s willingness to be “brave” and “outspoken” on the issue of voting rights, a topic with local and national implications.
“What Jasmine is focusing on really has ramifications for our whole country as far as fair representation for our whole democracy,” Jurvetson said. “Because of the environment we’re in right now, where the issue of voting rights has become nationalized, it really is something that impacts everyone in the country.”
So far, the Arch City has proven less than golden for Crockett. She attributes the dearth of local donations to a lack of local in-person campaigning.
In the meantime, she reaps praise from local fans.
Jared Boyd is chief of staff to St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones, who, like Crockett, is a member of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, which focuses on public service.
Boyd said he met Crockett in 1999 “when we did Model United Nations together in high school.” He thinks she developed her heart for service at home, before heading off to Rhodes College where she received a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration.
“Similar to [Congresswoman] Maxine Waters, who is another St. Louisan that is serving a different area, Crockett clearly has a passion for protecting the rights that our forefathers were able to provide us,” added Boyd, who said he and the mayor recently attended a virtual fundraiser for Crockett. “So I think, like Maxine Waters, her service and her heart for service, speak for themselves and are forged out of dealing with real people in St. Louis.”
Thinking back to her teen years, young Crockett would have thought there was “not a chance” she’d someday be running for Congress. Even now, she conceded, there are days “I feel the same way.”
She added, however, that growing up in St. Louis instilled in her a strong sense of the possible, of seizing opportunity, of being ready for the next step.
“I truly feel like I’m walking in my purpose,” she said, before heading into a crowded campaign calendar. “I have no idea of what to expect, but I plan to fight to get there.”
Karen Robinson-Jacobs is The St. Louis American / Type Investigations business reporter and a Report for America corps member.