Melissa Walsh

Debra A. Powell

Gale Group | Debra A. Powell

Debra A. Powell

Black Biography:

Debra A. Powell mayor

Personal Information

Born Debra A. Powell in East St. Louis, Illinois, on April 30, 1964; married in 1986; divorced in 1990; two children: Anthony Tarvin Jr., Karmeen Powell-Childress. Education: University of Nebraska, B.A., communications, 1985.


Mayor of East St. Louis. City of East St. Louis, public relations assistant, 1986, city councilperson, 1993-98, mayor, 1999-; municipal public relations professional, Pasadena, CA, 1986-90; Gateway East Metropolitan Ministries, news anchor and news director, 1990-98.

Life's Work

The first female mayor of East St. Louis, Illinois, and second-youngest mayor in the city's history, Debra A. Powell has invested a great deal of energy and care into ways to improve her city. In a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article days after her victory, Powell summed up her mayoral responsibilities as essentially giving the people more services for their tax dollars. Shortly into her tenure, Powell pursued ways to give members of her community more for their tax dollars through improving the appearance of the city's structures and streets, implementing changes in the city's administration, creating a business environment ripe for prosperity for city residents and investors, and encouraging black business participation in the city's economic revitalization and development projects.

Raised in East St. Louis

Born April 30, 1964, in East St. Louis, Powell attended Lincoln Senior High School, where she was a prominent track athlete and basketball player. While she was still in high school, then-East St. Louis Mayor Carl E. Officer promised her a job with the city if she earned a bachelor's degree. Powell held Officer to his promise when she returned to East St. Louis with a degree from the University of Nebraska in 1985. Officer was the youngest mayor in the city's history at age 27, and he believed in bringing about positive development in the city through the energy and idealism of young people committed to improving their community. Officer hired Powell as an entry-level public relations assistant. When he met resistance to her employment from the city council, Officer paid Powell's salary himself. Powell described the conflict over her employment to political correspondent Patrick Gauen in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "City Council told [Officer] they wouldn't approve me unless they got some things they wanted first. They wanted favors. I was always told to get a degree and come back and help my community, but when I did, they made it about politics."

In 1986, Powell married and moved to Pasadena, California, with her husband, where she pursued a career in municipal public relations. She divorced in 1990 and returned to her childhood home. Back in East St. Louis, she began volunteering as a reporter for a newspaper and radio station in the area. Her networking and experience as a volunteer led her to a news anchor position for a local cable station, Channel 17, run by Gateway East Metropolitan Ministries. She later became news director.

Elected First Female Mayor

Powell entered the mayoral race against educator and city council member Eddie L. Jackson. With the campaign slogan "A New Way," she fought a difficult campaign on a platform of honesty and hard work against her better-funded opponent. Just before the elections, campaign contributions for Powell and Jackson were reported as $24,200 and $85,612, according to an April 8 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Powell criticized Jackson for accepting $5,000 in contributions from a company in Michigan that runs topless night clubs. Her platform was in strict opposition to any topless clubs or adult bookstores in the city.

Campaign competitors accused Powell of holding back development, citing her vote against the development of a strip mall while a council member as evidence. However, she explained that she voted against the plan until the buyout values of five businesses in the area reached a fair amount. When she found the buyout deals acceptable, she voted for the construction.

Powell was elected mayor of East St. Louis on April 13, 1999, in a 55 percent to 45 percent victory over Jackson. She exclaimed during her victory speech, according to Jet, "Many said it couldn't be done, but we defied the odds to not only rearrange and make history but to also have the opportunity to show people that our campaign more than just a slogan."

At the age of 35, Powell took office on May 12, 1999. She inherited a hefty challenge in cleaning up a downtrodden city of 40,000 residents. Powell promised to work to defeat the city administration's long history of corruption, as well as common urban problems of deteriorated neighborhoods, crime, and poverty. Committed to integrity, she vowed to be "honest and fair" to anyone working towards developing a better East St. Louis. Powell's commitment as mayor was described in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as a vow to manage "a city government with no political agendas, no inept or indifferent employees, and no excuses. The unable will be trained...and the unwilling will be fired." Powell attributed her understanding of the existing and unfortunate rift between what residents spend in tax money and what they get in return to her five years' experience on city council. Powell stressed that all her efforts and ideas would work together in narrowing that gap.

Worked to Improve East St. Louis

Powell began her mayoral tenure with various community improvement projects, including enhancement of the entry points to the city, street repairs, and renovation of school buildings. She also supported demands made by the Black Contractors Organization that at least half of all those subcontracted to do construction work on projects in the city be black. In response to complaints regarding low black participation in the city's economic development, Powell announced plans to found an affirmative action board by early September of 1999. This victory overcame a defeat earlier in her career when, as a city council member, she was unable to gain council approval for legislation requiring that contractors reveal racial statistics of their subcontractors and employees.

In July of 1999, Powell christened the opening of the Crown Hotel at the Casino Queen. One of the most popular attractions in the greater St. Louis area, Casino Queen had over 16.5 million guests since it opened its doors in June of 1993. According to the Southwest Illinois News, the $13 million hotel was part of a $40 million plan to expand gambling and entertainment operation in East St. Louis.

In June of 1999, the staple store of East St. Louis's new strip mall opened. Powell was the guest of honor at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Walgreens store, the first major retail store to open in the city in forty years. She predicted in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "This [new Walgreens] is going to be a boost for the community. It means another shot in the arm for economic growth." The shopping center was a major development for the city at $10 million and, in July, President Clinton spoke to a crowd in its parking lot. Accompanied by Powell, fellow East St. Louis native Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and Reverend Jesse Jackson, Clinton urged Congress and the constituency to support his new markets initiative, which is in essence a proposal for government assistance in business development in areas of high unemployment and poverty across the nation, including East St. Louis. Powell praised the effort.

Powell fought corrupt government at every turn. She ruffled feathers when she attempted to oust three members of the Board of Fire and Police Commissioners, charging them with allowing their political ambitions to interfere with the promotions of some deserving individuals. In August of 1999, Powell adopted a policy to prevent abuse of the city's police officer training program. In the past, officers would use the police department as a stepping stone to other areas of city administration. To prevent the loss by the city in expenditures towards training these officers, who would not put enough time into the force to give the taxpayers value for their money, Powell set guidelines that included a requirement for officers to pay back the city the cost of their training if they leave the police department within two years. If they leave within three years, they would be required to pay half of the cost. Powell suggested that this measure would also improve public safety in the community, as the police force would include more officers dedicated to serving the community. Powell also probed the idea of implementing a residency requirement for police officers. Of the city's 66 officers, "20 lived outside the city limits," according to Fire and Police Board Commissioner Charles Roy in the St. Louis Post- Dispatch. Powell appraised the Officer Next Door program in New Orleans as one worth adopting in East St. Louis. Not only would there be a residency requirement for police officers, but also housing built especially for them. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch also reported in August of 1999, Powell's announcement to add six firefighters and six police officers to the understaffed departments.

In June of 1999, Powell found her own political practices under scrutiny when the Board of Elections fined her for being 27 days late in reporting several large contributions she accepted late in her campaign. She announced that she would appeal the fine of $64,400. Strict campaign financing disclosure laws took affect in 1999, and many politicians-47 as of June-were found to be in violation and fined during that first year. The law stipulates that candidates must report within two days contributions exceeding $500 that are accepted 30 days before an election. This is intended to prevent candidates from concealing large sums of money given by potentially controversial groups until the ballots are in.

Further Reading


Jet, June 28, 1999, p. 14.

St. Louis Post Dispatch, April 8, 1999, p. 5; April 14, 1999, p. A1; April 18, 1999, p. C1; June 6, 1999; June 21, 1999, p. A1; August 9, 1999, p. A1; August 16, 1999, p. A1.

Southwest Illinois News, July 4, 1999.

– Melissa Walsh Doig