As Steven Roberts crosses the Capitol building this week, he will make history as the youngest Black senator to serve in the Missouri Senate, and the responsibility that comes with that distinction isn’t lost on him.
In fact, it’s personal responsibility that drives Roberts in much of what he does.
Roberts, 32, served three years in the House before his election to the upper chamber. And during that time, as one of more than 160 state representatives scattered across Missouri, Roberts focused on the needs of his community — from school supply drives to COVID-19 testing. To date, Roberts estimates his efforts have led to thousands of people in the St. Louis area being tested for COVID-19.
“Someone much wiser than me said the measure of a society is how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable people. That’s how I see my role as a Democrat: being an advocate for the folks who need a voice, who are doing everything right but are still struggling to succeed,” Roberts told The Missouri Times in a wide-ranging interview.
While he’s always had an interest in politics, Roberts first focused on the legal system. A graduate of the Pepperdine Caruso School of Law, Roberts served as a law clerk in the District Attorney’s Office in Compton, California, helping people seeking asylum in the U.S. He’s also worked for the Counsel to Secure Justice, aiding sexual assault victims in India.
But St. Louis is Roberts’ home, the place that propels his dedication to service, and he eventually returned to serve as a prosecutor in the city — a job that would become the catalyst for his involvement in government. And just last month, Roberts opened his own personal injury firm as a way to continue his advocacy work.
“As a public official, I have advocated for our most vulnerable citizens,” Roberts said at the time. “However, I have also seen the opportunity to help in other ways. I will continue to fight in Jefferson City and in our communities, but now, by starting my own firm, I will be able to reach even more people in need and advocate on a more personal basis.”
The senator-elect said he places an emphasis on “looking out for our city’s and state’s most vulnerable people” — something that culminated while he worked as a prosecutor. Then, he met a young man who had been arrested on weapons and drug charges who needed help.
“He said, ‘Look, I’m 26 years old. I don’t know how to read, I can’t fill out a job application. What else can I do?’” Roberts recalled. “At the time, I didn’t have an answer for him. It was certainly an opportunity I had taken for granted, the ability to read. I can’t imagine where I would be if I didn’t have that skill. Unfortunately, there’s far too large of a segment of our population that just doesn’t have those basic abilities, and we have to make sure people have the tools to succeed.”
Aside from collecting school supplies for children and procuring COVID-19 tests for those in his district, Roberts has also focused on criminal justice reform — an effort he plans to carry over with him into the Senate. Specifically, he hopes to change certain possession offenses, particularly for minor possessions, from felony to misdemeanor charges.
“Whether it’s real or perceived, when someone has a felony conviction … just having that burden on you hurts,” Roberts said. “Unfortunately, it’s not necessarily about the time [served]. I’ve spoken with people who have convictions on their record who say the hardest thing wasn’t going away for that time but the debt paid to society while still can’t managing to get back on their feet. You’ve allegedly paid your debt, but then there are all these new obstacles in the way still knocking you down. If there’s anything I can do to help and empower those folks who deserve a second chance, I consider that a success.”
The legislative session hasn’t quite begun, but already Roberts has caught the eye of leadership in his caucus.
“Sen. Roberts has dedicated his time, talents, and career to helping his community,” Minority Floor Leader John Rizzo said. “From his service as an Air National Guardsman to his career as a successful attorney and prosecutor to his service in the Missouri House — Sen. Roberts has always put his community first. His intellect and insights will add great value to the Missouri Senate and the Democratic Caucus.”
After a tough primary, Roberts handedly won election to represent SD 5 in November. Roberts defeated Republican Michael Hebron with 87 percent of the vote to succeed longtime lawmaker Jamilah Nasheed in the St. Louis district.
Roberts joins the Senate as the youngest Black member in Missouri history — a distinction last held by the late Raymond Howard who was 34 when he took office in 1969. He is also contributing to another record set by the Missouri Senate this year: The largest number of Black senators to serve simultaneously (five).
Roberts said he wants constituents to know he’s in the Capitol to serve. He encourages people to reach out via phone (573-751-4415) or drop by his office (Room 329).
“The majority of people I meet in Jefferson City, they mean well, and they’re trying to do the right thing — or at least what they think is right,” Roberts said. “They’re coming from a genuine and good place. … That’s something I’m looking forward to carrying over to the Senate — understanding we’re all trying to do what we think is best and working collectively to meet that goal.”
Kaitlyn Schallhorn is the editor of The Missouri Times. She joined the newspaper in early 2019 after working as a reporter for Fox News in New York City.
Throughout her career, Kaitlyn has covered political campaigns across the U.S., including the 2016 presidential election, and humanitarian aid efforts in Africa and the Middle East.
She is a native of Missouri who studied journalism at Winthrop University in South Carolina. She is also an alumna of the National Journalism Center in Washington, D.C.
Contact Kaitlyn at firstname.lastname@example.org.