The Rainmaker

Public-relations pro Jeff Rainford helped end a 27-year drought in the St. Louis school- desegregation case, but he's still bothered by the bucket of cold water Mayor Clarence Harmon threw on the victory celebration

On the South Side, the settlement's selling points were that it removed the courts from the schools and seems to be the end of mandatory busing, which currently affects very few -- an estimated 100 or so -- of the district's 45,000 students. On the North Side, the continuation of the choice African-American students have to attend suburban schools is a plus. Brochures mailed to those areas reflected those concerns.

"Different people in the community like different parts of the settlement. That is a fundamental given," says Rainford. "There is only one common element, the magnet schools."

Considering that the tax passed in every one of the city's 28 wards, it's clear that the majority who supported the tax, and the minority who opposed it, crossed racial lines. Not all of the direct-mail materials varied by ZIP code; some were mailed citywide. Most media coverage didn't stay within rigid boundaries. "If we were trying to divide the city the way the mayor thinks we did, why would we have the African-American Clergy Coalition do a news conference and invite the South Side Journal and Channel 5 and KMOX, which last time I looked were beamed into South St. Louis?" says Rainford. "If we were trying to do that, why would we try to beg and plead the Black Leadership Roundtable to hold a news conference?

Why would we ask Lacy Clay to be our campaign chairman? Wouldn't we have tried to hide those things and only offer it to the St. Louis American, if what he is saying is true?"

And even when the content of an advertisement is catered to the audience, it doesn't necessarily qualify as scurrilous or sleazy.

"What I'd be curious about is if the mayor is going to condemn Southwestern Bell because its ad in the St. Louis American has an African-American in it and its ad in the South Side Journal has a white guy in it," Rainford says. "I guess he ought to call up the president of Southwestern Bell and condemn them."

Rainford was not alone in this campaign; he was aided by a list of usual suspects when it comes to political public relations. In addition to out-of-town pollsters, Rainford worked with Joyce Aboussie, Richard Callow, Missy Slay and, for the GOTV (get-out-the-vote) effort, Tim Persons and Mike McMillan. In the beginning, passage of the tax seemed like a long shot, Rainford says. "Everyone thought it was a loser, telling me, 'You're going to crash and burn; you're going to get in the middle of 27 years of racial politics; it's going to lose and the whole thing is going to come tumbling down on you.'"

A poll last fall showed the tax had 44 percent in favor, 41 percent opposed. But only 19 percent felt strongly yes and 39 percent strongly no. Rainford called the proposal a "dead-dog loser" because if citizens are "ambivalent or undecided," they often either don't vote or vote no.

On top of that, the mayor was coming down not-so-firmly on both sides of the issue. He said the schools needed to be improved but wouldn't commit to an endorsement until he was assured of "accountability." When the terms of the settlement began to be leaked, Harmon made noises indicating that he wouldn't back it, but some cajoling by Civic Progress types brought him back into the fold. But Rainford was clear that part of the reason other politicians were used for the taped endorsement was that they were more cooperative than Harmon.

"It may have been he had turned us down for a couple of other events and we were under a very tight time frame," says Rainford. "There were a lot of people who were heavily involved in this campaign who not only said they would endorse it but worked hard. When you have three-and-a-half weeks to do four-and-a-half months' work, you need people who you don't have to chase down and are willing to take time out of their busy schedules to drive down and do things."But for a brief interlude on election night, before the postmortem coverage, the city seemed to be a better place.

"Then to have this happen, not only did it slow down the momentum, it just stopped it," says Rainford. "Instead of concentrating on what mechanism to get the Clergy Coalition and Civic Progress and the elected officials and whoever to get them involved. Instead we're debating whether or not Clarence Harmon is right or wrong.

« Previous Page