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For all his bad publicity and critical audits from years gone by, folks inside City Hall still like Larry Williams. He's a popular man. That's true even in the case of one alderman who replies through a laugh when he's asked about the treasurer, "Oh, you mean lyin' Larry?"
The nickname is harsh, but it mostly conveys what everyone knows -- that when you ask Williams a question, be prepared to listen to a long, rambling answer. And often the few kernels of wheat offered are buried in a bushel of chaff. Perhaps that's a result of the patter he's developed through his 33 years as a real-estate broker, or his time selling insurance. Perhaps it's just his affable personality. Either way, his smooth talk and easygoing style have made him a behind-the-scenes mediator. One political consultant calls him "the Meyer Lansky of North St. Louis politics."
"Just had a call this week," Williams said recently. "Someone calls me and says, 'Hey, would you go to so-and-so and tell so-and-so that I want to let bygones be bygones? I don't want to keep the feud going.'"
Williams thinks people turn to him because, simply, he gets along with people and is "not in the business of bashing people. I appreciate them having confidence in me." Then he adds one more reason people come to him to settle things: "That comes from a long history of you being truthful, being honest with them and not lying to them."
Williams is big on stressing his honesty. He plays it up, perhaps unwittingly, when he responds to queries. In a recent two-hour interview, he used various phrases and mannerisms to assure the listener he was indeed telling the truth. Dropped in midsentence, the phrases included: "I got to be truthful with you"; "We're not blowing smoke"; "I'm being totally honest, before the Father" (said with both hands raised heavenward); "I'm being truthful, if I was going to be shot"; and "I swear on the Bible" (spoken, of course, with right hand raised).
So when he's asked how it is he's won five elections in the last 18 years despite recurrent bad publicity, it's not surprising that he answers thusly:
"You don't lie to people. You don't lie to people. Let me tell you something -- you look back at my (election) numbers: I pull just about in South St. Louis what I pull in North St. Louis. I swear on the Bible I will not go to South St. Louis and make a speech that I don't make in North St. Louis. I won't make a speech in North St. Louis that I won't make in South St. Louis. And," Williams says, as he takes off his tinted lenses to make eye contact, "when I look you in the eye and tell you something, you can count on it. I don't go around lying to people, and I don't like people lying to me.
"I won't play trickery with you. If somebody tricks me, I don't badmouth you; I just don't have anything to do with you again. Just like some journalists I don't talk to, because their stories turn out funky. They add stuff to it that we didn't talk about; they editorialize; they put slants on it that do not reflect the conversation. I don't get mad; I don't call anybody a bunch of names; I just don't fool with them again. I feel that my input isn't going to make any difference anyway, so why you talking to me? If you got your ideas and your mind's made up, why talk to me?"
Man About Downtown
There's plenty of reason for developers to talk to Williams if they want something to happen downtown. In any central business district, even a troubled one like St. Louis', parking is a critical component of any new project. There are developers who will take on office, retail or residential projects downtown if the city can guarantee them adequate parking. As treasurer, Williams oversees the city's parking division and can seek revenue bonds that are paid back from the money brought in from parking meters, garages and lots.
This ability, which has turned the parking division into a "profit center" inside local government, has produced a new-and-improved Larry C. Williams who today is known more as an urban equivalent of the cavalry in old Western movies -- showing up at the last minute to save the day. This emerging image may be why few people are willing to express much concern -- at least on the record -- about Williams' appearing to be the most active public official in City Hall.
Williams' building boom began with the Kiel Center Garage, which helped make that project viable. Just in the last two years, the treasurer's office has been involved in a string of crucial projects downtown -- the developer does the project, Williams does the parking. The projects include:
* The Marquette Building, 314 N. Broadway. In 1997, Williams' office bought the building and its annex for $725,000, then turned around and sold the Marquette last year to New York City developers Tahl-Propp Equities for $925,000. Then Williams floated bonds worth $8 million to demolish the annex and build a 15-story garage joined with the Marquette, where the new owners plan 140 upscale apartments.