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NO LONGER THE PERMANENT CONGRESSMAN: Maybe, after 32 years, it's more surprising that Bill Clay has not changed than that his congressional district has.
When Clay finally made it official Monday at Harris-Stowe State College that he's bailing out of Congress after being elected 16 times, his comments made him come off as an unapologetic old-school liberal, a trail-blazing African-American politician and a backroom power broker. In short, the same Bill Clay St. Louis has grown to love or endure since he was first elected in 1968.
On what his goals were in Washington, D.C., and what he plans to do in his last 18 months in Congress, he was clear: "I'm proud of my work to increase the wages and benefits for working-class people. Fighting to extend the rights for women, gays and minorities have always been priorities of mine."
Clay, one of the 14 original founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus, says now that there are 39 members his intent remains unchanged: "I will continue to speak loudly and boisterously about the inequities of our society -- Margaret Wilson taught me that -- because justice demands that we grant racism, sexism and elitism neither sanctuary nor solace, neither comfort nor consolation."
Yes, the Republicans remain villains.
"They want to get government out of business but want to put government in your bedroom," Clay told the predominantly African-American crowd of several hundred. And what will he do in his last days as U.S. representative? "I was successful with Sen. (Ted) Kennedy at the end of last year to negotiate -- really, to extort -- from the Republicans $1.2 billion for 30,000 new teachers to reduce class sizes down to 18. We need to hire another 70,000."
And one more thing.
"The Republicans have proposed caps on domestic spending. The caps are so low that if you keep them there, everybody in this country is going to suffer from the lack of money we can spend on these programs. One of my ambitions in the next weeks and months is to bust the hell out of those caps." About 50 million Americans need health insurance, he says, "most of whom work 40 hours a week," and that's because "we let some of these businesses get away without providing it."
So government needs to spend more, correct the "inequities of our society" and make business spend more money on worker benefits. Gee, no wonder Clay is quitting. In this age of political posturing based on the last overnight poll, Bill Clay is an ideologue, a political Bob Gibson, as predictable as a fastball down the middle of the plate. As he often says, no permanent allies, no permanent enemies, just permanent interests.
Now that he's leaving, who will take his place in the 1st Congressional District that covers much of North St. Louis and North County? Well, being the power broker that he is, Clay has a nominee. "About my successor, whoever he might be. I prefer it's someone with the same bloodline," Clay says, referring to his son, state Sen. Lacy Clay. "I will not be his campaign manager, but I've helped 45 or 50 other individuals to get elected to various positions, and I was not their campaign manager. I will support my son if he runs, and I will do it with the same vigor I did with the 45 to 50 people who I helped to get elected."
But this isn't a family plumbing business that can be handed down father to child. There are voters to solicit and a demographically changed district to consider. And there's a wild card in the deal -- just what will former Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. do? Will he come out of his law practice to re-enter politics as a candidate in the 1st District? Bosley's relations with the congressman have been up and down in the past, but there has not been much evidence of loyalty, of a bond. It is conceivable that Bosley would take on the younger Clay in Y2K.
Asked about his plans, Bosley issues a nondenial denial. He says that he doesn't want "to cloud the moment" and that the focus should be on honoring Bill Clay, and people shouldn't be "sidetracked by speculation and conjecture about his successor." OK, OK. But is he considering running for Congress?
"Not at this point, no. I have talked to (Bill Clay) about it. He had told me he was thinking about stepping down some time ago. So I'm not really interested in it at this point."
Whether it be son Lacy or former mayor Freeman, any candidate running in the 1st does not face what Bill Clay did in 1968. That year, the city accounted for 72 percent of the vote in the district; now it is a mere 29 percent. In 1970, the district was 62 percent African-American; in the 1990 census, it was 52 percent.
Ken Warren, St. Louis University political-science professor and biographer of Bill Clay, thinks the race could be a wide-open one. "The reason why Clay won in the early years when he could have lost is because he won approximately 86 percent of the vote in the city. When that made up the majority of the district, it's awfully difficult to lose even if you get blown away in the county. He usually lost the county with about 40 percent of the vote," says Warren.
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