Hand-Me-Down District

After 32 years, Bill Clay is retiring from his congressional seat. He wants to leave it to his son, but a crowded, eccentric field of candidates is contesting the will.

Bill Haas is the candidate who won't go away. But all those political defeats in races for mayor and state representative haven't dulled his political insight or his wit. In the race for the 1st Congressional District, Haas says, if he had money for television spots -- which he doesn't -- one of his ads would show William "Lacy" Clay Jr. in a cowboy hat with the line "Lacy Clay: All hat and no cattle." His other ad would be a takeoff on U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen's shot during his vice-presidential debate with then-Sen. Dan Quayle. It would go something like this: "I know Lacy Clay. Lacy Clay is a friend of mine. And Lacy Clay is no Bill Clay."

Haas admits he's running for the seat Bill Clay held for 32 years partly to take votes away from opponents of Bill's son, Lacy, in the hope that when Haas runs for mayor for the third time, in March 2001, Clay backers will support him. Lacy Clay must wish the rest of his rivals for his father's office had such alternative, far-fetched motives.

Charlie Dooley, who in 1994 became the first African-American elected to the St. Louis County Council, poses the biggest threat to Lacy Clay's succession to the congressional seat held by his father. Dooley, who retired last year after working for McDonnell Douglas Corp. for 30 years, also served as mayor of Northwoods for 12 years. His base is the suburbs, where two-thirds of the 1st District's residents live and where County Executive Buzz Westfall supports him. According to the latest filings, Clay has raised $358,018 and Dooley has raised $243,728. Donations from political-action committees account for 42 percent of Clay's money; Dooley has a lot of contributions from construction and development interests.

State Sen. Lacy Clay is running for his father's congressional seat, banking on name recognition and his record in the state Legislature.
Jennifer Silverberg
State Sen. Lacy Clay is running for his father's congressional seat, banking on name recognition and his record in the state Legislature.
County Councilman Charlie Dooley retired from his job at McDonnell Douglas so he could run for Congress full-time.
Jennifer Silverberg
County Councilman Charlie Dooley retired from his job at McDonnell Douglas so he could run for Congress full-time.

Lacy Clay has held office for 17 years in the state Legislature, but this is the first time he's run for a truly contested seat. He was appointed in 1983 as the Democratic Party candidate to replace retiring state Rep. Nathaniel Rivers, and he was appointed in 1991 as the Democratic candidate for a state Senate seat after Bill Clay helped create a vacancy by finding a $100,000-a-year job for state Sen. John Bass working for a federal subcommittee.

The elder Clay, when he was elected in 1968, was one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Bill Clay was a trailblazer, a liberal ideologue always ready and willing to supply an acerbic retort to the latest Republican stance. In 1998, the American Civil Liberties Union gave Bill Clay a score of 95 percent on the basis of his voting record; on the American Conservative Union's scorecard, he got 5 percent.

Bill Clay had a great run, but the primary election on Aug. 8 will be the first electoral evidence of how far the acorn, Lacy Clay, may have fallen from the tree.

Dooley's campaign billboards are topped with this bit of news: "Congressman Bill Clay is retiring." Around the 1st District, there's evidence to the contrary. At bus-stop shelters, poster-size ads show a photo of the U.S. Capitol, with "CLAY" superimposed in large letters and "Democrat for Congress" below. The name "Lacy" is nowhere in sight; in the fine print, a "clayjrforcongress" Web site is mentioned, but that's it. Lawn signs and cardboard signs stapled on buildings go further, with the "Clay Jr. for Congress" line so small you have to hold the sign in your hand to read it.

Dooley insists he's not running against Bill Clay, but it's unclear how much of the populace knows that. Ken Warren, a St. Louis University political-science professor who worked with Bill Clay on an upcoming biography, believes not everyone is paying attention. "There's going to be a lot of people who are going to vote for Clay and not even know it's Clay Jr. That's how ignorant people are; they don't follow politics," says Warren. "It's sad but true: Americans don't follow politics very well."

That said, Warren doesn't see the political inheritance of an office as an uncommon event. "This is done all the time, whether it's a Symington in Missouri or a Kennedy in Massachusetts, a Brown in California or a Rockefeller -- it's done all the time," says Warren of incumbents who step down but keep their offices in the family. "George Wallace did it with his wife in Alabama."

In addition to 52-year-old Dooley, a colorful and high-profile -- though long-shot -- field includes attorney and activist Eric Vickers, 47; city school-board member Haas, 55; attorney Steven Bailey, 42; and Joe Mondrak, 51. Dooley, for one, doesn't want to talk about Bill Clay, for good or for ill.

"I'm not running against Bill Clay. I'm running for an open seat in the 1st Congressional District. People have to understand that Bill Clay is not going to be there. People need to wake up to that fact," says Dooley.

With an apparent lack of drastic differences on issues, Dooley is focusing on Clay's personal business dealings and indirectly questioning his judgment.

Foremost in this strategy is Clay's past business involvement with Dino Rodwell and Calvin Rodwell, two brothers who in June were indicted in Atlanta for Medicare fraud in a scheme that, federal authorities charge, bilked $626,000 from a Georgia nursing home. Dino Rodwell is the owner of ARG Associates Inc., which is based in Maryland and did business in Georgia. The Rodwell brothers also owned 80 percent of ARG Medical of Missouri Inc.; Lacy Clay owned the other 20 percent. Clay says he first met Calvin Rodwell about 20 years ago when Clay was an assistant doorkeeper in the House of Representatives and Rodwell was a page.

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