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.

If Dooley poses a threat from a mainstream, suburban-based, Westfall-backed perspective, Vickers offers another alternative. Vickers, who received 5,523 votes when he came in third against Bill Clay in the 1994 congressional race, could pare away city voters who might otherwise vote for Lacy Clay. Longtime radio-talk-show host Richard "Onion" Horton has been a critic of Lacy Clay's on certain issues, particularly Clay's bill that precipitated the St. Louis school-desegregation settlement. But Horton says he wishes Vickers would drop out of the race.

"I love Eric, but it's time for Eric to get out of the race unless he wants to give the race to Charlie Dooley," says Horton. "All he can do is take votes away from Clay," Horton says. The outspoken radio host -- currently off the airwaves -- says he is diametrically opposed to Dooley because Dooley has the support of Westfall, the former county prosecutor whose office handled the 1983 murder case against Ellen Reasonover, who was exonerated last year. "Buzz Westfall put an innocent Ellen Reasonover in the penitentiary for 17 years. Westfall will be controlling Dooley, and black people in North St. Louis will be in worse shape than they've ever been in as far as a congressman is concerned."

Vickers was the high-profile leader of last July's Interstate 70 blockade, which resulted in a commitment by Gov. Mel Carnahan to more job training for minorities and better representation of minority contractors in state highway work. Just in the past few weeks, Vickers has led the less effective but media-hyped protest of the killing by police of a suspected drug dealer and his companion on the parking lot of a Jack in the Box on North Hanley Road. Clay did participate in the I-70 demonstration last year, though he was not arrested, as Vickers was; he says he had to leave in order to fulfill a commitment in Washington, D.C. Dooley says he supported the goals of the demonstration but claims they could have been achieved "in another way." Clay has supported the FBI investigation of the Jack in the Box killings and attended early protests but was not involved in last Wednesday's demonstration. Clay says he hasn't been pushed in one direction as a result of Vickers' activities.

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.

"I don't have to change that tune for any particular individual or at any particular time," says Clay. "People of the district that I have represented have certainly felt confident about how I represented them and have taken on these issues of social justice, of economic justice."

Just after a 4th Ward meeting at 4106 St. Louis Ave., city Treasurer Larry Williams stands inside a tent, talking about the way things used to be. The tent, pitched in the back parking lot, covers most of the more than 100 folks in attendance as they head for the barbecued bratwurst and coolers full of Vess soda and Miller and Stag beer. They have turned out to hear talks by their alderman, Miguel Mitchell, state Reps. Louis Ford and Amber Boykins, Williams and Lacy Clay.

Williams, who this year is running unopposed, says he has turned out just "to thank people" for their previous support. The gathering has Williams recalling the good old days when city ward meetings were crowded and ward organizations could get out the vote. Implied in his reminiscence is that, despite this example, times have changed.

Lacy Clay admits this, and as he runs for Congress to replace his father, he knows the dynamics that put Bill Clay in Congress and kept him there for three decades are no longer the rule of the day. When Bill Clay was elected in 1968, the 1st District was entirely in the city. For the Aug. 8 Democratic primary, two-thirds of the voters will be county residents, some of the same people who previously supported Dooley for County Council. Racially, the split of blacks and whites is about even.

Even after the drift to the suburbs accelerated, Bill Clay kept winning because he won so big in the city. Even with the city only consisting of a third of the vote, Bill Clay's winning 80 percent or more of the vote there allowed him to get as little as 40 percent of the vote elsewhere and still win.

So as Lacy Clay addresses the city faithful in the 4th Ward, he invokes his father's legacy. "For 32 years, your congressman has been Congressman Clay. I certainly hold him up as my hero. He is the one I look to; he is the one who has taught me what I need to know in this business." Then, as Clay talks about the renovation of the long-closed Homer G. Phillips Hospital into apartments for seniors, he quotes another old-school liberal, former Sen. and Vice President Hubert Humphrey: "Humphrey said, 'The test of a skilled politician is the one who provides for those of us in the dawn of our lives, the children, and those in the dusk of their lives, the seniors.'"

When it comes to defining a skilled politician, even his enemies give Bill Clay that appellation. After the 1990 census, he swapped some Republican turf in the 1st District for Democratic turf in the 2nd District. The swap, made possible by the seniority and clout of Clay and U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-3rd), ensured Clay would keep his seat as much as it jeopardized the re-election of Democrat incumbent Joan Kelly Horn in the 2nd District. Horn lost to Jim Talent (R-Chesterfield) in 1992.

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