By Lindsay Toler
By Chad Garrison
By Allison Babka
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By Jake Rossen
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By Kelsey McClure
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Friday was a big day in the River City, and that's not even counting Sammy Hagar's presence in town. (Sammy played two gigs in town last week, and he's not even on tour. Like, who needs Wilco? How lucky can we be?) It was also a big day for the St. Louis Board of Alderman, who, on their last day before summer recess, passed a proposal that might help fund indigent health care. It was a big day for former U.S. Sen. John Danforth and his Waco investigation. And it was a big day for Norman Probstein.
The board voted unanimously to put on the November ballot the reinstatement of a use tax, a city tax of 2.625 cents on the dollar for out-of-state purchases. The tax is mostly on businesses; individuals are exempted from paying it on the first $2,000 of a purchase from an out-of-state business. A proposal to reinstate the tax in 1996 after it was tossed out by the courts was rejected by city voters. This time, with revenue dedicated to health care to fill the $5 million ConnectCare hole in the budget, aldermen are more optimistic.
But it's unlike the aldermen to spend much time on such weighty matters. There was a golf course to name, or rename. Seems that local hotel owner Norm Probstein had kicked in $2 million to redo the Forest Park golf course, with the rest of the $12.5 mil coming from Forest Park Forever, the Danforth Foundation (yes, yes, they're into everything), the city and other sources. Ald. Steve Conway (D-8th) took umbrage at the fact that although Probstein had kicked in a minority stake, he was requesting naming rights in perpetuity, which, in aldermanic terms, is a very long time. Conway didn't like that Probstein's cash was going to trump the memory of World War II hero and ex-President Dwight Eisenhower, for whom the golf course is currently named.
"I don't know this gentleman," Conway said of Probstein. "Obviously he has some money, but that isn't the criteria for us to throw out Gen. Eisenhower and name something after someone who's got a couple of million dollars. We're not that poor. We don't need to set this type of precedent."
Maybe the city should have held out for more -- say, $3 million -- and promised to put Norm's name on all the golf balls or his photo on the flags stuck in each hole, or painted an ad for his hotels on the sides of the golf carts. Aldermanic President Francis Slay stepped down from the podium to speak from the floor in defense of Probstein. "I do know Norman Probstein," Slay said from the aldermanic floor. "He's a very generous man." Slay noted that Probstein has given money to Cardinal Glennon Hospital for Children, the St. Louis Public Schools and Children's Hospital. Maybe Slay is angling for Probstein to kick in some cash for Slay's mayoral ambition as well, offering naming rights to make it the Norman Probstein Campaign to Elect Francis Slay Mayor. Of course, perpetuity might be a problem, and those nagging campaign-finance laws could be an obstacle. But Francis doesn't look as if he needs the golf benefactor's help.
Slay has $548,561 remaining to spend on his mayoral bid, with the Democratic primary set for March. That's a 2-to-1 edge over incumbent Mayor Clarence Harmon, who has $252,532 in his piggy bank. In the last three months, Slay has raised $79,951; Harmon has collected $25,832. Rumors that former Mayors Vince Schoemehl and Freeman Bosley Jr. will enter the race continue to circulate, but there's no money on the table. Yes, Bill Haas is running again.
Most interesting, though not most substantial, among Slay's donors are Michael E. Pulitzer, chairman of Pulitzer Inc., the company that bring you this city's daily paper, and his wife, Ceil Pulitzer; each gave $1,125. Is Slay part of the home team? Sidney Barthelemy, a honcho at Historic Restoration Inc., the firm welding together the convention-hotel deal, kicked in $1,000 for Clarence.
So it's money, be it for campaigns or golf courses, that matters. But aside from the crass reality that everything is for sale, particularly in government, the most dreary aspect of the Probstein minifuror was that it named the golf course in perpetuity. It's distressing to imagine that whoever is roaming the turf in the year 3029 would be unimaginative enough to still be playing golf. Makes one shudder.
As the board droned on, it came time to drive down Walnut Street from City Hall to the downtown Marriott for the Waco press conference. Listening to Sammy Hagar for lunch on KSHE ("When I drive that slow, you know, it's hard to steer/I can't get my car out of second gear/I can't drive 55"), the mind drifts, trying to differentiate between the Board of Alderman and the Branch Davidians. Praise Jesus that there is no David Koresh at Tucker and Market.
But the federales have their own problems, including enforcing gun laws and refraining from trampling religious freedoms while dealing with people like Vernon Howell, a.k.a. David Koresh. And even though Jack Danforth appeared sincere and earnest -- and Jack Danforth is nothing if not sincere and earnest -- there was something hollow about the announcement that the interim report by Danforth, the special counsel picked by the government, had, well, exonerated the government.