Politicians are birds of passage; they test the wind, flap their wings, chirp and crow and often leave an offensive mark. Sometimes they soar; sometimes they don't. But the most successful members of the species manage to stay aloft, just out of target range. And, for sheer endurance, there's none better than James J. Eagan, longtime Florissant mayor. "Seniority has its advantages," Eagan laughs on being told that we've picked him as Best Politician.
Eagan, a lawyer, was first elected top dog of St. Louis County's largest municipality in 1963, and he's been re-elected an unprecedented nine times, never running unopposed. He's the state's longest-serving mayor and arguably one of the most colorful. A Catholic Irishman who saw action in Iwo Jima and Okinawa during World War II, Eagan was at the helm during Florissant's boom in the '60s, when the city's population swelled from 37,000 to nearly 70,000 thanks to the nearby job machines at McDonnell Douglas and Ford Motor Co. Eagan demonstrated an independent streak from the start, locking horns in the early days with City Council members allied with the powerful Steamfitters Union and crossing Democratic Party lines to embrace GOP candidates. Eagan had political ambitions beyond Florissant, but his campaigns for county executive in the '70s -- including a loss to incumbent Gene McNary in 1978 -- were disappointments. He blames, in part, his popularity in his hometown: "The people in the city of Florissant would come up to my face and tell me, 'We're not going to vote for you -- we don't want you to leave as mayor.'"
Florissant was always a safe harbor for the popular mayor, despite the occasional gaffe that brought chuckles. In 1973, Eagan announced he was going to personally preapprove productions at the Florissant Civic Center Theater after Boys in the Band, a comedy with a gay theme, was staged there. The smart politician knows when he's licked -- and two years later Eagan said he was out of the censoring business. "Only a jackass doesn't change its mind," Eagan quipped to the Globe-Democrat, "and I guess I'm one jackass that's going to." Asked to identify his biggest political faux pas, Eagan says, "I can answer that quickly. I fired some fat people." Eagan's anti-fat policy, which led to the sacking of a police officer, drew national headlines and was rescinded in 1983 after he narrowly won re-election by about 300 votes. "I've made a lot of mistakes -- I don't have any trouble admitting them."
What accounts for Eagan's longevity? Inaugurating in the '60s one of the first municipal-operated emergency life-support services. A municipal-owned professional theater. Free transportation for Florissant's elderly. A tough law-and-order stance that has endeared him to longtime residents. A fierce advocacy of Florissant's interests. Eagan, 74, says his current term, which ends in 2003, may not be his last: "My statement is, 'I'm going out feet first.'"
-- Roland Klose