The Accidental Politician

After five years in office, enigmatic Darlene Green has become a force to be reckoned with in St. Louis

The mayor faced an important and unexpected decision as the career of one of St. Louis' most powerful elected officials came crashing down in the fall of 1995. Virvus Jones, the controversial and outspoken city comptroller, had pleaded guilty to two charges of federal tax fraud, and his resignation from office was imminent. Political insiders, many pulling for their own candidates, anxiously wondered who'd get the nod from Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr.

On Oct. 11, 1995, Bosley gave his answer. Instead of a high-profile, seasoned politician like Jones, the mayor chose his soft-spoken budget director, a person who had never run for public office or registered high on anybody's list of possibilities. All of a sudden, quiet, behind-the-scenes, uncontroversial Darlene Green held one St. Louis' most important political jobs.

The response from everybody, not just the politically connected, was a resounding "Darlene who?"

Jennifer Silverberg
Darlene Green says she's pushing for the best financial deals for the city: "I'm the one who is going to be looking out for (taxpayers') interest when it comes to building a stadium or a (convention-center) hotel."
Jennifer Silverberg
Darlene Green says she's pushing for the best financial deals for the city: "I'm the one who is going to be looking out for (taxpayers') interest when it comes to building a stadium or a (convention-center) hotel."

Days after the announcement, Green met U.S. Rep. Bill Clay, Missouri's senior member of Congress and long a player in hometown politics. Clay chuckles as he recalls the conversation with the new comptroller: "I said, "Who are you? Where did you come from?' Nobody had heard of her."

Green, then 39, was such a stranger to both public speaking and the spotlight that after a week on the campaign trail, trekking to ward meetings, churches and neighborhood gatherings, she lost her voice. She showed up at a scheduled radio show anyway, unable to croak out even a few words. "I was talking more than I ever had in my life," she says.

Name recognition is no longer the problem it once was for Green, who in 1996 became the first woman elected to the comptroller's post and who handily won re-election to a full term in 1997. For five years, Green has served as the city's chief fiscal officer, a role that includes serving on the powerful Board of Estimate and Apportionment, where she's the only member who isn't a candidate for mayor in 2001.

As comptroller, Green has built a reputation as an effective public official who gets praise for the city's consistent credit-rating upgrades and budget surpluses. She's politically prudent and has refused to take sides in the hot mayor's race that has incumbent Clarence Harmon fending off a well-financed challenge from Aldermanic President Francis Slay. That neutrality reflects her cautious approach, which kept her from controversy while opening her to gentle charges of sometimes being too invisible and, well, just plain too nice.

Because she clearly hasn't garnered the sort of attention or grabbed the headlines her predecessor did, some still ask, "Darlene who?" As one alderman puts it: "She is totally below the radar screen."

That's fine with Green. "My job is not about attention-getting," she says. "It's about getting the job done on behalf of the taxpayers. That's all the attention I need, and that's really the bottom line."

Darlene Green's imposing desk at City Hall is covered with carefully arranged stacks of official documents. Between the books arranged on the giant credenza behind her, she has displayed photographs of her meetings with celebrities: Here's Darlene Green with President Bill Clinton. Here she is with singer Patti LaBelle, lawyer Johnnie Cochran and Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee. The opportunity to rub shoulders with the powerful and famous reflects a life Green says she never envisioned for herself while growing up poor in the Pruitt-Igoe public-housing complex on the city's North Side, the eldest of six children in a single-parent home.

Back then, Green was a quiet, obedient child who aspired to a better life. She watched her mother struggle to raise a family while holding down two jobs -- working both as a housekeeper in Clayton and Ladue and as an aide at a nursing home -- and it left a lasting impression.

To this day, Green remains amazed at her mother's ability to keep their three-bedroom apartment white-glove tidy, what with everything else on her plate: "We would wake up in the morning, and if you can just imagine this for a moment, I'm waking up and she's telling me to get ready for school, and I'm washing my face, and by the time I turn around, all the beds are made. Everything is crisp; a hot meal is on the table. The whole house is immaculate, and there is not a dirty piece of laundry in the house. That's the way my mother was. It would drive us kids crazy, but that's the way she was, every day."

Although Pruitt-Igoe later achieved notoriety as a symbol of the nation's public-housing failures (the complex was dynamited in 1976), Green says she remembers a different place, where kids played jumprope and hide-and-seek in the shadows of the high-rises and the neighbors knew your name and made sure you were home before dark. Her world was limited to the blocks surrounding her home, the places she could walk to, and return from, in time to be in by dark: "Until I was 11 or 12, I didn't know anything past Grand Avenue. I knew there was the Fox Theatre, and nothing past that."

Her mother's heavy workload also meant that Green, as the eldest, learned responsibility at an early age. She watched her younger siblings while her mother was at work, a role Green says was hard because younger brothers and sisters are often loath to take orders from an older one. "I always knew that my mother didn't go to work for fun," she says, "that it was because she needed to have income to raise a family. I remember having to talk to my brothers and sisters about when we didn't have enough money, to make them understand: "Don't cry because we don't have this. Don't cry because Mama isn't here. I know you don't want me to be your mama, but let me take your head, lie on my shoulder. I'll try to make it better for you.' I remember those kinds of things."

Next Page »