The New Wisdom of Boz

A chastened ex-mayor says he's sorry and asks for another chance

The snow was falling again, the temps were dropping through the teens, former Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. was about to announce his candidacy in the March 6 mayoral primary and at least one City Hall insider had a clear wish. All this former member of the Bosley administration wanted to do was "go home, pull the covers up over my head and come out when the campaign is over."

Such hibernation is not possible, and, for political junkies, it's not desirable. Yes, the weather outside is frightful. But just wait till this campaign cranks up -- "frightful" won't do it justice. One person who isn't going into hiding is Bosley.

"It's on. It's on," Bosley says, with the glee of a man about to indulge himself in a personal obsession. In this case he's talking about his decision to enter the race against Mayor Clarence Harmon, Aldermanic President Francis Slay and St. Louis School Board member Bill Haas. The Boz, who in 1993 became the Mound City's first African-American mayor, is quick to take exception to previous Short Cuts statements that his entering the race is more about vengeance than ambition and that it only ensures that Harmon loses and Slay wins. "You better take a closer look at those numbers. You wanted to try to label me a spoiler," Bosley says. "You need to look and see who can really win."

Advised that some of the prognosticators recently contacted by Short Cuts -- and no, ubiquitous professor/pundit Ken Warren was not among them -- really believe Bosley can win this thing, the former mayor perks up. "You gonna print a retraction?" he asks. No, we're not. This is spring training: Anybody who predicts the pennant winner can sound like an expert. Sure, the Boz could win. Or he could lose.

Let's put off the political version of the weather forecast for now and just look at how the Boz is planning to run this race. His announcement speech was more a confession of past sins than a recitation of promises, sounding a bit like the I-am-not-a-perfect-servant-God-is-not-finished-with-me-yet speech Jesse Jackson gave at the 1984 Democratic Convention after referring to New York City as "Hymietown" -- that, or a political version of Jimmy Swaggart asking for forgiveness. Bosley admits he made mistakes. People he hired failed him, and he takes full responsibility. Next time, he'll do better. He's learned.

During his announcement, he twice asked himself this question: Would he hire personnel he had dismissed during his first administration? Each time, he answered, "Absolutely not." He stopped short of promising he would post the pictures of former staffers with City Hall security with instructions to keep them out of the building.

Jim Buford, the bow-tied black Republican who heads the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, is backing Bosley and promises to help select a staff for the new mayor if he's elected. "The team will be put together this time by a group of people -- corporate leaders, clergy and others who will do searches for good people. You can't ask for any more than that," Buford says. "You learn from your past." It's a curious pledge for an experienced candidate to make, almost a campaign promise of "Elect me, but don't worry -- you don't have to trust me too much, because somebody else is going to hire a dependable staff for me."

For Buford, the issue is who has the best potential to lead. "If people can get over the issues of [Bosley's] staff, they'll see he has a better leadership capacity," Buford says. "He can galvanize the community. He showed he could galvanize North St. Louis by getting 85 percent of the vote, but it's not about just winning on the North Side. He could win the battle and lose the war. If he wins the North Side and gets in, he's still the mayor of all black people. We want him to be the mayor of the city of all people."

Yes, yes -- race and politics are hard to separate in St. Louis. Even in his announcement speech on Friday, Bosley described the '97 mayoral election between him and Harmon, two black men, as "the most bitter, divisive and racially tinged in St. Louis history." In 12 mostly white South Side wards, Harmon received 88 percent of the vote. In the virtually all-black North Side wards, Bosley got 89.7 percent of the vote. Bosley admits to becoming "wrapped up in the sensationalized soap opera" and that "I was an active participant in the carnage."

His father, Ald. Freeman Bosley Sr. (D-3rd), fired the first shot at Fort Sumter in that campaign when he referred to Harmon, the former St. Louis police chief, as a "rented Negro" put up by the powers that be to unseat his son [D.J. Wilson, "Fighting Words," RFT, Aug. 14, 1996]. Bosley the Elder also said at the time that the "only difference between Clarence Harmon and Clarence Thomas is the last name." Just minutes before those comments were made, Bosley the Younger referred to Harmon as a "stalking horse" candidate put in the race to split the African-American vote: Before Harmon entered the race, Bosley's only challenger was the white Marit Clark, then the alderwoman from Lafayette Square.

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