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.

Those comments by father and son, made at Comptroller Darlene Green's victory party, were the first assaults in a campaign that ended with Harmon winning with 56 percent of the Democratic primary vote to Bosley's 43 percent and Haas' 0.7 percent. That Clark dropped out of the primary to run as an independent and Harmon swept South St. Louis proved the stalking-horse charge to be off base.

Then there was Charles Mischeaux, then head of the local chapter of the NAACP, who said it was appropriate for Harmon to announce his candidacy on the steps of the Old Court House. Said Mischeaux: "Where blacks slaves were sold, on Sunday you'll see a black man sell himself" [D.J. Wilson, "Blacker Than Thou," RFT, Sept. 18, 1996].

Bosley the Elder promises the rhetoric will be cooler this time around. "I apologized to Clarence a long time ago for that," he says of the "rented Negro" line. That said, he doesn't think much of what Harmonious has done: "I don't think nobody is satisfied with his performance as a mayor." But the veteran alderman says he didn't try to talk his son into running or try to dissuade him.

Asked what burning-bush experience led him to decide to make another run at City Hall, the Boz sounds as if he couldn't stand the idea of being a spectator to a Harmonious-vs.-St. Francis campaign that might have given new dimension to the word "dull." Says Bosley: "About six months ago, I kind of realized neither of the guys who are running now had anything going. I just couldn't feel anything. The people around me couldn't sense anything. I just felt there was no campaign going on."

There is now.

At least one poll from Bosley's camp has Harmon garnering 29 percent of the vote, Bosley 28 percent and Slay 24 percent, leaving 17 percent undecided. Some charge this was a "push poll," conducted in such a way that it boosted Bosley's numbers, but any poll taken more than two months out is a shaky barometer.

The problem for Bosley is that Harmon and Slay combined will likely draw more than the 10 percent Harmon drew by himself in the 11 North Side wards four years ago. Facing two opponents who both do well in South City, Bosley will fare worse there in 1997, so his battleground is the central-corridor wards, including the Central West End, Midtown, Soulard and Lafayette Square. Harmon won that turf in '97, and it's hard to imagine Bosley faring better in a face-off with an incumbent mayor and another challenger who has been elected to a citywide post twice before. Anyone who doubts Bosley has little appeal in heavily white wards need only look at the 23rd Ward, Slay's own. In 1997, Slay endorsed Bosley but could only deliver 227 Bosley votes from his ward -- Harmon got 5,646.

Harmon's problem is that Southwest St. Louis has a homie to vote for this time. Four years ago, six Southwest City wards gave Harmon 29,852 votes, more than half of the 56,926 votes he received citywide. It took all 11 North St. Louis wards to give Bosley 29,995 votes. Harmon can't count on anything near that this time from Southwest St. Louis.

Assuming Slay does well in his home ward and those around it, he will need to stay even with Bosley and Harmon in the central corridor, which may be a challenge because some see him as retro, a descendant of an old-school political family.

Then there's money. Bosley is a late entry, but he's confident he can raise $400,000 quickly. "That's 400 people giving me $1,000," the former mayor says. "I've had 2,000 people give me $1,000."

Because Bosley knows whom he must target, he may need less money than the other two candidates. And though Harmon has the benefit of incumbency, Slay has the advantage of having the most funds. Slay expects to have raised $1 million for his campaign. Harmon will be lucky to reach $600,000.

As for issues, there don't appear to be any, unless you consider whether or not to sign a proclamation for Nelly an issue. The desire to restructure city government through home rule has all the candidates' support. The rest of the discussion will be about vague notions like commitment and leadership. Ultimately, it's about image and personality.

Four years ago, Harmon's main point was that he wasn't Bosley. This time around, Slay's main campaign issue is that he's not Harmon. Bosley says he's going to run a positive campaign and won't be slinging mud at Slay and Harmon. It might be he's doing that in the hope they'll return the favor. But Harmon and Slay will talk about Bosley's record. The Boz knows this, but he claims he won't attack his opponents.

"I'm not even going to get into it," says Bosley. "You know what? I can run a race and not even mention their names. They can't run a race and not mention mine."

Not anymore, Boz. Not anymore.

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