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Wednesday lunches at St. Raymond's Hall, just south of Ralston Purina on Chouteau Avenue, are more than just a place to line up, cafeteria-style, to get stuffed grape leaves, lentils with rice, spinach pies, kibbi and other Middle Eastern delicacies. The weekly gatherings are a throwback to the politics and dynamics of the past -- where lawyers, judges, City Hall types, union officials and working stiffs gather to see and be seen and to catch up on the latest gossip.
With the garish chandeliers and mirrored ceiling tiles, the '70s-era church hall at 939 Lebanon Dr. resembles a casino without slot machines. Running the show is Francis R. Slay, a short, balding, friendly man who works the room, hopping from table to table. He greets regulars with a handshake and sometimes a hug. He revels in the give-and-take.
Politics comes naturally to Slay, a longtime restaurateur who has held political office most of his adult life and whose father, Joseph, was an alderman in the 1940s. Slay served in the state Legislature, was city recorder of deeds and remains Democratic committeeman in the 23rd Ward, an elected position he's held for more than 30 years.
In his office at St. Raymond's, behind a locked glass door, the 73-year-old Slay takes care of business. Visitors tap on the door, and, one by one, Slay buzzes them in. A partially smoked Te-Amo cigar is balanced on the edge of the committeeman's desk. One man wants to know if "Mr. Slay" will be at the church hall at 7 a.m. the next day for a delivery. Another wants to pick up a card to register his wife so she can vote. Slay answers their questions; he takes care of things.
This, Slay explains, is what a politician does -- and he makes no apologies:
"I'm in politics. I'm very proud to be a politician. The only way you get something done is through politics. I'm not saying through the back door and the side door. But you know people, you study people and you work with them. The average person off the street, if they want something done, how are they going to go down to City Hall and get this done? They don't know all the positions and the right person to see. That is my job as committeeman, to go and see what has to be done for the people."
When it comes to getting things done in City Hall, Slay says that despite his political calling, one thing he says he never really wanted to do was become mayor. Too time-consuming for a father of 11 kids, he says. And if one of his sons happens to be elected mayor in April, Slay insists it's not because he was pushing to realize some unfulfilled paternal ambition.
In fact, Slay says, he wanted his second-oldest, Francis G., to go into the other family business, the restaurant business. Even though he worked part-time for 10 years at Slay's on Watson Road as a host and bartender when he was a student, the younger Slay wanted no part of restaurants. Politics was another matter. After graduating from law school and spending five years with a politically connected downtown law firm, he was appointed in 1985 as the Democratic candidate for 23rd Ward alderman after Nellene Joyce died. A political career had begun, though Slay the father insists there was no master plan and that his son is not a polished, programmed product spun from some dated, stereotypical big-city political machine.
"That's what gets me," the old man says. "Francis is not from the old-school machine. He isn't. He isn't. And if they say he is, they're nuts. He's not a machine, but he is a politician. And he'll tell you he's a politician. And it takes a politician to move our city forward."
The implication is that the image that Mayor Clarence Harmon promoted four years ago has backfired. Harmon, a former police chief, was elected in 1997 largely on his reputation as a "nonpolitician" -- a town sheriff, almost -- who was sent by voters to clean the cobwebs and corruption from City Hall. Four years later, the ex-chief may have achieved some of his image goals for City Hall, but complaints have mounted about a lack of movement and action in his administration. "This mayor is not a politician," the elder Slay says. "He doesn't know how to move the city forward.
""Politician' is not a bad word. It's how you do it. It's like anybody else. They can say car dealers are thieves and doctors are this or that. It's not true. You have to take an individual -- regardless of what field they're in -- you got to take them as theyare. They either do a fine job or do a bad job. Just like if someone would fix your washing machine, if they do a bad job, you would never call them back. Right?"
In a city where the current City Hall was first occupied in 1898 and the binding city charter was adopted in 1914, maybe it's fitting that in times of trouble -- and believe it, these are troubled times for the city -- one of favorites in the mayor's race is a new kid from an old school. Francis G. Slay, aldermanic president and mayoral candidate, may have all the spit and polish of the young urban professional that he is, but beneath that exterior are genetic and environmental links to politics the way it used to be. And father and son aren't at all ashamed of that.