New Kid, Old School

Francis G. Slay wants to push a troubled city to the future, and he doesn't think "politics" is a dirty word.

Guilfoil believes that once Slay got a feel for the inside of City Hall, it was a matter of time before he would want more of it and abandon the idea of a career on the bench: "The more active he became as a trial lawyer, the less appetizing it became to want to referee other people's lawsuits."

One colleague at the law firm is Kurt Odenwald, who is also a St. Louis County councilman. Sharing his co-worker's interest in both law and politics, Odenwald was not surprised by Slay's move to a larger stage. "One might say, "My God, that is a daunting task to be mayor of St. Louis,' but knowing Francis' background and his family's background, I really wasn't surprised by his decision."


Mayor Clarence Harmon says Slay has no record of accomplishment: "Tell me one thing he's done in 15 years on the Board of Aldermen. One thing -- not five things but one thing."
Mayor Clarence Harmon says Slay has no record of accomplishment: "Tell me one thing he's done in 15 years on the Board of Aldermen. One thing -- not five things but one thing."
Mayor Clarence Harmon says Slay has no record of accomplishment: "Tell me one thing he's done in 15 years on the Board of Aldermen. One thing -- not five things but one thing."
Mayor Clarence Harmon says Slay has no record of accomplishment: "Tell me one thing he's done in 15 years on the Board of Aldermen. One thing -- not five things but one thing."

Slay's evolution from downtown lawyer to mayoral candidate took place over 15 years on the Board of Aldermen, the city's legislative body. By contrast, neither Harmon nor Bosley Jr., who had served as circuit-court clerk before his 1993 election, had any day-to-day experience with city lawmakers.

As the man holding the gavel for weekly board meetings, Slay is in the midst of what sometimes turns into outtakes from a film by either Fellini or Bergman -- aldermanic meetings can be surreally entertaining or depressingly dysfunctional. But it's the only legislative body the city has. In enduring withering soliloquies from Ald. Sharon Tyus (D-20th), meandering speeches by Ald. Freeman Bosley Sr. (D-3rd) and Ald. Kenneth Jones (D-22nd) and barbed counterpoints by Ald. Fred Wessels (D-13th), Slay has spent his time in the boiler room.

It's a job in which he's kept his head when others around him appear to be losing theirs, but the criticism leveled at him most frequently with regard to his performance is that other than being orderly and efficient, he hasn't gotten much done. Harmon bluntly puts it this way: "For 15 years, Slay's been on the Board of Aldermen. Tell me one thing he's done in 15 years on the Board of Aldermen. One thing -- not five things but one thing."

Slay counters by rattling off bills he's sponsored requiring travel reports for public officials, expansion of conflict-of-interest disclosure statements, changing the way professional contracts are awarded and limiting no-bid emergency contracts. He also pushed through a controversial open-access bill in 1999 that requires the city's next cable franchise to open its high-speed network to all Internet-service providers. That complicated bill befuddled many aldermen, but Slay championed it as a pro-consumer measure. Those opposed to the bill, including AT&T, said Southwestern Bell wanted the bill passed to prevent AT&T from offering local phone service through its high-speed cable network.

Though Slay's legislative achievements may appear underwhelming, at least he's been able to consistently pull together 15 votes to pass legislation. Neither Bosley nor Harmon built a working relationship with the majority of the board -- a shortcoming that hampered their administrations. Former Deputy Mayor Mike Jones says he urged Harmon to cultivate the board, without success. "You have to have eight or nine aldermen who are with you all the time, even if they don't even know what the bill is," he says. "It's not a quid pro quo, it's "You're there for them, they're there for you.' If you got nine when you start, you're just looking for six. That's your foundation. That's any mayor -- black mayor, white mayor, male, female, purple, green, black, blue -- it doesn't make any difference. That's the guts of how you govern. That's how you govern whether you're in Chicago, New York, St. Louis. You just got to do that."

The last alderman to become mayor, Vincent Schoemehl, had that kind of base, according to one City Hall insider. "Give him his due: Schoemehl could get 15 votes, which meant you could get something done. You didn't have 28 fiefdoms. Francis can put a coalition together. Harmon occasionally can and mostly can't. He has to buy them off with block-grant money." The comparison of Slay to Schoemehl, who was elected mayor in 1981, might be apt, considering aldermanic roots, but it ends there. Schoemehl's lingering image was of someone who would wheel and deal, but he also has the baggage of promising some things -- primarily the reopening of Homer G. Phillips Hospital -- that wouldn't, or couldn't, happen.

Slay promotes the image of a politician who knows how things get done and is able to do them, but he's far too grounded to make any Homer G.-type promise. Other than nebulous pledges such as reversing the city's population decline -- which many would say is impossible -- Slay's campaign riffs focus on his eagerness for the job, his willingness to work hard and his political experience. That whole theme paints a bull's-eye on Harmon's back, because his most vociferous critics say he doesn't spend enough time or effort on the job.

The political realist in Slay would not have contemplated a run to be mayor if Harmon appeared unbeatable. Slay contends that he was never hellbent on being mayor. His job as aldermanic president and his position as partner with Guilfoil, Petzall & Shoemake kept him plenty busy and financially comfortable.

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