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.

As Slay leaves the ward meeting and Harmon enters to start his spiel, Arline Webb and Paul Casey head for the door. Both say they are "pretty much" backing Slay, though they have no illusions about the dynamism of their choice. When pressed for a word to describe Slay, the first word Casey offers is "bland."

That, both Casey and Webb insist, is not a bad thing.

"Bland isn't bad if it's passionate," says the bearded 46-year-old Casey. "Passionate bland is much more effective than nonpassionate bland, which is what we've had for the last four years."

Clearly they both think Slay is a politician. They don't think that's a dirty word.

"We've had four years of a nonpolitician. I like Harmon as much as the next guy, but he's not a politician. He doesn't seem to listen or talk to people like a politician. Slay talks to people; he listens to people. He has a good time listening to what people have to say. I met him before he wanted to be mayor," says Casey. "If you're not talking as a politician or not listening as a politician, you're ineffective as a politician. It's a political office."

Webb, a 54-year-old medical technician, says she worked on Harmon's '97 campaign: "I worked hard. I think he was an excellent police chief. He didn't know how to carry that over to become a mayor." She doesn't see the lack of "fireworks" in Slay's personality as a major handicap.

"Bland can be a very strong tool if you know politics -- but you have to know politics, too. It doesn't matter if you're bland. Maybe you're not going to appear on Good Morning America, but I don't know if that's necessarily important. If you can get your programs through, even though you look like vanilla pudding, you don't have to have a sparkling personality."

Casey admits that if you want personality, Bosley is your man.

"But you don't need an amen choir, which is all that Bosley has to offer," says Casey. "If you're looking for a guy with charisma, there's a guy with charisma. But he was a completely ineffective mayor."

The attraction of Harmon was that he was a City Hall outsider and proud of it, says Casey: "Now we're going back to politicians."

For Slay to become the insider who follows the outsider, he needs to win the election. To do that, he must campaign effectively. It's clear that in the last few weeks of the campaign, Slay will be talking about the "leadership vacuum" in Room 200 of City Hall. But he also has to work on his own image.

With the spotlight on Bosley and Harmon for the last eight years to some degree, Slay has labored in the dark. Though it's clear that Slay has positioned himself for a run for mayor, he has heard concern about his image as a Roman Catholic, anti-abortion South Side attorney from an old-school, politically connected family. One politico not thrilled with his candidacy described him as "retro" and as someone who would not appeal to young professionals or progressives, particularly in the critical central-corridor wards.

"People who know me know better than that," Slay says in his defense. "I guess that's a stereotype that people try to cast upon someone just based on their upbringing. That's something we've got to get beyond. That's something I don't believe in. I don't believe in stereotyping somebody based on their religion, the color of their skin or their sexual orientation. While I do come from a conservative background, which I'm proud of and I'm not disassociating myself from, I am open-minded, and I do think I have the ability to represent the entire city. Politically, I think I'm more of a moderate."

On the cultural-war front, Slay seems to be a bit less strident than Harmon, though not quite in the same posse as Bosley. After the flap over Harmon's refusal to sign a proclamation for rapper Nelly, Bosley finagled a state proclamation for the rapper from University City, which Bosley presented to Nelly onstage at Savvis Center. Slay says he would have signed a proclamation for Nelly.

"This guy is a talented artist. An artist can be controversial, but he's local talent. He does tout St. Louis," Slay says. "You don't have to subscribe to his language or have it on your CD player, but you sign the proclamation and give him due recognition."

Clearly straight-arrow Slay is no hip-hop aficionado -- America's Greatest Hits is in the tape player of his big, black, provided-by-the-city car, a Grand Marquis. "Horse with No Name," "Ventura Highway" and "Muskrat Love" are not on the same playlist as "Country Grammar (Hot Shit)."

"You're not endorsing his lyrics, but what you are doing is congratulating him for coming from St. Louis and being successful," Slay says, then adds what, for him, is a funny line. "Nelly's done more to promote St. Louis than the City Living Foundation has," he says, referring to the foundation that spent about $300,000 to promote city living but failed to produce an advertising campaign.

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