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.

On more substantive issues, Slay went against his father's position on home rule, coming out in favor of the state legislation that would enable city voters to change their form of government by popular vote. The state bill is seen by many as a precursor to reforming the structure of city government, including making the offices that perform county functions appointed rather than elected. Those offices include treasurer, collector of revenue and the job his father held, recorder of deeds.

In the old days, those "county offices" provided thousands of patronage jobs. Now, with the courts ruling that patronage workers cannot be fired so easily in the wake of election outcomes, the turnover is lower and the political power of those offices is diminished.

Influential politicians who are Slay allies -- such as Sharon Quigley Carpenter, the current recorder of deeds -- oppose home rule, describing it as a change that doesn't guarantee reform while giving the mayor significantly more power. But every former living St. Louis mayor, including Bosley, supports home rule, and even Harmon lately has expressed support. In that light, Slay could hardly stand against the home-rule proposal -- to do so would be seen as retro.

Jennifer Silverberg

But if Slay looks like a Johnny-come-lately on home rule, he's been out front on other issues. In one of the city's more highly charged neighborhood disputes, Slay spoke out against the construction of a Kmart at the site of the old Southtown Famous-Barr store at Chippewa Street and Kingshighway while Harmon remained neutral. Slay gave the living-wage proposal -- a move to require any business receiving city funds to pay $8.84 an hour plus health insurance ($10.77 without insurance) -- his early support while Harmon vacillated. The mayor has since declared downtown a living-wage-free zone and has continued to express other concerns about the ordinance.

Slay also paints Harmon as someone who is leaving the Cardinals hanging with regard to a new baseball stadium downtown, saying Harmon isn't doing enough to move the process along. In public, Slay pledges to do what needs to be done to keep the Cardinals downtown as long as it's "fiscally responsible," whatever that is. Without saying publicly exactly what he would agree to, Slay attempts to portray Harmon as someone who isn't doing enough in his negotiations with the Cardinals.

So the campaign will have its share of political posing. Harmon, the incumbent, will continue to portray himself as the nonpolitician who has run a clean City Hall. Bosley will focus on his energetic and charismatic personality as what the city needs to sell itself. Slay has to overcome his underwhelming public persona and convince voters he has the know-how, desire and energy to rally the city from the brink.

One public official who wants to appear neutral privately prefers Slay because "he's steeped in his political background. I mean, he understands politics, who to talk to and how to talk to them." That doesn't mean he is his father or is set to dole out patronage jobs as in the olden days -- it just means he has a political connectedness that can cause things to happen. Plus, his legal negotiating skills are transferable to civic matters, where compromises are reached by convincing several sides to make trade-offs. To these supporters, these are not the skills that are developed by police chiefs or clerks of the circuit court.

As with any election in a city this old, there is plenty of water over the political dam. Ironies abound. For starters, look at Slay's staff. Twenty years ago, before he was the 16th Ward alderman, Jim Shrewsbury was working the 7th Ward just south of downtown, going door to door, stumping for Ed Bushmeyer to be re-elected as state representative. Bushmeyer was being opposed by Bob Brandhorst, who was backed by Sorkis Webbe Sr., the 7th Ward committeeman and former state senator. Webbe, along with Paul Simon, Ray Leisure and Francis R. Slay, was among the influential Lebanese-American politicians in St. Louis.

When Shrewsbury entered the Webbe Senior Citizen Building at 14th Street and Chouteau Avenue to see whether anyone needed an absentee ballot, two men jumped him from behind and beat him up. Shrewsbury was left with a concussion and partial amnesia. Bushmeyer went on to lose to Brandhorst.

The two men who were convicted for the assault, Norman Clark and Pat Gandy, worked for the 7th Ward Democratic organization. Sorkis Webbe Sr. was indicted in connection with the mugging, but he died in 1985, before he could be tried. His son, Sorkis Webbe Jr., was convicted of obstruction of justice in the case.

In 1983, after Shrewsbury was elected to the Board of Aldermen, he became entangled with another powerful Lebanese-American power broker. Eugene Slay, the barge magnate, wanted to fleet barges north of the Arch, even though the Coast Guard was against the idea, saying it was unsafe. Shrewsbury argued against the bill, but it passed the Board of Aldermen anyway as a result of Eugene Slay's political influence. Schoemehl vetoed the bill, and the veto was upheld by the aldermen. Later, Shrewsbury opposed awarding another riverfront lease to Eugene Slay because he contended he was paying less than other, comparable lessees.

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