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.

If anyone should know that a mayoral race in this town is a crap shoot, it's the man who might have been mayor, Tom Villa. The longtime state representative and former aldermanic president also knows the power and limits of a local political heritage. Villa was seen as the heir apparent to Schoemehl when the mayor left office in 1993. The aldermanic chamber where the 28 aldermen meet every Friday morning is named for his father, Red Villa. Tom Villa lost the mayoral election to Bosley as Villa and former state Rep. Tony Ribaudo split the South Side vote and businessman Steve Roberts came in fourth.

Among other lessons he learned then and has learned since then, Villa says you can't assume a name is going to get you votes. Each election has a different math to it, and no two electorates in any two elections are identical.

"I can see it when Matt and I run around down here in our little corner of the world in the 11th Ward," says Villa, referring to his nephew, Ald. Matt Villa (D-11th). "One thing my father was, he was a dominant name down here in South St. Louis, but a lot of his voters are out in Calvary and Resurrection cemeteries. They are. You really got to go back and prime the pump."

Villa was director of intergovernmental affairs for Harmon in '97 but quit to be elected again as a state representative. Having visited Room 200 as aldermanic president, having run for mayor unsuccessfully and having worked on Harmon's staff, he knows what hazards lurk in that job.

"It's a different city. It's a changing city," says Villa. "The person walking into Room 200 has to realize we have the big-city infrastructure, the big-city police and fire departments that come along with their big pension systems; we've got the big-city workforce; and we've got all the county offices -- but we've only got 335,000 people to pay taxes. And that is going to be the ultimate challenge of whoever inhabits Room 200 over the next four years."

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