Harmon Agonistes

You don't need a weatherbird to tell which way the wind is blowing

 Jerry Berger, for good or for ill, is probably our town's most widely read journalist. That's part of why Mayor Clarence Harmon is in a snit.

The mayor thinks a former campaign consultant for his '97 campaign -- a man Harmon got rid of for what he calls "unethical conduct" -- has a vendetta against him and has been writing derogatory items for Berger's Post-Dispatch column in an effort to sabotage the mayor's administration and his current re-election campaign. Harmon claims Richard Callow, a prominent political and public-relations consultant, has been "ghostwriting" Berger's column, at least the parts that include catty items about Harmon.

These are not happy days for Harmon. The man who was the city's first African-American police chief has a good chance of becoming the city's second one-term African-American mayor. He doesn't think he's been treated fairly in the process, and he lays much of the blame on the daily paper of record, the Post.

None of that seems startling -- incumbent mayors struggling for re-election like to bash the local paper, no matter how energetic or lazy that paper is. But Berger has been hounding Harmon, and the paper seems to have done its usual let's-start-reporting-on-City-Hall-now-that-the-mayor's-race-is-on drill, similar to four years ago, when negative pieces on Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr.'s administration surfaced. Harmon also points to $1,125 contributions by Pulitzer Inc. chairman Michael Pulitzer and wife Ceil to Francis G. Slay's mayoral bid as evidence of the Post-Dispatch slant toward Slay ["Short Cuts," RFT, July 26]. The Post, Pulitzer's flagship paper, has yet to report those campaign contributions.

"Berger says he's going to run me out of town," Harmon says. The mayor has also made his feelings known to the Post editorial board: "We told the Post we know that Callow writes [Ber-ger's] articles. They looked at us like it was irrelevant and unimportant. We said, 'Look, guys, would you give us one for at least being suspicious? Your owners have given to Mr. Slay. You've got a guy from my former campaign who's ghostwriting a gossip column which I'm in three or four times a week. Would you give us one for being a little suspicious here that you're biased?'"

Harmon feels the fix is in at 900 N. Tucker Blvd.: "My feeling is, the Post has decided who the next mayor should be. And, in their infinite wisdom, they are oblivious to what the citizens may want to see; they have decided they will decide that for us. They're working up, surely, to endorse Slay. They've deigned him to be the next mayor."

These observations were made by the incumbent mayor before the release of Sunday's Post-KMOV-Zogby poll numbers, which have the weird combination of a 51 percent favorable rating for Harmon but just 6 percent of the people saying they will vote for him. There's something stinky about that dichotomy, but however you explain away the poll, it's clear that Harmon is in third place in a three-way race, with Slay at 46 percent and Bosley at 27 percent. Most of the remaining 21 percent were undecided, according to the poll.

With such meager numbers, it's understandable that Harmon might be developing a bunker mentality. It's even gotten to the point that Harmon brings up the subject of race when asked why people think he doesn't work hard enough. "I resolved that the next time I was asked that, I was going to ask the reporter, 'Would you have asked me that if I were a white mayor?'" Harmon says.

Berger and Callow both deny any plot to dethrone the mayor.

"I've been writing a column under four mayors, including Harmon," says Berger. "Frankly, no mayor has occasioned more different tips from more different people than has Harmon. He's out of step with the job he holds. It suggests he can't get through an entire day without putting his foot in the wrong place."

As for Callow's being a conduit for Berger items, the Bergermeister says he doesn't talk about his sources. "I got a million of 'em," says Jerry.

Harmon says he fired Callow "for unethical conduct -- he told me he was working for Bosley and me at the same time. You know what kind of guy he is. He tells me that. I tell him he's fired. He's made a crusade of this. He writes parts of Jerry Berger's column."

Callow admits doing volunteer work for Harmon's campaign during the summer of '96 but denies being fired by Harmon. He denies working for Bosley. Callow was a donor and fundraiser for Harmon in '97, but this time around he got an early seat on the Slay bandwagon.

There is no disputing that Callow is a player; he has been hired by business types as a male Sacajawea to lead them through the unexplored territory known as City Hall. His Public Eye Inc. has been in the mix for the new convention hotel, the proposed baseball stadium and the new city-jail project. Others with a less kindly take on his role have described him as the "Donald Segretti of St. Louis," referring to the Watergate dirty trickster. One of the City Hall cognoscenti compared the Berger-Callow relationship to the 1957 movie Sweet Smell of Success, in which Burt Lancaster plays powerful gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker and Tony Curtis plays Sidney Falco, a pushy press agent, though the comparison is conceptual, not literal.

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