White Fright

The race for mayor is, once again, all about race

One of my favorite city stories of all time came to mind this week, thanks to the mayoral race.

It was the time that white South St. Louis first embraced racial quotas.

The year was 1994. The mayor was an African-American named Freeman Bosley Jr., and the comptroller was an African-American named Virvus Jones.

Together they gave blacks their first-ever majority on the three-member Board of Estimate and Apportionment (E&A), which -- in the city's outmoded "weak mayor" system of government -- controls power over the government and its purse strings in a manner reserved for the mayor alone in most cities. The third member of E&A, Aldermanic President Tom Villa, was white.

Villa announced in the fall of 1994 that he wouldn't seek re-election the next spring. Shortly thereafter, another African-American, state Sen. Lacy Clay (now a congressman), publicly toyed with the idea of running for the aldermanic presidency, presenting a real possibility -- even a likelihood -- that blacks would control all of E&A, the way whites did for the first century-and-a-half of the city's history.

White people freaked.

Insiders warned darkly that whites would flee the city in even greater numbers than the current exodus should they have no representation at the highest levels of government. The racially split city was going to be "another East St. Louis."

The Post-Dispatch, a white newspaper, actually published an editorial pleading with Clay not to run. "Fairness dictates that key boards have representation from all segments of the city," it said.

Then the historic event occurred. On Nov. 19, 1994, white Democratic leaders representing all but two of the South Side's aldermanic wards convened a summit to ward off the danger of this all-black thing.

"We want a white candidate," Marie Lammert, head of the city Democratic Party and 12th Ward committeewoman, was quoted in the Post. "There's qualified blacks and there's qualified whites. This city is half and half. We need both on the Estimate Board. Even black committee people agree with that. If south St. Louis doesn't have some type of voice, that's pretty bad."

I loved this story. As I noted in a commentary [Dec. 21, 1994], it was the first time white South St. Louis had been cured of its colorblindness.

In overwhelming numbers, South Side whites were hostile to all that affirmative-action nonsense to which they had been subjected for the previous quarter-century. They hated racial quotas, and they were openly tired of hearing about the need for black "representation" or about "preferences" or "race-conscious remedies."

But the first time -- the very first time -- whites faced zero representation on the city-governing board, race mattered. It turned out whites had a racial quota (one) for whites on E&A and, further, that they had no problem taking affirmative action -- as an openly organized caucus for whites -- to achieve a race-conscious remedy.

It worked. Citing pressure from whites, Clay backed away from running, earning a nice "attaboy" in another Post editorial.

And a young white fellow emerged as the front-runner -- and eventual easy winner -- in the race for aldermanic president. His name was Francis Slay.

Now Slay is the front-runner in the March 6 Democratic primary (normally the real election) for mayor. His main opponents in the six-man field are Mayor Clarence Harmon and Bosley, the man Harmon defeated.

On Sunday, the Post published the stunning results of a mayor poll conducted by the respected Zogby Co. showing that Slay held a 46-27 percent lead over Bosley, with Harmon receiving only 6 percent.

Six percent? How could that be? Harmon, the city's first African-American police chief, is an affable, honorable, well-respected guy throughout the city.

True, he has had an underwhelming administration -- plagued by a litany of the same deficiencies Harmon attacked Bosley over four years ago -- but the man hasn't been accused of high crimes and misdemeanors, for crying out loud.

Six percent? A mayor gives jobs to 6 percent. He shakes hands with 6 percent. He kisses 6 percent of the babies.

How could Clarence Harmon free-fall from winning 56.4 percent of the vote four years ago against Bosley -- who had Slay's endorsement, by the way -- to the point where he would be lucky to outpoll perennial hopeful Bill Haas.

The answer, sad to say, is race.

In 1997, Post exit polls showed that Harmon received 94 percent of white votes and only 17 percent of black votes. Bosley won 83 percent of black votes in the poll and less than 5 percent of whites. This time, however, Francis Slay is in the mix, and white support for Harmon has fallen off the cliff.

What horrible things has Harmon done to white people? Certainly no one would argue that whites would have abandoned the mayor in droves were this a one-on-one rematch with Bosley.

Indeed, the conventional wisdom was that Bosley had a strong chance of winning despite his late entry in the race because Slay and Harmon would split up the white vote and Bosley would hold his usual solid majority on the black North Side. Apparently the conventional wisdom should never underestimate the importance of race.

Including the white race.

Slay is a fine public official -- one who has enjoyed good rapport with blacks, by the way -- but it's not as if he's riding in as an outsider. He was aldermanic president during both the Bosley and Harmon administrations, and there weren't screaming feuds every day.

Other than race, what could possibly account for Slay's taking almost all of Harmon's white support?

It appears that Slay is poised to be the next mayor. On the other hand, as Zogby noted, Bosley should not be counted out, because of the heavy (19 percent) undecided numbers. Blacks have often been under-represented in pre-election polling.

Personally, I prefer Bosley, but there's a larger point here. If Bosley should pull out a come-from-behind win, it would almost certainly be made possible by a large black turnout, and the big story will be race.

But if Slay holds on?

Expect the headlines to be colorblind.

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