Mount Buzzmore

Scandals, shootings and tax anger crack Westfall façade, but bags of money, no GOP opponent -- yet -- may keep him on his pedestal

Buzz Westfall's been in office so long that the standard clichés of political hackdom -- "fixture," "powerhouse," "reign," "dynasty" -- have taken on the same patina and permanence as his official title, St. Louis County executive.

With a long stint as a county prosecutor and a dozen years at his current post, Westfall has the service stripes of an astute politician, perhaps the best in the business of local government.

He is the long-living, long-serving type.

Monolithic. Monumental. Masterful.

But every dog-ass politician has his day, they say. And such wisdom always carries a double edge. It can be a day of continued glory. Or a day of final reckoning. Just ask Lenin. Or "Papa Doc" Duvalier. Ask them about the frozen moment when their statues were yanked to earth.

Although a war chest that exceeds $1 million and the absence of a credible challenger may be enough to prevent Republican revolutionaries from toppling the Westfall edifice this November and smashing it into dusty chunks of granite, the Great One can no longer run county government by remote control, by way of satellite beams from his secret vacation compound located somewhere near the Lake of the Ozarks.

Or the 19th hole at the Bogey Club.

Yessir -- Buzz may have to put down the 9-iron and the Ugly Stik and work for this one. Do a gut check. See whether the fire is still in the belly. Or just say: "Screw it; I've had a damn good run -- I'd rather go fishing."

There are two prime reasons Westfall won't be able to run a Cruise-o-Matic re-election campaign:

· A Republican-controlled County Council filled with partisans more than willing to shine a spotlight on scandals and screw-ups.

· A wave of disgruntlement washing over the rapidly shifting demographics of St. Louis County, which now has more African-Americans living inside its borders than does the city.

Viewed from the topwater level, more minority voters should be a decided plus for Westfall and any Democratic co-conspirator. African-Americans now account for 19 percent of the county's residents -- up 5 percentage points since 1990 -- and 17.2 percent of its eligible voters, says Ken Warren, a political-science professor at St. Louis University. They also form a key component of Westfall's North County redoubt of union members, minorities and other Democratic-leaning voters.

But a dip below the surface indicates that Westfall's claim on minority voters is far from iron-clad. Black political leaders are angered by redistricting, a redrawing of the political map that they say unfairly targets their statehouse districts. They and their constituents are also deeply troubled by the shooting of two black drug suspects by lawmen -- the infamous Jack in the Box affair and the killing by county police of a woman in Wellston.

"He might as well be a Republican, as far as black voters go," says Elbert Walton, a North County Democratic committeeman and husband of state Rep. Juanita Walton (D-Moline Acres). "He doesn't appeal to anyone, but he doesn't do anything to cause them anger or harm."

The county's black arrivistes are part of a near-suburb phenomenon occurring nationwide -- city dwellers moving out of the city and into the older bedroom communities that hug the border between city and county. In turn, white voters who helped make the county a Republican stronghold for 30 years are moving further out, into surrounding areas such as St. Charles and Franklin counties.

But the political habits of the county's new minority voters aren't automatic. And, like their white counterparts from decades ago, they have moved to the suburbs for better schools, less crime, a better job and a bigger home.

"Buzz does not have the normal lock on the black vote that a Democrat usually has," says one prominent black political player. "You get a progressive, business-oriented Republican, and he might make a lot of sense to a college-educated, corporate black man or woman."

This is a resounding echo of that old Republican wet dream, the political equivalent of a bloated conventioneer's dreams of a randy night with a porn star. But because it comes from a black political leader, there's very little fantasy fueling those words. Instead, there's a nasty little message pitch: Don't take us for granted, Jack.

Black political leaders, pissed off about redistricting and none too pleased with law-enforcement tactics that they claim unfairly target blacks and other minorities, are making their customary noise about backing Republican Jim Talent in his race against U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan.

Although it's unlikely that many blacks will actually vote for the Republican challenger, lack of enthusiasm for Westfall could weaken him on Election Night -- nine months from now. But this doesn't mean squat if the Republicans fail to pony up a stud-hoss challenger. Hasn't happened yet, although Missouri Republican Party executive director John Hancock promises to unveil one "very soon."

Warren doesn't buy the notion that Westfall is vulnerable. The Great One's tough-on-crime credentials and pro-development stance put him in good stead with Republicans, complementing his home-grown support among Democrats.

"This guy -- his name is so big, he's won by huge margins, he's won for years," he says.

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