Mount Buzzmore

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

Charlie Dooley (D-1st District), the county's sole black council member and a longtime Westfall ally, agrees. He notes that Westfall has poured county money into his district, building a health center, repairing highways and roads, establishing a job-training center in an old factory. He also cites the ad hoc citizens' committee Westfall called for in the wake of the Wellston shooting.

Former Westfall aide Lee Brotherton says: "I don't think Buzz has a thing to worry about. The Republicans would love to think Buzz Westfall is vulnerable. Ain't happenin'."

Westfall, in his own words: "I'm viewed as a conservative Democrat, which gives me the best of both worlds."

But thanks to Republican control of the County Council, one hemisphere of that world is a lot more problematic than it used to be. The GOP's renewed dominance was reaffirmed last week with the election of Skip Mange, formerly mayor of Town & Country, ensuring that Westfall will continue to face markedly sharper partisanship in his fiefdom.

"I'd be less than candid if I didn't say there's been more partisanship than there's been before," says Westfall.

Republican operatives promise to keep Westfall in their crosshairs.

"He's basically a pro-life, conservative, law-and-order former prosecutor who Republicans can vote for -- he's basically coasted for 12 years on that," says GOP consultant Paul Zemitzsch. "Whoever the GOP puts up, Buzz is going to have to work to win this election. And it's been a long time since he worked door to door."

But there's an illusory quality to the current Republican reign, one belying the notion that Mange's election indicates a powerful Republican resurgence that will be bad news for all Democrats. Warren points out that the county's GOP majority is more a creature of the boundaries drawn for each of the seven County Council districts than it is a bellwether of overall Republican strength.

"Those heavy Republican votes you used to see just aren't there any more," said Warren. "St. Louis County is no longer a Republican county, not at all."

That was good news for Al Gore last year -- he carried the county handily while losing the state. Should be good news for Carnahan. Unfortunately for Westfall, there's more than enough substance to raise Republican attacks above the mucky level of mere partisan bickering that voters claim to hate. The superficial laundry list is so obvious, even that blind pulpwood pig the Pulitzers keep as a pet can stumble across it.

None of the items on that list tars and feathers Westfall, but all occurred on his watch and make convenient brickbats for Republicans and their reformista "good government" rhetoric.

By now, you know them well: Kinkogate, the witch hunt for a county whistleblower; the blank-check rip-off by the county recorder of deeds; the indictment of council member and key fellow Democrat Bob Young IV for taking a bribe from a cab-company owner.

This last one was a shocker, shaking the very foundation of one of Westfall's Democratic pillars. With Young disgraced and ousted from the polite company of the County Council, Westfall loses the services of a key connection to the politically powerful Pipefitters Union, which once counted Westfall's daddy as a member.

All of the above may be dismissed by voters as typical political mudslinging. Far more problematic for Westfall is the rising outrage of homeowners over their skyrocketing tax bills, largely caused by escalating assessments.

Supercharging the fire of their anger with a stream of Jet A fuel is the revelation that former county assessor Maurice "Mo" Gogarty and his crew didn't actually inspect property at close range, as required by state law. Instead, they picked a new dollar amount while driving past the targeted home. Gogarty was quickly thrown to the screaming mob -- a classic scapegoat.

But once ignited, the flames of a tax revolt are hard to snuff out. They burn across lines of party, race and class, scorching through confusing policy issues and duplicitous and hollow rhetoric.

An issue like this "puts the hay down where the goats can get at it," as they say down in Alabama. And angry voters are motivated voters -- they'll organize, they'll show up at the polls, they'll be a force that can neutralize natural advantages in money, political machinery and voter demographics.

That's bad juju for any politician, even a living legend such as Buzz Westfall. But the smart money says he'll only teeter before righting himself. He won't topple.

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