Perfect Attendance But No Presence

Slay shows up for work, but what gets done?

If mere media mentions were the measure of an effective mayor, Francis Slay's administration would be going like gangbusters. St. Francis is like lead dust in Herculaneum: He's all over the place -- in the Post-Dispatch, on TV news, appearing with Charles Jaco on KMOX-AM and even making time for a sit-down interview with the Suburban Journals.

The problem is that the mayor has been riffing on two high-risk, high-profile issues, leftovers from the previous administration: the Cardinals' lust for a new stadium and the demolition of the Century Building as part of the renovation of the Old Post Office area. Another matter that has given Slay major media face time is his handling of last week's jailbreak from the St. Louis Medium Security Institution.

Credit the ministers of information in the Slay bunker for turning five felons' flight from the Hall Street workhouse into an example of get-tough mayoral management. On Feb. 27, just four days after the breakout, Slay's handlers had Post-Dispatch editorial-page editor Christine Bertelson and P-D gossipmonger Jerry Berger kicking in chorus like the Rockettes, both saying how Slay was not about to put up with such shoddy work. That the Bergermeister's top item and the lead editorial on the same day said essentially the same thing had some City Hall observers fearful that PR wiz Richard Callow had gone beyond Bergering and begun conniving with Bertelson.

Francis Slay
Francis Slay

Oh, the horror.

Although some of the political cognoscenti worried about a dearth of graybeard wisdom when St. Francis picked former TV-news reporter Jeff Rainford as his chief of staff and kept Callow inside the tent, the picks have paid off, media-wise. The P-D editorial, which quoted Rainford, avoided placing blame anywhere near Slay for the jailbreak, heightening the sense of drama surrounding Slay's Friday announcement of suspensions and firings.

Slay's morphing of the workhouse crisis into an example of take-charge management doesn't carry over to the stadium and Old Post Office campaigns. Both those deals are tricky because they require significant legislative approval on the state level, Gov. Bob Holden is thus far an unproven commodity and Jefferson City falls outside the zone of control for Slay's spinmeister staff.

Another major problem with Slay's choices is that neither gives people any idea who Slay is or what plan he has for the city.

"If I look at the stadium and the Old Post Office, it's hard to find Slay's fingerprints on them," says one City Hall veteran. "Win or lose, that makes it problematic for him. Even if it's successful, he doesn't own it as much."

So far, St. Francis looks more like a water boy for the first team than he does a letterman. The Cardinals are behind the wheel of the drive for a new stadium, and attorney/developer Steve Stogel concocted the convoluted Old Post Office package that includes the Century Building demolition and the renovation of the Syndicate Trust Building.

By picking these two projects to champion, Slay has shown what he thinks he needs to do to prevent the one-term fate of his last two predecessors.

Former Mayor Clarence Harmon thought that to be a good mayor, all he had to do was not be former Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. Harmonious became known for indecisiveness and a weak work ethic but clung to the notion that avoiding the perception of scandal that plagued Bosley would be enough to survive.

It wasn't. Harmon got 5 percent of the vote last year in his re-election bid.

St. Francis must think that not being Harmonious -- by putting in long hours, appearing decisive and keeping his name in the media -- will somehow be enough.

Maybe. But probably not.

Slay has shown up for work, but it appears that his attendance doesn't translate into much of a presence. There's been little evidence of interest in the mundane matters that that eat up most of a big-city mayor's time, including campaign promises to revitalize blighted neighborhoods and the use of his office as a bully pulpit on public-school problems.

And, again, there's that "vision thing."

In fronting for the stadium, Slay has picked a position unpopular with most of his constituents. Knowing this, he has consistently opposed letting the public vote on the issue, spouting reasons that come across as elitist and politically tone-deaf. Slay's weak-kneed argument against a plebiscite is that the stadium issue is just too complex and overheated campaign rhetoric might mislead voters.

On the basis of that logic, St. Francis should do what has to be done to cancel the next mayoral election.

"That's an insult for everybody who voted for him," says a neighborhood activist. "I guess we weren't smart enough to make an informed decision on who should be mayor."

There appears to be little Slay's operatives won't do in support of the ballpark and its believe-it-or-not "village." When state Rep. Jim Murphy (D-Crestwood), got carried away -- as he often does -- and made a crack about how no one would feel safe going to a baseball game in East St. Louis, there was some low-level audience grumbling in the aldermanic hearing room.

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