Perfect Attendance But No Presence

Slay shows up for work, but what gets done?

The next day, the Rev. Earl Nance, a $40,000-a-year part-time employee of the mayor's office, held a news conference to charge that Murphy's comments were racist. Nance tells Short Cuts that he did this on his own but admits to calling Rainford that morning to inform him of the press conference. The idea that an opponent of a subsidized stadium would be broadsided by a leader of the African-American clergy apparently didn't seem like a bad idea to Slay's staff. Murphy showed up at that news conference, and a shouting match ensued between him and Nance, making both look daffy.

Having a functionary such as Nance malign a foe of public subsidies for the stadium shows just how far Slay will go to help the Cardinals fulfill their current ambitions. Calling Murphy a racist for making a lame comment shows that Slay doesn't mind taking the low road to get where he wants to go. The ballistic response to Murphy's rambling comments was more than overkill -- it was a diversionary act designed to help the subsidized stadium by skewering its opponents.

It didn't work.

Francis Slay
Francis Slay

Nance's part-time presence in the mayor's office also shows Slay's unwillingness to spend any political capital on tougher issues. Arguably the most difficult, intractable problem facing the mayor -- but one that is jurisdictionally out of his control -- is the state of the city's public schools.

To address this problem, Slay has not turned to visionaries or reformers -- he's hired two alumni of the status quo. Nance, a former school-board president and former head of the African-American St. Louis Metropolitan Clergy Coalition, is Slay's educational liaison. To research data on charter schools, the mayor hired Robbyn Stewart Wahby, another former school-board member and the wife of Brian Wahby, a former aide-de-camp to Treasurer Larry Williams and a committeeman from the 7th Ward, the old power base of the Lebanese political machine that once put Slay's grandfather in the alderman's chair.

Both appointments have more to do with politics than with education. Both spotlight Slay in a less-than-courageous glow, a contrast to the take-charge auras of other big-city mayors past and present, such as Ed Rendell of Philadelphia, Rudy Giuliani of New York City and Richard Daley in Chicago. Rendell took on the unions to win wage and work concessions; Giuliani and Daley directly addressed public-education problems.

In St. Louis, back-channel talk about the disciplinary action on the jailbreak centered on mayoral chief of staff Rainford's rumored desire to devalue or eliminate public-safety director Ed Bushmeyer as a rival because Bushmeyer was thought to be the favorite for the chief-of-staff post before Slay picked Rainford.

But back to the present. Big-ticket projects such as the Old Post Office and the ballpark with-or-without-a-village are consuming all of the new mayor's time and attention. In a city starved for development, there is still no director of the Community Development Agency. The head of the St. Louis Development Corp., Otis Williams, is filling the post on an interim basis. The beleaguered health department, which Rainford complained loudly about shortly after the election, appears to be off the radar screen.

And there's the sense that if the stadium proposal fizzles in Jefferson City and the Old Post Office scheme implodes as a result of its own complexity and weight, Slay doesn't have much waiting in the wings.

"What's behind these projects? What's next? Nothing that they've talked to the public about," says one politico, discussing the Slay administration. "The trouble with focusing on these two projects is that nothing is queuing up behind them."

If they fall through, what can be said about the first year under the new mayor? Maybe that Slay is a younger, more energetic version of Clarence Harmon. And that's not the image his handlers want played across the pages of the P-D or on nightly newscasts.

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