Joyce Abusive

Nobody's ever voted for Joyce Aboussie, but the congressman, the governor, the mayor and the county executive don't do anything political without her.

When Missouri Court of Appeals Judge Gary Gaertner was up for a position on the federal bench back in 1993, it looked as if he had it made.

Known for years as a politician in a robe, Gaertner had plenty of juice behind him for the selection process. He was backed by developer Tony Sansone and one of Sansone's employees, longtime Alderman Martie Aboussie.

Martie's cousin Joyce Aboussie was the national political director for Congressman Dick Gephardt, who at the time was House majority leader. A merit selection panel narrowed the field to three candidates, and Gephardt picked Gaertner.

Richard Beckerman

Then things got weird.

Gaertner ended up not getting the federal judgeship, but why he didn't remains open to interpretation. The official, reported-in-the-mainstream-press version is that some of his written opinions rankled feminist advocates, and those forces pressured President Bill Clinton to pull the nomination.

Others believe it had to do with a family feud between cousins over a failed development deal for a hardware store on South Kingshighway.

One of those cousins, Joyce Aboussie, had already risen to be a player on the national political scene, but her war room wasn't inside the Beltway. No matter how big Dick Gephardt got, she remained a South Side special with her priorities and her perspective rooted in the slowly morphing Third Congressional District.

Her scorecard kept track of street-level struggles, and she had a reputation for retribution. To go one better than the motto of legendary Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, Joyce Aboussie would get mad and get even.

She would combine that mean streak with a powerful ability to get the job done.

"The number-one reason people love her and hate her and respect her is because she is effective," says Lee Brotherton, a political consultant and former aide to St. Louis County Executive Buzz Westfall, one of Aboussie's stable of powerful political clients. "By and large, she's as effective as anybody on the political scene that we've had on either side, Democrat or Republican, in a generation, maybe more. Through a combination of luck, timing and skill, she has become the center of a tremendous amount of power."

That cousins Joyce and Martie Aboussie feud periodically is common knowledge in political circles. The Aboussies, as much so as the Slays, Webbes and Leisures, are a Lebanese political family from way back. Martie's uncle Louis Aboussie was Ninth Ward alderman in the 1950s and '60s. Martie's father, "Murph" Aboussie, was a longtime committeeman in the Ninth Ward. For a good number of Aboussies, politics was the family business, a public calling with private plots and subplots.

Even those with no elected position had a stake in the local scene. Joyce's father, Alex Aboussie, sold insurance and was big into commercial real estate, where it's all about connections and whom you know. In the '70s he was called the "king of the convenience store" for the small strip stores he developed in South St. Louis.

Early in these real-estate dealings, the Fourteenth Ward alderman who helped Aboussie navigate City Hall for zoning variances and other needs was a young man named Dick Gephardt. Joyce Aboussie volunteered on Gephardt's first congressional campaign in 1976, when she was a student at St. Louis University. She started working for him full time in the early '80s, about the same time she started her own separate, for-profit political-research firm.

Since then, Joyce Aboussie has managed or consulted on the campaigns of Buzz Westfall for county executive, Francis Slay for mayor and Bob Holden for governor. During that time, she has maintained her job with Gephardt, serving as gatekeeper and bouncer. Most voters don't know who she is, but in Westfall, Holden, Slay and Gephardt they see the public face of Joyce Aboussie.

What they don't see is her power and how she uses it.

Behind the flap over Gaertner's appointment to the federal bench was a case of a real-estate rivalry between Tony Sansone and Alex Aboussie that boiled over and caused a rift between the two cousins, Martie and Joyce.

At the time, Tony Sansone had the development rights to a corner at Kingshighway and Chippewa Street, on the site of the old Southtown Famous-Barr, where an HQ hardware superstore was planned. In addition to being alderman of the Ninth Ward, Martie Aboussie worked as a property manager for Sansone.

Alex Aboussie lured HQ away from Sansone so that the store could be located on Kingshighway a few blocks north of Chippewa. When Sansone heard this, he turned up the heat with his political connections to block the move. The decision-makers for the hardware store changed their minds and reverted to plans for the Sansone-controlled site.

With Alex Aboussie's plans dashed, his daughter tallied the score and waited with a payback.

Though former Lieutenant Governor Harriett Woods, Washington University law professor Karen Tokarz and feminist activists lobbied against Gaertner, the thinking of the day was that if Gephardt pushed it, Gaertner could be approved. After all, he was House majority leader. But after months of controversy, Clinton pulled the plug on Gaertner's nomination. Gephardt remained silent.

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