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Those who believe that Gaertner's fate was linked to the Martie-Joyce spat surmise that at Joyce Aboussie's urging, Gephardt let the public anti-Gaertner protests provide cover for the underlying reasons Gaertner was dropped. They believe Joyce Aboussie's payback to her cousin was to deep-six the federal judge's nomination that Martie Aboussie backed.
Oblivious to the dynamics at play, Gaertner reportedly had been on the phone lobbying feminists to change their stance, but all the while it was a hardware store that did him in.
This tale of political intrigue is not widely known. The principals involved either don't respond to inquiries or deny that it went down this way. But run it by someone attuned to the nature of St. Louis politics and they'll chuckle or nod knowingly:
That a federal judgeship may have been scuttled because Martie and Joyce Aboussie were at war over the location of a hardware store speaks volumes about South Side politics. To refine the oft-used Tip O'Neill maxim, in St. Louis, not only is all politics local, it's family, and it's personal.
Several years before the Gaertner fiasco, in 1991, Gephardt had not yet calculated exactly where to come down on the North American Free Trade Agreement. Some of the South Side congressman's union support was growing restless.
There was even loose talk -- perish the thought -- that organized labor might consider supporting a Democratic challenger to Gephardt, the former Fourteenth Ward alderman who had been elected to Congress eight times. Robert Kelley, St. Louis Labor Council president, hinted that it was possible.
But who would be foolish enough to mess with the all the money, all the seniority, all the political steam of the Gephardt juggernaut?
Anyone with any sense knew that talk of a primary opponent was merely the unions firing a warning shot within earshot of the bow. Wouldn't happen.
It didn't take long for Gephardt to snap to attention. Gephardt pushed for a ban on permanent replacements for strikers, he toured the maquiladora plants along the Mexican border and he urged protections for U.S. workers in trade deals. He announced a "Gephardt Amendment" to fix union concerns about the fast-track talks.
But Jefferson County Commissioner Ron Casey must have been tuned to a different frequency. Contacted by media, he made vague comments about being receptive to the idea and said union people had talked to him about running for Congress.
As a Jefferson County commissioner, Casey had a political base, and he could play on the anti-Washington feeling among many of the Third District's new constituents. Gephardt's district had drifted south, following the exodus of voters from South City to South County to Jefferson County. A Jefferson County politician was a long shot, but he had a shot.
Casey was summoned to see Gephardt's national political director.
Ron Casey, meet Joyce Aboussie.
Casey showed up and got his head handed to him.
"Joyce brought him into her office, sat him down; it was just him and Joyce," recalls a veteran political observer. "She just ripped him a new asshole. It was 'If you eversay anything like this again ...' Basically she told him, 'This is my territory, and if you ever say a fucking word about running for Congress again, I will destroy you.' He left that meeting saying, 'I've never seen anyone behave like that.'"
For Casey and others who have felt the wrath of Gephardt's bodyguard Joyce Aboussie, the way the message was delivered was as important as the message itself.
It wasn't, "Hey, look, I saw this article in the paper. Are you considering running for Congress?'
It was flat-out intimidation.
The threat Aboussie used that day wasn't literal destruction but political destruction. Politicians survive on reputation and money. As Aboussie rides shotgun on Gephardt's gravy train, she can shorten a politician's career by bad-mouthing the candidate, and she can make fundraising very easy or very difficult.
"Here's the thing about her," says one operative. "She really has got her fingers deep into the pie and will cut you off, and you will never know it was her. She'll hurt you. If you're up against her, she will just flat hurt you in whatever way she can. And it will never be known that it was her."
Sometimes stealth isn't needed.
"Joyce is not at all abashed when something is going to happen that she doesn't want to happen," says another. "She will say in no uncertain terms, to whoever that person or organization or group is: 'Cross me, pay a price.' And she will let you know what that price is, which is usually your complete and utter destruction."
Casey may not have ever seriously considered a race against Gephardt, but after his in-your-face meeting with Aboussie, he lost any such notion in a hurry.
In 26 years on Capitol Hill, Gephardt has never had a significant Democratic challenger. Republicans thought they had a chance in 2000, when their candidate, Bill Federer, raised more than $1 million.
Federer got 40 percent of the vote. Gephardt got 58 percent.
Joyce Aboussie doesn't want to talk about her work, at least not to the media. What's the point? Who needs it? She's a busy woman, she's got things to do.