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Besides, she says, "I'm not an elected official; I'm not a public figure."
Elected, no. Public, yes.
Her work is done, as they say, behind closed doors. But it involves elected officials; it has public consequences. Joyce Aboussie causes things to happen, make no mistake. She puts people in office. She keeps others out.
Those who seek her favor -- and those who fear her -- describe her as one of the most powerful people in Missouri. Those who make their living in the political world see her as theprime mover and shaker in the state, even more so than titular leaders.
She has the ear of the area's most powerful congressman, the St. Louis mayor, the St. Louis County executive and the governor.
They all owe her. Big-time.
In many local conversations, the shorthand term for her boss is the congressman. No, that doesn't mean Todd Akin.
As the congressman's national political director, Aboussie is in charge of the never-ending campaign of Dick Gephardt to be, well, Dick Gephardt. That means almost-House majority leader, rumored presidential candidate, fixture on the Sunday-morning network chat shows, the talking head that doesn't age, the national "liberal" antidote for George W. Bush, Trent Lott and, yes, when he drifted toward the center, Al Gore.
During a debate, Gephardt once stung Gore by telling Al that he should have learned better manners at St. Albans, the preppy high school Gore attended in D.C. That was a way for St. Louis South Sider Gephardt to differentiate himself from the senator's son, Al Gore.
Dick was the milkman's son. Dick graduated from Southwest High School at Kingshighway and Arsenal Street, catty-corner from Tower Grove Park. Dick is a Southwest High Longhorn, or used to be. He's been in Congress for 26 years. He's lived in Virginia, across from the District of Columbia, for decades.
Aboussie never left St. Louis.
Oh, she travels a lot, and her sphere of influence has increased to a national level. But her roots, her power, her money and her knowledge are still headquartered in South City at her two low-profile offices, one on Hampton Avenue and the other on Watson Road in Kenrick Plaza.
Those two nondescript storefronts house the dual engines of Aboussie's info-age political machine. Telephone Contact Inc., her private, for-profit "voter-contact firm," is on Hampton. Her employees do polling by telephone and compile frequent-voter lists and other voter data that are sold to political campaigns.
The strip-mall office on Watson Road in Shrewsbury is where Aboussie does what she calls her "full-time job," working as national political director for Gephardt. She's not a federal employee; she's employed by the campaign. There's plenty of cash on hand to pay her salary.
According to our last click on a campaign-finance Web site, Gephardt had $2.2 million in his treasure chest. That's $2.2 million and counting -- it's always "and counting" because the campaign trail goes on forever and the fundraising never ends.
In politics, power is the sum of money and votes. Aboussie has made a living knowing how to get both for Gephardt and for her other "outside" clients.
Ken Warren, a political-science professor at St. Louis University who taught Aboussie back in the '70s, helped her develop the methodology that targets voters on a sliding scale, from who tends to vote most often to who tends to vote least often. He worked with Aboussie early on, during the first few years of Telephone Contact Inc.
"I have always admired her political acumen and relentless drive," says Warren. "Joyce is really a very competent and politically savvy woman who I would definitely rate as the most powerful behind-the-scenes insider in Missouri. She knows how to get what she wants for her causes, and Dick Gephardt is her number-one cause."
Her political brokerage work for other candidates is layered on top of her job of making the world safe for Gephardt. That has involved mastering the fundamental dynamics of politics and keeping score at all levels, including the messy details of ward wrestling matches and census shifts. She also makes sure enemies, as well as friends, stay on guard.
Those who labor in the political vineyard are clear about who Aboussie is and what she does. They don't doubt her power.
"Gephardt, both as an alderman and as a congressman, disdained the local political infighting," says one City Hall lifer. "What he does is defer all that to her. He lets her handle that. She has the congressman's influence but not the congressman's oversight."
The good cop-bad cop drill, with Gephardt as the Howdy Doody frontman and Aboussie as the sub rosa sergeant-at-arms, taking names and barking orders, has been a working partnership for the last twenty years.
To a lesser degree, longtime U.S. Representative Bill Clay had a similar relationship with his right-hand woman, Pearlie Evans. Alderwoman Sharon Tyus (D-Twentieth Ward) often says, with regard to North Side matters, that Evans would take the heat for Clay or handle tricky situations the congressman wanted to avoid.
In Tyus' view, any criticism of Aboussie should really be directed at Gephardt.
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