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"Joyce Aboussie only gets the power that Dick Gephardt lets her have," says Tyus. "It's like Pearlie Evans with Bill Clay. A lot of people used to talk about the power that Pearlie had. But when Bill Clay wanted to rein her in, he could do that. Sometimes it's in the congressman's best interest to play that crazy 'Shucks, I don't know, I'm the good guy' role, and you let everybody be pissed at Joyce or Pearlie."
Only recently has the power of Gephardt and Aboussie grown to take over the governor's mansion and City Hall. Long before Bob Holden became governor in 2000, he had built a relationship with Aboussie. After he lost his first bid for statewide office, Holden cooled his heels as an administrative aide in Gephardt's office from 1989-91. During that same span, Aboussie helped Holden's wife get a job with Bi-State.
In '92, Holden became state treasurer. Born in Kansas City but raised in the small farm community of Birch Tree, Holden benefited from the big-city linkages gained during his time with Gephardt and Aboussie.
After Governor Mel Carnahan died in a plane crash, Democratic bosses worried that an expensive primary fight between Holden and acting Governor Roger Wilson would lessen their chances in the general election. Wilson, never known for his fundraising skills, bailed after Holden compiled an insurmountable lead -- in money. Aboussie, with Gephardt's connections, was instrumental in helping raise money for Holden, particularly a multimillion-dollar bash at Democratic Party big wheel Lee Kling's farm in Franklin County.
During Holden's campaign against Jim Talent, he made no major decision without consulting with Aboussie. Many say Holden still doesn't make any serious political decision without first calling Aboussie.
Last year, Francis Slay became mayor. Aboussie was a de facto campaign manager for Slay and played a role in assembling Slay's staff and kitchen cabinet. For years, when Jeff Rainford worked as a political and public-relations consultant, Aboussie referred work his way. Rainford is now chief of staff for Slay. City Hall courtiers Richard Callow and Lou Hamilton have a history of getting work through Aboussie. Slay's press spokesman, Ed Rhode, previously worked in Gephardt's office.
Rainford says Aboussie applied her powerful skills to Slay's campaign for mayor last year because she believed Slay was "the city's last best chance."
"Since he has become mayor she has never, ever -- not once -- asked Francis Slay to do anything or asked him for anything. In fact, it's just the opposite," says Rainford. "As soon as the mayor took office, she convened a meeting of all of his top people so that we could go through the city's priorities and they could identify where they could be helpful. It has been a one-way street, and the one way has been Joyce Aboussie helping Francis Slay."
"Sometimes I feel guilty because it's such a one-way street," says Rainford. "We go to them, and it's all for us. It's all gimme, gimme, gimme. That's the way it works. They have the money, and we don't."
Aboussie managed County Executive Buzz Westfall's first campaign in 1990, when he defeated H.C. Milford. Aboussie's badgering of Westfall to make fundraising calls led him to nickname her "the ayatollah." He meant it in an affectionate, humorous way. As Westfall prepares for his run at a fourth term this summer, Aboussie is expected to play a major role.
The governor, the county executive, the mayor and the House minority leader all return calls promptly when Joyce Aboussie phones.
It's almost always paid off in the past.
The past year has been rough for Joyce Aboussie -- her mother and only brother have died, and her father is seriously ill.
At first Aboussie agreed to sit down for an in-person interview; then she said that because of travel and other personal complications, it would have to be done by phone. After a few awkward minutes on the phone, she said she had to go and could only respond if the questions were faxed to her.
Later that afternoon, she had an aide call to tell us to cancel the fax; she wouldn't have time over the next several weeks to respond to the questions.
For a moment, set aside her personal pain. That Aboussie still declines to be interviewed is no surprise.
Real power doesn't crave the spotlight. Real power creates the situation the spotlight follows.
"She doesn't want to be a personality, unless it's among a certain crowd -- the political crowd," says one longtime colleague. "If her name never appears in the newspaper, Joyce will be happy. Like everyone else in politics, her interest is in power and the application of that power for her goals. Whether she's in the newspaper has nothing to do with it. She loves being the hidden hand."
In conversations with almost anyone, including the governor, she is in charge. She calls the shots; she has the info. Talking to the media leaves her words and views for someone else to pick over and present. Where's the advantage to that? What could she gain from media attention?
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