By Sam Levin
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Her opponent spent less than $10,000 to get similar work done by one of Aboussie's competitors. "It was to do the same kind of voter-contact programs," says Hancock. "The results speak for themselves."
It does appear that the tactics that Aboussie pioneered -- frequent-voter lists and other voter data -- are far more accessible to candidates than they were twenty years ago. What Aboussie has that other political consultants don't have is at least fourteen years' experience fundraising on a national level for a nationally known political leader. The fundraising that Aboussie did for Gephardt's presidential campaign in 1988 has developed a variety of revenue streams she can tap for a variety of candidates and causes.
One politician puts it this way: "She casts a long shadow. She clearly has a very mythological capacity to raise money. As a result, people defer to her. That becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is all about money. Politics used to run on patronage. Politics today is money, pure and simple."
The perception that Aboussie can raise large sums of money, sometimes with the cash finding its recipient by way of a circuitous route, is one of her strengths. The other is that she has Gephardt's ear in matters large and small. And she has control over who has access to that ear.
"She's pretty much the gatekeeper for Gephardt on a lot of local issues," says a political veteran. "People strap on the kneepads all the time to go see her. I've seen any number of politicians at various functions pay homage to her in a way that you don't expect."
Once every ten years, redistricting puts Joyce Aboussie closer to the spotlight she shuns.
It's hard to avoid.
She works continually on redistricting, in constant fear that Gephardt's high profile will make him a target for a gerrymandered map to exclude Democrats, which will do him in.
This time around, the redistricting skirmish combined two of her well-honed survival skills: knowing where voters live and using fundraising to influence results. The difference was, this time the battleground was the DMZ between North City and South City and the opponent was Representative William "Lacy" Clay Jr., first-term congressman and son of longtime Congressman Bill Clay.
"She was the start and finish of it," one insider says. "She controlled the whole process. She started on it years before. She had plotted all she wanted."
Part of what she wanted was chunks of the city north of Delmar Boulevard. For Gephardt's Third District to stray that far north was unusual and a sign that the most likely Democratic voters were black voters -- surely more reliable than the ones who could be found in Jefferson County or Affton.
To lubricate the gears for the tedious trading of census tracts, Gephardt -- or Aboussie -- used a special committee to raise $230,000 for redistricting expenses. That committee handed over $108,000 to Aboussie's Telephone Contact Inc. for redistricting work. Most of the rest of those funds covered the salaries of staffers who worked on drawing up maps.
Some maintain that Aboussie used Gephardt's network of donors to funnel money to state House and Senate campaign committees, ensuring their compliance with regard to redistricting. Congressional districts are drawn up by state legislative committees. Through her years of fundraising for Gephardt, Aboussie can call on any number of well-heeled people scattered across the nation.
"It's all about relationships," says one political operative. "She can say to someone, 'You need to send $2,000 to these five candidates.' Her scope is national. Is that sweet or what? How's anybody going to see Joyce's fingerprints on a check coming from Nebraska?"
Aboussie's groundwork got all the congressmen in the state to sign off on the new maps, except for Representatives Todd Akin (R-Second District) and Lacy Clay. Gephardt met twice with Clay to hash out their differences. During the second meeting, several union representatives, a couple of lawyers and staff members were involved. Clay and Gephardt met face to face in one room, with Aboussie in a backroom from which she sent out messages to the two congressmen, making offers and counteroffers.
When the deal finally went down, Aboussie did not get all that she wanted; the line between Clay and Gephardt in the city held pretty much where it started, roughly along Interstate 44. Gephardt did get the south side of Delmar in University City and picked up pockets of Democratic voters in Hadley Township and Clayton. Clay's base of African-American constituents dropped to about 50 percent from 61 percent.
The meetings of the two congressmen were not without tension. Additional fallout came as a result of who testified at public hearings in support of Gephardt's gaining more city voters. The strategy was to get an elected representative from Clay's district, Alderwoman Lyda Krewson (D-28th), and a citywide elected official, Circuit Clerk Mariano Favazza, to back Gephardt's pleas. Mayor Francis Slay also testified in support of Gephardt.
For a local politician to testify on behalf of the area's most powerful congressman may appear reasonable, but in this case it was risky. Krewson was planning to run citywide for president of the Board of Aldermen, so it may have been ill-advised for her to testify against the interests of the area's only African-American congressman. Krewson and Aldermanic President Jim Shrewsbury are the only two primary opponents in the August election. Already there are rumblings of resentment against Krewson on the North Side, in part because of her testimony on redistricting.