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Once a candidate has Joyce Aboussie on the payroll, the assumption is, doors will be opened and the skids will be greased.
Then, as now, who you know, what you've done for them and what they can do for you is the currency of any deal, be it a political campaign, a real-estate development or a federal judgeship.
Joyce Aboussie hasn't changed that -- she's just done it in a more modern, remote-controlled way. That she has engendered so much animosity may simply be because people resent her power and are painfully aware of her capability for vengeance.
Part of her dark image may come from her roots and the rough-and-tumble history of other local Lebanese families -- the Slays, the Webbes and the Leisures. Ray Leisure, a longtime alderman of the Seventh Ward, has a hearing room in City Hall named for him.
But that family name is also widely known for a rash of car bombings, including three killings, in the early '80s. Ray Leisure's cousins Anthony and Paul were sentenced to life in prison for planning the bombings. Another cousin, David, was executed for his role.
Eugene Slay, Mayor Francis Slay's cousin, was convicted in the cable-television influence-peddling scandal of 1985 but never did time because the Supreme Court overturned the law under which he was convicted. Both Sorkis Webbe Jr., an alderman, and Sorkis Webbe Sr., a committeeman, were convicted of vote fraud in the Seventh Ward. The father died before going to prison; the son did time.
The Aboussies never had such public brushes with the law, but there was at least one inconvenience.
In 1978, during Alex Aboussie's dabbling in the vending-machine business, a small bomb went off at Aboussie's house, 6736 Eichelberger Street in St. Louis Hills. It was a message bomb, not intended to hurt anyone. It didn't.
But the bomb did explode just before midnight outside Joyce Aboussie's bedroom window. She was 21 at the time, and police speculated she escaped injury because the drapes on her window stopped the flying glass caused by the bomb.
Several conflicting rumors swirled as to why the bomb had been planted, and one suspect was questioned with regard to his union connections. But the most credible theory centered on Art Berne, known as an organized-crime boss on the East Side. He was a tad territorial when it came to his vending machines, and perhaps, the thinking went, the Aboussies had strayed too far onto Berne's turf.
The bomb was a warning. The Aboussies dropped out of the vending-machine business.
Five years later, in 1983, Paul, David and Anthony Leisure were charged with the bombing.
The Aboussies were the target of this minor explosion, but they have had no direct link to the seamy side of the power struggles, which included car bombings, indictments and vote fraud.
Lana Stein, chairwoman of the political-science department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, says one reason Joyce Aboussie is judged harshly by some is that she's a powerful woman in what largely has been a man's game. Stein is the author of the recent book St. Louis Politics: The Triumph of Tradition, a 296-page work tracing city politics from 1876 to the present.
"There's something else going on here -- it's gender," says Stein. "In the history of this city you've had a lot of men, hardball political players, who when they say they'll get even, they do. It's unusual to have a woman in that role."
Part of Aboussie's image stems from her aversion to attention. Described by many who know her as a workaholic, her life is her work and her work is her life. She wants her private life to remain just that -- private. Her main interest, besides Gephardt and TCI, is her support of St. Jude Children's Hospital in Memphis, where she has served on the board and continues to help as a fundraiser.
Gregg Daly, St. Louis license collector and former aide to Francis Slay when he was aldermanic president, has known Aboussie for more than 25 years, starting when they both worked on the campaign of Tom Zych for president of the Board of Aldermen.
"She is very intense," says Daly. "She works all the time. She works all the time. I don't have that drive. She does. I sensed that long ago. She takes very little time off. As the years have gone on, it's gotten more intense. Her line of responsibility has gotten bigger. It's not just local stuff; she's zeroed in nationwide. She was pretty intense way back then; it's just that she didn't have the playground that she's got now. It's a whole different set of territory that she's operating with now than she did in her early stages."
Unlike those who are critical of her, Daly stresses that when he has backed a candidate whom Aboussie opposes, it has never gotten in the way of their friendship.
"In my dealings with her, it's always been 'This campaign is over; let's move on.' We've always been able to hold on to a relationship and continue on," says Daly. "Next one, we'll be on the same team together."
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