By Sarah Fenske
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Danny Wicentowski
By Jessica Lussenhop
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
Known for years as a politician in a robe, Gaertner had plenty of juice behind him for the selection process. He was backed by developer Tony Sansone and one of Sansone's employees, longtime Alderman Martie Aboussie.
Martie's cousin Joyce Aboussie was the national political director for Congressman Dick Gephardt, who at the time was House majority leader. A merit selection panel narrowed the field to three candidates, and Gephardt picked Gaertner.
Then things got weird.
Gaertner ended up not getting the federal judgeship, but why he didn't remains open to interpretation. The official, reported-in-the-mainstream-press version is that some of his written opinions rankled feminist advocates, and those forces pressured President Bill Clinton to pull the nomination.
Others believe it had to do with a family feud between cousins over a failed development deal for a hardware store on South Kingshighway.
One of those cousins, Joyce Aboussie, had already risen to be a player on the national political scene, but her war room wasn't inside the Beltway. No matter how big Dick Gephardt got, she remained a South Side special with her priorities and her perspective rooted in the slowly morphing Third Congressional District.
Her scorecard kept track of street-level struggles, and she had a reputation for retribution. To go one better than the motto of legendary Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, Joyce Aboussie would get mad and get even.
She would combine that mean streak with a powerful ability to get the job done.
"The number-one reason people love her and hate her and respect her is because she is effective," says Lee Brotherton, a political consultant and former aide to St. Louis County Executive Buzz Westfall, one of Aboussie's stable of powerful political clients. "By and large, she's as effective as anybody on the political scene that we've had on either side, Democrat or Republican, in a generation, maybe more. Through a combination of luck, timing and skill, she has become the center of a tremendous amount of power."
That cousins Joyce and Martie Aboussie feud periodically is common knowledge in political circles. The Aboussies, as much so as the Slays, Webbes and Leisures, are a Lebanese political family from way back. Martie's uncle Louis Aboussie was Ninth Ward alderman in the 1950s and '60s. Martie's father, "Murph" Aboussie, was a longtime committeeman in the Ninth Ward. For a good number of Aboussies, politics was the family business, a public calling with private plots and subplots.
Even those with no elected position had a stake in the local scene. Joyce's father, Alex Aboussie, sold insurance and was big into commercial real estate, where it's all about connections and whom you know. In the '70s he was called the "king of the convenience store" for the small strip stores he developed in South St. Louis.
Early in these real-estate dealings, the Fourteenth Ward alderman who helped Aboussie navigate City Hall for zoning variances and other needs was a young man named Dick Gephardt. Joyce Aboussie volunteered on Gephardt's first congressional campaign in 1976, when she was a student at St. Louis University. She started working for him full time in the early '80s, about the same time she started her own separate, for-profit political-research firm.
Since then, Joyce Aboussie has managed or consulted on the campaigns of Buzz Westfall for county executive, Francis Slay for mayor and Bob Holden for governor. During that time, she has maintained her job with Gephardt, serving as gatekeeper and bouncer. Most voters don't know who she is, but in Westfall, Holden, Slay and Gephardt they see the public face of Joyce Aboussie.
What they don't see is her power and how she uses it.
Behind the flap over Gaertner's appointment to the federal bench was a case of a real-estate rivalry between Tony Sansone and Alex Aboussie that boiled over and caused a rift between the two cousins, Martie and Joyce.
At the time, Tony Sansone had the development rights to a corner at Kingshighway and Chippewa Street, on the site of the old Southtown Famous-Barr, where an HQ hardware superstore was planned. In addition to being alderman of the Ninth Ward, Martie Aboussie worked as a property manager for Sansone.
Alex Aboussie lured HQ away from Sansone so that the store could be located on Kingshighway a few blocks north of Chippewa. When Sansone heard this, he turned up the heat with his political connections to block the move. The decision-makers for the hardware store changed their minds and reverted to plans for the Sansone-controlled site.
With Alex Aboussie's plans dashed, his daughter tallied the score and waited with a payback.
Though former Lieutenant Governor Harriett Woods, Washington University law professor Karen Tokarz and feminist activists lobbied against Gaertner, the thinking of the day was that if Gephardt pushed it, Gaertner could be approved. After all, he was House majority leader. But after months of controversy, Clinton pulled the plug on Gaertner's nomination. Gephardt remained silent.
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 ever say 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.
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 the prime 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.
"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?
Then there's her personal style, which has been described as brusque.
Several people who say they either like or admire Aboussie also say they would never want to work for her because of the blunt way she bosses people around.
In getting her way, she doesn't mince words. She can cuss like a taxi driver in a traffic jam. One of her nicknames is "Joyce Abusive." She'll go off on someone if she thinks it will be effective. That someone could be anyone.
In the dozens of interviews conducted for this article, all but a few interviewees spoke on the condition their quotes would not be attributed to them. One public official described a phone call from Aboussie this way:
"When she calls you up out of the blue and you say, 'Hello, Joyce,' and she starts to scream at you and curse at you for something that is a marginal affront -- that really is more of a miscommunication than it is anything else -- that can scare the shit out of somebody that has to depend on elected officials for a living. Any number of people have been subjected to the treatment. It's one of those things where she probably forgets about it ten minutes after the conversation. That's just the way she does business, but it's pretty intimidating to people."
With that kind of treatment in response to minor slights, no one who has to do business with her wants to risk irritating her. And because most of her work is done in the dark, her reprisals are seldom revealed. That she is feared is a testament to her power.
But whether people fear or loathe her and dislike her style or tactics, Brotherton, the Democratic political consultant, says that should not affect their judgment of her work.
"You don't have to like Barry Bonds," he says, "to understand he's a great baseball player."
Much of Joyce Aboussie's power flows from the status, money and power of Dick Gephardt, but that wasn't always so. She managed Gephardt's second campaign for Congress in '78, but the first campaign success that turned heads came in 1980, when Aboussie was in charge of promoting a change in the city charter that would allow city employees to make more than $25,000.
In that drive, she used telephone polling, phone banks and frequent-voter lists to push through a measure that previously had failed to pass. Her political stock rose, and from then on she ran all of Gephardt's campaigns. A few years later, she was hired full-time by Gephardt, while she still ran Telephone Contact Inc., her polling and political-consulting firm, on the side.
That was the beginning of what some still see as a conflict of interest. Others see it as Aboussie cleverly playing both sides of the street. They say that if she wants to take on a client or an issue, she says she's completely independent of Gephardt; if she doesn't want to take somebody aboard, she'll say can't do it because it would be against Gephardt's interests. Similarly, Gephardt can distance himself from a candidate or a cause that Telephone Contact Inc. is backing by saying it's Aboussie's separate business and has nothing to do with him.
Not everyone buys this line of reasoning. Again, Alderwoman Sharon Tyus makes a comparison to Bill Clay and Pearlie Evans. Tyus doesn't see how Aboussie would do anything without Gephardt's approval.
"You don't think Joyce Aboussie and Dick Gephardt talk? C'mon, OK?" Tyus asks. "Just like with Pearlie, there'd be things she would do where Bill Clay would claim ignorance. Pearlie talked to Bill Clay every day, two or three times a day. He doesn't have to do that. That's what you have if you're a powerful person -- you keep your hands clean like that, but that doesn't mean you're not touching every button."
The political hopefuls who seek to hire Aboussie are looking for more than the usual political consultant. It's an impression that Aboussie doesn't discourage.
"You buy the whole package when you buy Joyce," says a local political observer. "You pay a premium for Telephone Contact Inc., and you're supposed to get all these extras with it -- Joyce's contacts, that she'll get you in touch with money, she'll help you do all this stuff behind the scenes. I don't know that that really works."
One person putting his criticisms of Joyce Aboussie on the record is John Hancock, executive director of the Missouri Republican Party. He doesn't buy into the mystique of Aboussie as political powerbroker supreme.
"I actually believe much of her aura is overblown," says Hancock. "Incumbent members of Congress, wherever they may be, are entrenched animals. There is not a more safe thing in the world to be than an incumbent member of the U.S. Congress. They win re-election more than 94 percent of the time. It does not take some kind of shrewd political Svengali to re-elect an incumbent member of Congress time after time after time."
Plus, Hancock points to the recent St. Louis County Council race in which Creve Coeur Mayor Annette Mandel hired Aboussie but still "lost, and lost going away." Mandel not only contributed $20,000 to the Democratic Leadership Victory Fund, she spent $40,000 on Telephone Contact Inc. during the campaign.
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.
Further payback came in loss of a lucrative consulting contract between Lacy Clay's sister and the city. Michelle Clay, an attorney, had assisted Lacy Clay in his efforts to resist the first Aboussie-designed map. Michelle Clay lost the consulting contract in May 2001, shortly after the redistricting flap.
Although there was friction on the state level with regard to redistricting, by far the biggest meltdown occurred on the Board of Aldermen. When Alderwoman Irene Smith (D-First Ward) filibustered to protest moving the Twentieth Ward to South St. Louis, she drew national media attention when it appeared that rather than give up the floor, she called staffers to shield her as she urinated into a trash can on the floor of the Board of Alderman.
Protests by Smith and Tyus proved futile. The map the board passed moved Tyus' ward to an area south of Gravois Avenue and east of Grand Boulevard, more than five miles from her home. Aboussie became embroiled in the struggle when Telephone Contact Inc. was paid $25,000 for data for a new map that was intended to be more legally defensible if the redistricting were challenged on racial grounds.
The salt on an open wound was that Slay's office planned to ask the state Democratic Party to pay Aboussie's firm from its coffers. Tyus, whose largely black North Side ward has voted far more heavily Democratic than any largely white South Side ward, thought it outrageous that state Democratic funds would be used to justify a map that would obliterate her ward.
"This city is a pretend Democratic city," says Tyus. "If people would truly run as what they were, Francis [Slay] would be the Republican mayor that he is."
She wanted some answers. She didn't get any.
"Gephardt showed a lack of leadership," says Tyus. "He had a chance to sit down and show people it wasn't about race. If it's not about race and it's about Democrats, you don't touch the most Democratic ward in the city."
Feeling the heat, the mayor's office said that the $25,000 would be paid by donors and not by the Democratic Party, but complications involving donor limits put a stop to that approach. Aboussie's involvement and the use of state Democratic Party money sent a powerful message to African-American Democrats -- they felt their own party had turned against them in a racial rift that hasn't healed yet.
Tyus, who plans to challenge the aldermanic redistricting in court, says the map produced after Aboussie was hired "is even worse than the first one." Tyus is one of the African-American elected officials to write a letter to Democratic officeholders asking why they should support U.S. Senator Jean Carnahan in the upcoming election. Tyus and others are proposing "standing down" in that election by not voting or by voting for Carnahan's Republican opponent, Jim Talent.
Though that friction grew out of aldermanic redistricting and Aboussie didn't help matters any, Tyus still blames Aboussie's boss, Gephardt.
"She gets a bad rap," says Tyus of Aboussie. "She does her job. She protects Dick Gephardt. She does what Dick Gephardt wants, so if you don't like the things she's doing, stop blaming her and look at who the person is she works for."
"A lot of people are two-faced," says Tyus. "They grin in Joyce's face and then go behind her back and talk about her. Whatever I would to say Joyce Aboussie, I would say it to her face. If I didn't like it, I'd call Joyce Aboussie and tell her that."
Times have changed since Joyce Aboussie started her political career in 1976 as a volunteer in Dick Gephardt's first run for Congress. Times haven't changed, too.
Back in the '70s, Alex Aboussie was responsible for the fast-food joints and 7-Elevens sprouting up on the South Side. In recent years, he has been known for packaging lots and flipping them over to be QuikTrip gas-and-go stores.
Alex Aboussie was a member of the city school board in the early '60s and later held a seat on the Community Development Commission. He resigned that post after concerns were raised about conflict-of-interest issues because he profited from several land deals that came before the commission, although he always abstained from those votes.
Then as now, the Aboussie family has seemed to have someone in the political mix and someone in the mercantile world. In the '60s and '70s, when a developer or property owner in the Seventh or Ninth Ward needed a passport to get through the City Hall permit and zoning maze, the word was to hire Chuck Deeba as your lawyer. After paying a goodly sum for Deeba's legal work -- and his connections -- the permit, zoning variance or city inspection would be finagled.
With Joyce Aboussie, the dynamics are not so crass. If a person with a political jones wants to run for office on the Democratic ticket, it's best to get on her good side. One way to do that is to hire her company, Telephone Contact Inc., to do voter surveys and gain access to her famed frequent-voter lists. But before that happens, a candidate must schmooze his or her way to a position of being able to hire TCI.
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."
In maintaining that relationship through the years, old friend Daly is there for Gephardt's national political director.
"One of these days she's going to call, and she's going to say, 'Gregg, listen, brother, I've got somebody who's got a situation.' And I'll say, 'Joyce, sure, I'm right here. I'm right here,'" says Daly. "She works hard."
So Joyce Aboussie is a throwback, a relic of the backroom politics of the past and at the same time an evolution, a descendant of that stereotype. Instead of patronage jobs and kickbacks fueling the machine, there are frequent-voter lists, access to a powerful congressman and a hookup to big-bucks donors. It's still money and power; the only thing that has changed is the mechanism of how it corrupts and the props that surround the process.
One politician -- again, talking on background, more out of fear than loathing -- describes the downside of Joyce Aboussie's grip on power this way: "The concern people should have about a monolithic political structure is the limited number of ideas and voices that become part of the public discussion. It's just not healthy in a democracy for there to be a dearth of points of view. A lack of debate is not healthy. Developing consensus is healthy."
When it comes down to a power broker such as Joyce Aboussie making the call, good public policy too often comes in a weak fourth -- behind the political, personal and financial interests of her clients.