Wonk's Luck

African-American anger at the Democrats gives Jim Talent an opening

On paper, this Jim Talent guy looks like just what a devastated area like North St. Louis needs. He virtually wrote the Community Renewal Act, one of the last bills signed into law by President Bill Clinton, a chief executive who has been affectionately or derisively known -- depending on who was using the term -- as this nation's first black president. Well, he did retire to Harlem.

If there is a community that needs renewing, it's the turf north of Delmar Boulevard in the city. There is so much abandoned land and so many vacant buildings in North St. Louis that the city's first African-American mayor, Freeman Bosley Jr., supported putting a golf course just north of downtown. No need to yell "fore" -- chances are, the dimpled balls wouldn't have hit anything.

That deal fell through, but Talent's one of these policy-wonk kind of politicians. He's got more ideas than time. He and Clinton had that in common. They probably would have hit it off, except that Clinton posed as a Democrat and Talent is listed as a Republican.

Oh well, so much for North St. Louis' turning out for Talent as he runs for the U.S. Senate against Jean Carnahan, widow of the late Governor Mel Carnahan. Jean Carnahan is finishing off a two-year appointment she received after her deceased husband defeated John Ashcroft, who went on to find other work.

Usually a Republican campaigning in North St. Louis is a textbook definition of wasted time, but Talent offers policy in the face of urban problems, not platitudes. Still, he didn't have much of a shot at gaining African-American support -- not until that train wreck known as redistricting.

On the local level, what the Democrats did during redistricting pissed off enough folks in North St. Louis that a semithreatening letter was sent to local Democratic Party leaders warning them about repercussions from redistricting.

This brushfire could provide an opening for Talent.

That Alderwoman Sharon Tyus (D-20th) and Alderman Freeman Bosley Sr. (D-3rd) are two of the leaders of the threatened African-American boycott of the November ballot featuring the Carnahan-Talent race could be a cause of concern or relief for the Democrats. Any rumblings in a close race are worrisome, but mainstream Democrats may view Tyus and Bosley as fringe dwellers.

Problem is, 27 other current and former African-American officeholders signed that letter. That isn't good news for the Democrats or for Carnahan.

Talent is aware of the possibilities, and he's been scheduling campaign events in North St. Louis. Recently he toured the Cochran Gardens housing project with the Reverend Bill Sietz --pastor of House Speaker Dennis Hastert's church in Chicago -- mixing church and state by announcing that Hastert's church may send volunteers to Cochran in a partnership program.

"I understand there is disaffection and dissension within the Democratic Party," says Talent in reference to the backlash that's resulted from redistricting. "I'm not looking for a short-term type thing. I don't want to be the suitor used to make the boyfriend jealous. But I am very interested in working long-term with anybody -- Republican, Democrat, whatever -- who is sincerely interested in jobs, home ownership and education in the urban core."

Not so humbly, Talent refers to the Community Renewal Act as "the most significant piece of anti-poverty legislation that passed the Congress in years." It combines tax and regulatory incentives to draw small businesses to distressed areas and works with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to increase home ownership and savings.

Tim Person, deputy campaign manager for Bob Holden in his 2000 campaign to defeat Talent for governor, is fed up with the Democratic Party. He's hoping North St. Louis either sits out the November election or backs Talent.

Person, a mayoral aide to Bosley, knows that many Democrats damn him as a turncoat. He has no illusions about Talent or Carnahan but has hopes for a more open debate.

"Are any of these candidates godsends? No," says Person. "But I think in forcing people to the table, forcing people to talk, you make both sides work harder."

Tyus is mad that her 20th Ward was picked up and plunked down in the middle of South St. Louis, devastating an old power base that was virtually all African-American and giving her a new constituency of whom about half the eligible voters are white. In the 2000 presidential election, her old ward turned out 94.2 percent of its vote for Democratic candidate Al Gore and only 1.4 percent for George W. Bush.

In Mayor Francis Slay's 23rd Ward, Bush received 38.8 percent of the vote. In Aldermanic President Jim Shrewsbury's 16th Ward, Bush got 46.8 percent. Tyus resents the fact that her knee-jerk Democratic ward was punished by a 27-to-1 Democratic Board of Aldermen and a Democratic mayor.

"If it's all about race, if the party doesn't stand up for those who stand up for it, why do I want to be in that party?" Tyus asks.

But in the skewed dynamics of politics, the Democrat at the top of the ticket may pay for the numbskull sins of city Democrats during redistricting.

That would be Carnahan.

Talent seems sincere in his desire to meet with people and hash out real-world -- albeit Republican-friendly -- solutions to urban problems. But for most African-Americans, the fact that he's on the same side of the aisle as Ashcroft and Senator Christopher "Kit" Bond may trump his earnestness.

Meanwhile, North St. Louis festers, no matter who wins.

Less than two years after Talent's Community Renewal Act passed, 40 cities or rural towns have been tapped to be part of that program and its $17 billion in tax incentives. St. Louis isn't one of them. The city's Democratic administration never applied.

It just shows that you can pass an act to renew a community, but you can't make a community act to be renewed.

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