Dollar for Dollar

The politics of Vince Schoemehl's fundraiser for Frankie the Saint

That's why Frankie's handlers are so nervous about Vinny One-Game. Love him or hate him, Schoemehl has track record to spare -- good, bad and flat-out awful. He also has enemies by the bucketful: You can't rack up three terms as the city's top cat without pissing off hundreds of people, including longtime ally Kim Tucci.

Against the backdrop of two failed mayors, though, and a current administration that's flailing, political folks have a certain rose-colored nostalgia for the days of ol' Ready, Fire, Aim! and tend to gloss over his more spectacular failures, such as the moribund St. Louis Centre.

"Former mayors are centers of attention, whether they like it or not," says the aldermanic veteran. "Vince's name gets brought up every time there's speculation about the political future."

A former alderman agrees: "It just hasn't been the same since Schoemehl was mayor. Say what you want, he got things done. He's the straw that stirs the drink."

But this same pol gives Francis credit for being willing to play ball with Vinny One-Game.

Truth is, the last thing this city needs is Schoemehl back in Room 200, and the last thing Vinny One-Game needs to do is roll the dice on one last hurrah. Deep down, Vinny knows this.

But the longer this city's political players think they're staring at another failed mayorship, the rosier that view of Schoemehl becomes. The temptation of a still-youthful Vinny, happy to be back in the political arena, also grows.

Despite his fundraiser and strong statement of support for Slay, there's nothing stopping Schoemehl from scratching that gambler's itch two years from now should Frankie continue to flounder, inviting a challenger or two for an election scheduled for the spring of 2005. The sharpies say Vinny could back Slay's play now and wait to see whether Frankie rights himself, then make a Kennedyesque decision to launch a last-second run in the fall of 2004.

"I don't think the idea is ever far from Vince's mind," says the former city official. "In that way, he's like Bill Clinton -- if Clinton could figure out another way to be president, he would. This fundraiser takes it out of play for right now, but what happens in the fall of 2004, which is an eternity in politics -- those chapters have hardly been written."

Although it's nice to get kind words and a small slug of money from Vinny, it can't make the boys in Room 200 anything but nervous that Schoemehl, a legendary fundraiser, is again dialing for political dollars. He may be dialing for you today, but he might be dialing for himself in a year or so.

All of this brings up the validity of Vinny's latest passion -- a TIF district for Grand Center -- and the lure he's tossing in front of Slay -- that this project could be the Big Win Frankie needs to lifesaver his administration.

The concept is a simple one. Take tax revenues from the district -- from payroll taxes to sales taxes -- and use them to leverage bond issues for projects. As those projects come into being and start generating their own tax revenues, use this new money to fund the next phase of projects. This is the preferred method of jump-starting development in Chicago, a city that has 100 TIF districts.

Schoemehl, who built his share of big-ticket projects that promised far more urban revitalization than they ever delivered, thinks the Chicago way gives St. Louis the best chance of creating sustained and concentrated development. It also overcomes the primary pitfall of the old reliance on big-ticket silver bullets -- the collapse of financial and political willpower that seems to inevitably follow one of these massive endeavors, wiping out the opportunity to capitalize on the success and momentum of a large project.

But the idea of tying up huge hunks of tax revenue on a single slice of the city is a scary one for the cash-strapped denizens of Room 200. There's also fear that Schoemehl has oversold the potential of his project by posting "aggressive numbers," as they say in the development game, on expected rental revenue for office and retail space that will be created in Grand Center and the size of the bond issues that can be created with all that dedicated tax money.

Wisely, perhaps, Frankie is hedging his bet on Vince's project. His minions, led by deputy mayor Barb Geisman, have trimmed back the scope of Schoemehl's project -- from $105 million in bonding capacity to $80 million. And they've X'ed out several tax-revenue engines from the proposed TIF district, including the Veterans Affairs hospital and the juvenile-detention center.

Schoemehl says he has no problem with City Hall's fine-toothed comb and bristles at the notion that his fundraiser is political payback for Slay's support.

"I don't think anybody thinks the city will make a decision of this magnitude based on someone holding a fundraiser for the mayor that raises a few thousand dollars," he says. "They've dealt with us in a professional way and run our numbers through the grinder."

Vinny One-Game says Frankie the Saint has plenty of time to build a list of accomplishments before the re-election campaign truly starts. The old pro points to his own first administration, when dinosaurs still ruled city politics. No one thought Union Station was going to be the success it turned out to be, people weren't giving Schoemehl credit for it and he was in the process of slicing and dicing the City Hall payroll from 11,000 employees to an eventual 4,700, pissing off a lot of people.

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