The Resurrection of Carl Officer

East St. Louisí prodigal son is back ó but is he the man to save Sin City?

"We have a considerable amount of convicted felons running city departments," notes the mayor. "That should have said something to somebody."

The day Ellis was indicted, Officer held a press conference at city hall to discuss the allegations. Flanked by two of his former taxpayer-funded police bodyguards, Lester "Boom" Anderson and Delbert Marion -- a pair of Marine Corps veterans who are opposing Jackson and Powell in the April 5 city council elections (the top two win) -- Officer said he felt the indictments were "just the tip of the iceberg."

Officer makes no bones about his opinion that the FBI's tentacles will inevitably reach Powell and Jackson, both of whom testified before a federal grand jury looking into voter-fraud allegations stemming from Democrat Mark Kern's narrow victory over Republican Steve Reeb in the hotly contested race last November to replace long-time St. Clair County supervisor John Baricevic.

Jennifer Silverberg
When people speak of the change that's occurred in 
Carl Officer, they inevitably circle back to his wife, 
Lisa, and his four-year-old daughter, Carli.
Jennifer Silverberg
When people speak of the change that's occurred in Carl Officer, they inevitably circle back to his wife, Lisa, and his four-year-old daughter, Carli.

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office confirms that Powell and Jackson testified before the grand jury but declines to speculate on the outcome of the investigation, which is ongoing.

Reeb says a large sum of cash funneled from the St. Clair County Democratic Party to the East St. Louis Central Democratic Committee in the week leading up to election day was used to buy the votes of East St. Louisans, 82 percent of whom favored Kern. (Reeb carried the rest of the county.)

Jackson, who holds the title of first vice chair of the Central Democratic Committee, will not comment on anything related to the grand jury's proceedings.

Committee chairman Powell says the influx of money was spent to pay for doorbelling and other legitimate get-out-the-vote efforts. "There's quite a bit of money spent in East St. Louis because it's staunch Democratic and poor," he explains. "People know that on election day they can get hired by committeemen. This is jackpot day, and they know the committeeman has the money. It's really just a hustle: The money is spent to attract and turn out the vote. I provide lunch at my polling place, because you want them to come."

Testimony at Ellis' detention hearing painted a less-innocent picture. There Assistant U.S. Attorney Hal Goldsmith alleged that Ellis had ordered one of his employees to pay voters "who voted the way he wished" in the November 2 elections.

In most cities, such a string of events would be a black eye. Not so in East St. Louis.

"To be perfectly honest, I think everyone in East St. Louis is elated that the FBI is here," says Pat Gibson. "The fight that Carl has down there is a fight against evil. The devil has always been in East St. Louis. To kill that devil, you have to stand up to him."

Adds SIUE's Professor Theising: "Right now Charlie Powell is facing a significant investigation. The future of East St. Louis' power structure hinges on the outcome."

But, cautions Theising, "The larger issue is: Where do you stop enforcing the law? Selective enforcement has been a reality in politics forever. What if you took the same magnifying glass and used it in Chicago? You'd see the same activity with much bigger names attached."

Former city manager and ex-deputy mayor (under Officer) Lamar Gentry cites East St. Louis' chronic bureaucratic ineptitude as the chief reason the feds have singled out the city.

"There's corruption in every city," asserts Gentry, who now works for a real estate agency on the southern edge of town. "But if you take care of business, people turn their heads. And the perception here is that they haven't done anything in years."

When people speak of the change that's occurred in Carl Officer since he left office in 1991, they inevitably circle back to Lisa, his wife of seven years, and Carli, his four-year-old daughter.

At city hall, Officer's lone legislative aide is a woman. Most of the volunteers who answer his phone are women. His press liaison is a woman. The matronly acquaintances who pray with him at his mortuary every couple of weeks since his beloved mother's death last April are women. And the neighbors who paddled his misbehaving ass every afternoon back when Carl was a student at Crispus Attucks Elementary School were women.

"I got a beating from every lady in every one of these houses," Officer reminisces, pointing to a row of homes near the center of town, across the street from the grade school. "I wasn't bad, I was mischievous. After they'd beat me, they'd give me a tea cake or something."

Strong women have helped focus Carl Officer's priorities and have made him a more patient man. They've helped him to fully embody his late father's management credo: "You catch more flies with honey than you do with shit." But while the women give him respite from bare-knuckle political scraps with the likes of Charlie Powell and Eddie Jackson, there are still days when he feels as though he's the only man left stranded on Venus.

"Thank God they keep making Grey Goose and Finlandia," he jokes, referring to his favorite brands of vodka.

Dressed smartly in a dark tailored suit, Officer is seated in the basement of a small Baptist church in Brooklyn, where services are being held for a young serviceman. As the speakers crackle above him, Officer takes issue with the volume of the preaching. "The worst thing that ever happened to black churches was giving them microphones," he contends.

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