In a Class by Itself 

Mired in decrepitude and money trouble, will St. Louis prove too tough for its next mayor?

An expert is an out-of-towner with a fancy title. By that measurement, Fred Siegel is an urban expert, but he still can't figure out what the hell is wrong with the city of St. Louis. Join the club, Fred.

Siegel, who lives in New York City, was trolling the Internet when he discovered Short Cuts. Being the discerning, erudite author, academic and think-tanker that he is, he became a regular reader. The day after the mayoral primary, he called for an explanation of what happened to incumbent Mayor Clarence Harmon, who got 57 percent of the vote in 1997 but only 5 percent in the March 6 Democratic primary, despite a favorable rating of 51 percent. Siegel says he was "stunned" by the totals; he'd never seen an incumbent mayor lose so completely.

The short, simplistic, shallow answer -- and let's face it, that's what most provincial pundits in this town go for -- is that white folks freaked at the idea of a return engagement by Freeman Bosley Jr. in Room 200 of City Hall. So they jumped from the Harmon bandwagon like rats off a sinking barge and voted for the South Side homie, Francis Slay. The better, more insightful answer is that Bosley almost got as many votes as he did when he won in 1993 (40 percent compared with 44 percent), but, unlike that primary, there was no other candidate like lifelong pol Tony Ribaudo to get 12,000 votes, or 12 percent of the vote, no matter what. No one had a habit of voting for Harmonious -- one vote in '97 for the ex-police chief was apparently all voters wanted to cast. And finally, for the first time in more than 30 years, southwest city voters had one from their 'hood running for mayor. So Slay wins.

And pardon the early projection of Republican candidate Michael Chance's defeat in the general election on April 3, but it's apparent that St. Francis will be the city's next mayor. The 46-year-old lawyer and aldermanic president is talking as if he's up for it, but good intent and old-fashioned sleeve-rolling-up work habits may not be enough. Siegel thinks St. Louis is in a class by itself when it comes to urban decrepitude.

"St. Louis is one of the very few major cities which has never mounted a major effort to revive itself. It's accepted its decline with resignation," says Siegel. "What distinguishes St. Louis is, it's one of the very few cities that missed both the economic boom in the 1980s and in the 1990s. Detroit missed the '80s boom, but with Dennis Archer as mayor, it caught the '90s boom. St. Louis seems to have missed both."

Siegel is a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.; a history professor at Cooper Union in New York City; and the author of The Future Once Happened Here: New York, D.C., L.A. and the Fate of America's Big Cities. The New Yorker's Joe Klein called that book "cogent and incisive."

Siegel was advised by one local to check out Slay's Web site. "It was like they thought it was something that a St. Louis mayoral candidate had a Web site," Siegel says. He found the solutions offered by the Slay camp to be the usual campaign boilerplate. "It seemed uninspired, banal," says Siegel. "The country is awash in experiments of urban revitalization, and yet the news doesn't seem to have arrived yet in St. Louis. The Web site wasn't awful, it just seemed limited.

"My interest is what makes cities work," Siegel says. "From a distance, from what I can see, St. Louis does not have a lot going for it right now." Winning teams and new sports arenas give St. Louis "the manifestations of a successful city without it being a successful city," Siegel says. "You won a Super Bowl championship; you had Mark McGwire; the pope came. There was a lot of gemutlichkeit in the air. But not enough." (For the nonacademic and non-German among us, gemutlichkeit is a fancy out-of-town word for, well, a good public buzz.)

During the campaign, Slay often criticized Harmon about how the city missed the upswing of the economic boom of the '90s, but making an observation is not the same as solving a problem. Now that he's about to be take over, Slay's first obstacle is getting a budget approved. The employee-retirement system is seeking $8 million from city revenues for the upcoming fiscal year and $17 million a year thereafter, both drastic increases. Slay won't confirm it, but some are saying there may be an across-the-board 2 percent budget cut for all city departments.

"Our revenues generally are not going up as high as our expenses are coming in," says Slay. "There's going to have to be some difficult decisions made, where we cut and to what extent." Additional expenses in the next few years include payments on the new city jail and maintenance and operation costs for the takeover of the old federal courthouse. "There are going to be a lot bigger expenses than in the past in certain areas," says Slay, "and that could have a huge effect, unless there is some large offsetting revenue that I'm not aware of. There's going to be some real budgetary issues."

The city's budget must be introduced to the Board of Aldermen by May 1. The budget bill must be passed by June 30, and the fiscal year starts July 1. For the city, there's not much time or money. "Things are going to hit pretty quick," Slay says.

When Siegel points to his city's mayor, Rudy Giuliani, or turnarounds in other cities, police work is often the key. As Slay knows, in St. Louis the mayor only has the power of persuasion over the police because City Hall finances the police but does not oversee them. Despite his campaign promises of "more police on the street," he knows that the current City Hall budget proposed to the Board of Police Commissioners offers no increase in funds. If that happens, it will mean fewer police.

One police commissioner is "very adamant about reducing the number" of police, saying the city could receive adequate protection with fewer police, Slay says. "What I'm interested in is getting more police on the street. I don't know how we accomplish that with these budget cuts but that's something I want to look at. One of the things I've noticed, there's been a little bit of a glitch, an upswing in violent crime in the city, and I want to make sure we don't start reducing police."

In a departure from the image of his predecessor, Slay says that on day one as mayor, he wants to set a tone of "energy" at City Hall, of being "engaged" and being out in all parts of the community. Saturdays will be workdays, he says, "and I don't mean running around the city cutting ribbons all weekend," Slay says. "I mean being in City Hall on Saturday with staff people talking about getting city business done."

Siegel points to Martin O'Malley of Baltimore as an example of a new mayor who's been effective. Baltimore -- which, like St. Louis, is constricted because it's a city and a county -- has seen slight increases in employment. Other cities losing population, such as New Orleans, are trying to attract twentysomethings and empty-nesters. Siegel says that because those two groups have a "higher tolerance for crime and poor services," they might fare better in the city.

Back in 1993, Siegel worked with Giuliani, but it didn't last. "Giuliani is a godawful asshole. He's not a nice human being," Siegel says. "He's also been a great mayor. He brought the city back from near death." That may be true, but does an abrasive, edgy persona go hand in hand with being an effective big-city mayor? "I think they do," Siegel says. "I think they're integrally related."

If that's the case, the Mound City could be in trouble with a mayor whose demeanor is more altar boy than asshole, but maybe that one-dimensional image is misleading. At least one Bosley campaign mailer described Slay as a "Roman Catholic, anti-abortion South Side attorney from an old-school, politically connected family." That conservative stereotype runs counter to a speech Slay gave to the fifth annual Pride St. Louis Open House on Feb. 3, when he told the supporters and organizers of the annual gay and lesbian PrideFest, "I grew up in South St. Louis with 11 brothers and sisters -- three of whom were gay." He then introduced his sister Monietta and his brother Ray to the crowd gathered at the Saturday-night event at City Hall, describing his siblings as "some of my family members who are also part of your family."

The cynical may have dismissed that act as a ploy for votes, but it's also a sign that just because Slay was an altar boy and a soccer player doesn't mean that every papist is a product of a Catholic cookie-cutter that churns out social bigots whose world is confined to fish fries and bingo and school picnics.

Slay says he made a public statement to show that "everybody has a stake in this government and the government needs people, dedicated people, whoever they may be and whatever their situation may be, whatever their gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnic background, income level, age, whatever it is."

In other words, whether Slay is Clark Kent or Superman or someone in between, he's going to need all the help he can get.

More by D.J. Wilson

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