Wednesday lunches at St. Raymond's Hall, just south of Ralston Purina on Chouteau Avenue, are more than just a place to line up, cafeteria-style, to get stuffed grape leaves, lentils with rice, spinach pies, kibbi and other Middle Eastern delicacies. The weekly gatherings are a throwback to the politics and dynamics of the past -- where lawyers, judges, City Hall types, union officials and working stiffs gather to see and be seen and to catch up on the latest gossip.
With the garish chandeliers and mirrored ceiling tiles, the '70s-era church hall at 939 Lebanon Dr. resembles a casino without slot machines. Running the show is Francis R. Slay, a short, balding, friendly man who works the room, hopping from table to table. He greets regulars with a handshake and sometimes a hug. He revels in the give-and-take.
Politics comes naturally to Slay, a longtime restaurateur who has held political office most of his adult life and whose father, Joseph, was an alderman in the 1940s. Slay served in the state Legislature, was city recorder of deeds and remains Democratic committeeman in the 23rd Ward, an elected position he's held for more than 30 years.
In his office at St. Raymond's, behind a locked glass door, the 73-year-old Slay takes care of business. Visitors tap on the door, and, one by one, Slay buzzes them in. A partially smoked Te-Amo cigar is balanced on the edge of the committeeman's desk. One man wants to know if "Mr. Slay" will be at the church hall at 7 a.m. the next day for a delivery. Another wants to pick up a card to register his wife so she can vote. Slay answers their questions; he takes care of things.
This, Slay explains, is what a politician does -- and he makes no apologies:
"I'm in politics. I'm very proud to be a politician. The only way you get something done is through politics. I'm not saying through the back door and the side door. But you know people, you study people and you work with them. The average person off the street, if they want something done, how are they going to go down to City Hall and get this done? They don't know all the positions and the right person to see. That is my job as committeeman, to go and see what has to be done for the people."
When it comes to getting things done in City Hall, Slay says that despite his political calling, one thing he says he never really wanted to do was become mayor. Too time-consuming for a father of 11 kids, he says. And if one of his sons happens to be elected mayor in April, Slay insists it's not because he was pushing to realize some unfulfilled paternal ambition.
In fact, Slay says, he wanted his second-oldest, Francis G., to go into the other family business, the restaurant business. Even though he worked part-time for 10 years at Slay's on Watson Road as a host and bartender when he was a student, the younger Slay wanted no part of restaurants. Politics was another matter. After graduating from law school and spending five years with a politically connected downtown law firm, he was appointed in 1985 as the Democratic candidate for 23rd Ward alderman after Nellene Joyce died. A political career had begun, though Slay the father insists there was no master plan and that his son is not a polished, programmed product spun from some dated, stereotypical big-city political machine.
"That's what gets me," the old man says. "Francis is not from the old-school machine. He isn't. He isn't. And if they say he is, they're nuts. He's not a machine, but he is a politician. And he'll tell you he's a politician. And it takes a politician to move our city forward."
The implication is that the image that Mayor Clarence Harmon promoted four years ago has backfired. Harmon, a former police chief, was elected in 1997 largely on his reputation as a "nonpolitician" -- a town sheriff, almost -- who was sent by voters to clean the cobwebs and corruption from City Hall. Four years later, the ex-chief may have achieved some of his image goals for City Hall, but complaints have mounted about a lack of movement and action in his administration. "This mayor is not a politician," the elder Slay says. "He doesn't know how to move the city forward.
""Politician' is not a bad word. It's how you do it. It's like anybody else. They can say car dealers are thieves and doctors are this or that. It's not true. You have to take an individual -- regardless of what field they're in -- you got to take them as they are. They either do a fine job or do a bad job. Just like if someone would fix your washing machine, if they do a bad job, you would never call them back. Right?"
In a city where the current City Hall was first occupied in 1898 and the binding city charter was adopted in 1914, maybe it's fitting that in times of trouble -- and believe it, these are troubled times for the city -- one of favorites in the mayor's race is a new kid from an old school. Francis G. Slay, aldermanic president and mayoral candidate, may have all the spit and polish of the young urban professional that he is, but beneath that exterior are genetic and environmental links to politics the way it used to be. And father and son aren't at all ashamed of that.
There are some stark differences between father and son. There's no denying that the 45-year-old son, a graduate of Quincy College and the St. Louis University School of Law and a downtown lawyer dealing with commercial litigation, product liability and class-action suits for 20 years, is, at the very least, a modern, educated version of his father. The elder Slay, after all, was booted out of high school during his first year for fighting. "I came up the streets the hard way," he explains.
The contrast between generations isn't all that uncommon, says Thomas Guilfoil, head of the law firm where the younger Slay has worked since 1980. Guilfoil is a former head of the state Democratic Party and has long been known as a major political fundraiser. "How are all the young Kennedys different from the old Kennedys? How are the young Bushes different from the old Bushes? The young Gore from the old Gore? There's not much unusual in that," Guilfoil says. "It appears to be an American pattern."
Politics may have been in his blood, but soccer was what first possessed young Francis G. Slay. He tried to keep up with his older brother, Gerard, in soccer, and those efforts were recognized early. "I was good in grade school," he says. "In third grade, I took all the penalty kicks, because I never missed."
After playing at St. Mary's High School, Slay went on to Quincy College, where, in the four years Slay played there, Quincy compiled a record of 69 wins, 11 losses and four ties. Quincy also won three NAIA championships, in 1973, '74 and '75. In the 19-1-1 year of 1975, Slay scored five goals and had eight assists. Coach Jack McKenzie remembers Slay as a "very dependable" player who scored "key goals" and earned a soccer scholarship as a "walk-on," someone who tries out for the team without the guarantee of a scholarship.
"I really feel good about those kinds of kids -- he earned a scholarship after walking on, and those are the kinds of kids that take a gamble; they stick their necks out, and it pays off," says McKenzie. "Fran was a team player, and he did a lot to help ensure harmony within the team."
Back in that day, before the rest of the nation discovered soccer, St. Louis was known as a soccer town. St. Louis University, relying almost exclusively on local talent, won 10 NCAA soccer championships from 1959-1973. For Slay, who started playing on grade-school teams in the Epiphany Parish, to play on three national collegiate soccer teams at Quincy was a dream come true.
Slay is so St. Louis that he even met his wife at a soccer game. "I was playing against her brother. He was defending me and I blew past him a few times," Slay recalls. "She was impressed." At the time he was playing for Southern Equipment Co., which won the Under 19 national championship twice. He was one year out of high school. His future wife, Kim Torrisi, was a junior at St. Elizabeth's Academy.
After they met, Slay asked her out -- to a soccer game. They went to a professional game, when the St. Louis Stars played at Busch Stadium. Slay himself wanted to play professional soccer. "But when I saw what other professional soccer players from the U.S. were doing, they weren't doing very well," Slay says. "There was no future in it."
Restaurant work was not attractive to Slay, either, in part because he grew up working there and in part because, with 10 brothers and sisters, there were plenty of other hands to help out. Maybe the first clue to his future was his major at Quincy -- political science. After that, it was law school at SLU, where he was one year ahead of another law student from a St. Louis political family, Freeman Bosley Jr.
Slay says, somewhat unconvincingly, that after working for a few years as an appellate-court clerk, his choice to work at Guilfoil's law firm had nothing to do with politics; it was because the firm was "connected" in a business and corporate sense, not a political sense. Guilfoil remembers it a bit differently. "He had already demonstrated an interest in politics" when he came to his firm, he says. At the time, one of Guilfoil's partners was Stuart Symington Jr., son of former U.S. Sen. Stuart Symington.
Pursuing a judgeship was one option Slay explored but decided against. When he decided to run for alderman in 1985, Slay saw an opportunity to see whether he'd like politics. His interest was triggered, he admits, by his family roots. "It had to do with my father's involvement, my grandfather's involvement." Once on the Board of Aldermen, he found he liked working on neighborhood issues and the give-and-take of the legislative sausage factory. During his early years on the board, Slay says, Guilfoil offered advice when asked but did not push him. By 1995, Slay was confident enough of his political ability to wage a citywide campaign for president of the Board of Aldermen. It was a hard-fought campaign that drew seven candidates, but Slay won with nearly half of the vote. Four years later, Slay won re-election without facing any challengers. As aldermanic president, Slay serves on the three-member Board of Estimate and Apportionment, along with Harmon and Comptroller Darlene Green. The powerful board approves the city's budget.
Guilfoil believes that once Slay got a feel for the inside of City Hall, it was a matter of time before he would want more of it and abandon the idea of a career on the bench: "The more active he became as a trial lawyer, the less appetizing it became to want to referee other people's lawsuits."
One colleague at the law firm is Kurt Odenwald, who is also a St. Louis County councilman. Sharing his co-worker's interest in both law and politics, Odenwald was not surprised by Slay's move to a larger stage. "One might say, "My God, that is a daunting task to be mayor of St. Louis,' but knowing Francis' background and his family's background, I really wasn't surprised by his decision."
Slay's evolution from downtown lawyer to mayoral candidate took place over 15 years on the Board of Aldermen, the city's legislative body. By contrast, neither Harmon nor Bosley Jr., who had served as circuit-court clerk before his 1993 election, had any day-to-day experience with city lawmakers.
As the man holding the gavel for weekly board meetings, Slay is in the midst of what sometimes turns into outtakes from a film by either Fellini or Bergman -- aldermanic meetings can be surreally entertaining or depressingly dysfunctional. But it's the only legislative body the city has. In enduring withering soliloquies from Ald. Sharon Tyus (D-20th), meandering speeches by Ald. Freeman Bosley Sr. (D-3rd) and Ald. Kenneth Jones (D-22nd) and barbed counterpoints by Ald. Fred Wessels (D-13th), Slay has spent his time in the boiler room.
It's a job in which he's kept his head when others around him appear to be losing theirs, but the criticism leveled at him most frequently with regard to his performance is that other than being orderly and efficient, he hasn't gotten much done. Harmon bluntly puts it this way: "For 15 years, Slay's been on the Board of Aldermen. Tell me one thing he's done in 15 years on the Board of Aldermen. One thing -- not five things but one thing."
Slay counters by rattling off bills he's sponsored requiring travel reports for public officials, expansion of conflict-of-interest disclosure statements, changing the way professional contracts are awarded and limiting no-bid emergency contracts. He also pushed through a controversial open-access bill in 1999 that requires the city's next cable franchise to open its high-speed network to all Internet-service providers. That complicated bill befuddled many aldermen, but Slay championed it as a pro-consumer measure. Those opposed to the bill, including AT&T, said Southwestern Bell wanted the bill passed to prevent AT&T from offering local phone service through its high-speed cable network.
Though Slay's legislative achievements may appear underwhelming, at least he's been able to consistently pull together 15 votes to pass legislation. Neither Bosley nor Harmon built a working relationship with the majority of the board -- a shortcoming that hampered their administrations. Former Deputy Mayor Mike Jones says he urged Harmon to cultivate the board, without success. "You have to have eight or nine aldermen who are with you all the time, even if they don't even know what the bill is," he says. "It's not a quid pro quo, it's "You're there for them, they're there for you.' If you got nine when you start, you're just looking for six. That's your foundation. That's any mayor -- black mayor, white mayor, male, female, purple, green, black, blue -- it doesn't make any difference. That's the guts of how you govern. That's how you govern whether you're in Chicago, New York, St. Louis. You just got to do that."
The last alderman to become mayor, Vincent Schoemehl, had that kind of base, according to one City Hall insider. "Give him his due: Schoemehl could get 15 votes, which meant you could get something done. You didn't have 28 fiefdoms. Francis can put a coalition together. Harmon occasionally can and mostly can't. He has to buy them off with block-grant money." The comparison of Slay to Schoemehl, who was elected mayor in 1981, might be apt, considering aldermanic roots, but it ends there. Schoemehl's lingering image was of someone who would wheel and deal, but he also has the baggage of promising some things -- primarily the reopening of Homer G. Phillips Hospital -- that wouldn't, or couldn't, happen.
Slay promotes the image of a politician who knows how things get done and is able to do them, but he's far too grounded to make any Homer G.-type promise. Other than nebulous pledges such as reversing the city's population decline -- which many would say is impossible -- Slay's campaign riffs focus on his eagerness for the job, his willingness to work hard and his political experience. That whole theme paints a bull's-eye on Harmon's back, because his most vociferous critics say he doesn't spend enough time or effort on the job.
The political realist in Slay would not have contemplated a run to be mayor if Harmon appeared unbeatable. Slay contends that he was never hellbent on being mayor. His job as aldermanic president and his position as partner with Guilfoil, Petzall & Shoemake kept him plenty busy and financially comfortable.
"It wasn't like I was planning this for years, to run for mayor," says Slay. "The thought had crossed my mind, but it wasn't like I was planning on what would be the best time for me to do it. I didn't start thinking about it seriously until I saw Clarence Harmon in office and got the distinct impression that he didn't enjoy the job."
Of course, relieving Harmon of the anxiety of being mayor so he'll feel better is not Slay's goal. That Harmon swept in with 57 percent of the vote against Bosley and then revealed himself as someone who didn't have the taste for the funky vagaries of City Hall just meant that Harmon was vulnerable.
Because Slay was unopposed in the primary and general elections of 1999, he had $160,000 left over from that noncampaign. To get a running start on the mayoral campaign, Slay announced his candidacy 18 months ago, in his father's backyard at 6532 Scanlan Ave.
The location was symbolic: Slay was making it clear he will not run away from his family's past, that he will be focusing on his South Side origins and his rich political heritage. Francis Slay isn't just running as his own man, he is also bringing the family. That's a mixed blessing. Whereas his father, though a throwback to old-fashioned ward politics, is highly regarded, a cousin, businessman Eugene "Gene" Slay, is often described as a political power broker whose past history includes a federal conviction in 1985 for fraud and influence-peddling related to the awarding of a cable-television franchise for the city. Eugene Slay's legal cloud disappeared in 1987 after the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in a separate case in Kentucky, overturned the law on which he was convicted and the U.S. Attorney's Office decided not to retry the case.
Thanks to his family and political connections, Guilfoil's network and his own years in City Hall, the money flowed to Slay. As the campaign enters the final month, Slay has raised just over $1 million; Harmon has brought in about $700,000, and Bosley's late start looks to be limiting him to less than $200,000. Slay's financial support is widespread, coming mostly from the usual suspects. Some, like developer Richard Baron, businessman William Maritz, hotel developer Don Breckenridge and HRI Inc., the developer of the downtown convention hotel, gave similar amounts to Slay and Harmon. There are many donations to Slay from restaurateurs, unions and Realtors. Southwestern Bell, which was in tune with Slay on the open-access bill, gave Slay $1,125. Lobbyist Lou Hamilton and John Bardgett & Associates, a firm lobbying for the Cardinals' new stadium effort, each gave $1,125. Blues president Mark Sauer kicked in $500. Pulitzer Inc. chairman Michael Pulitzer and his wife, Ceil, each gave $1,125 -- noteworthy because the company's flagship Post-Dispatch is widely expected to endorse Slay.
As Slay quietly built up his campaign war chest, his working relationship with Harmon deteriorated. Before he announced his intention to run for mayor, the Board of E&A functioned without controversy, with little public friction between its three members. After Slay announced, the spats with Harmon went public. Slay publicly criticized Harmon for awarding John Fox Arnold, a campaign contributor to the mayor, with a no-bid contract to represent the city in its lawsuit against the tobacco industry. Slay criticized Harmon about the rising costs of the new city jail and the debacle at the City Living Foundation, which spent hundreds of thousands in city funds to market housing in the city without ever producing anything. Harmon described Slay's criticism as politically motivated, and dismissed Jeff Rainford, Slay's campaign adviser, as a "sleazebag."
The campaign was on, even though it had yet to catch fire. Then, last month, Bosley, whose time in office was cut short at one term by Harmon in 1997, perceived an opportunity. Sensing that Harmon and Slay shared the same South St. Louis power base, the ex-mayor entered the race, hoping that his expected dominance among North St. Louis' African-American voters would be enough to give him a chance of winning the March 6 Democratic mayoral primary.
Ward endorsements don't mean what they used to, but it's better to have them than not to. So candidates make the rounds, reciting their five-minute condensations of why they should be mayor. On a recent Thursday night, Slay is giving his third stump speech of the night, this one at the 28th Ward meeting held at John's Town Hall, a bar in the lobby of the upscale Dorchester apartments on Skinker Boulevard, across from Forest Park. Slay concludes his speech using the same lines he used earlier that night at meetings in the 6th and 8th wards: "If I'm elected the next mayor of the city of St. Louis, I will not disappoint you. I will not let you down."
The closing mantra is both a promise and a reminder of how many in the crowded bar feel. Four years ago, city voters threw their support to Harmon, who promised to bring better management and restore integrity to city government. Today, Harmon's record at City Hall is mixed, and his ability to recognize and address the city's pervasive problems is widely questioned. Despite an until recently robust national economy, the city continues to bleed. Census data to be released in March are expected to show the city's population at about 333,000 -- a drop of 62,725, or 16 percent, over 10 years. Long-term debt problems loom on the horizon as the city's public schools teeter on the brink of losing accreditation. And a series of recent announcements by St. Louis companies -- TWA's bankruptcy, Ralston Purina's sale, the possible relocation of 500 Union Pacific jobs -- have added to the gloom. Nobody in any of these ward meetings needs to hear the litany of grief. They see it every day.
As Slay leaves the ward meeting and Harmon enters to start his spiel, Arline Webb and Paul Casey head for the door. Both say they are "pretty much" backing Slay, though they have no illusions about the dynamism of their choice. When pressed for a word to describe Slay, the first word Casey offers is "bland."
That, both Casey and Webb insist, is not a bad thing.
"Bland isn't bad if it's passionate," says the bearded 46-year-old Casey. "Passionate bland is much more effective than nonpassionate bland, which is what we've had for the last four years."
Clearly they both think Slay is a politician. They don't think that's a dirty word.
"We've had four years of a nonpolitician. I like Harmon as much as the next guy, but he's not a politician. He doesn't seem to listen or talk to people like a politician. Slay talks to people; he listens to people. He has a good time listening to what people have to say. I met him before he wanted to be mayor," says Casey. "If you're not talking as a politician or not listening as a politician, you're ineffective as a politician. It's a political office."
Webb, a 54-year-old medical technician, says she worked on Harmon's '97 campaign: "I worked hard. I think he was an excellent police chief. He didn't know how to carry that over to become a mayor." She doesn't see the lack of "fireworks" in Slay's personality as a major handicap.
"Bland can be a very strong tool if you know politics -- but you have to know politics, too. It doesn't matter if you're bland. Maybe you're not going to appear on Good Morning America, but I don't know if that's necessarily important. If you can get your programs through, even though you look like vanilla pudding, you don't have to have a sparkling personality."
Casey admits that if you want personality, Bosley is your man.
"But you don't need an amen choir, which is all that Bosley has to offer," says Casey. "If you're looking for a guy with charisma, there's a guy with charisma. But he was a completely ineffective mayor."
The attraction of Harmon was that he was a City Hall outsider and proud of it, says Casey: "Now we're going back to politicians."
For Slay to become the insider who follows the outsider, he needs to win the election. To do that, he must campaign effectively. It's clear that in the last few weeks of the campaign, Slay will be talking about the "leadership vacuum" in Room 200 of City Hall. But he also has to work on his own image.
With the spotlight on Bosley and Harmon for the last eight years to some degree, Slay has labored in the dark. Though it's clear that Slay has positioned himself for a run for mayor, he has heard concern about his image as a Roman Catholic, anti-abortion South Side attorney from an old-school, politically connected family. One politico not thrilled with his candidacy described him as "retro" and as someone who would not appeal to young professionals or progressives, particularly in the critical central-corridor wards.
"People who know me know better than that," Slay says in his defense. "I guess that's a stereotype that people try to cast upon someone just based on their upbringing. That's something we've got to get beyond. That's something I don't believe in. I don't believe in stereotyping somebody based on their religion, the color of their skin or their sexual orientation. While I do come from a conservative background, which I'm proud of and I'm not disassociating myself from, I am open-minded, and I do think I have the ability to represent the entire city. Politically, I think I'm more of a moderate."
On the cultural-war front, Slay seems to be a bit less strident than Harmon, though not quite in the same posse as Bosley. After the flap over Harmon's refusal to sign a proclamation for rapper Nelly, Bosley finagled a state proclamation for the rapper from University City, which Bosley presented to Nelly onstage at Savvis Center. Slay says he would have signed a proclamation for Nelly.
"This guy is a talented artist. An artist can be controversial, but he's local talent. He does tout St. Louis," Slay says. "You don't have to subscribe to his language or have it on your CD player, but you sign the proclamation and give him due recognition."
Clearly straight-arrow Slay is no hip-hop aficionado -- America's Greatest Hits is in the tape player of his big, black, provided-by-the-city car, a Grand Marquis. "Horse with No Name," "Ventura Highway" and "Muskrat Love" are not on the same playlist as "Country Grammar (Hot Shit)."
"You're not endorsing his lyrics, but what you are doing is congratulating him for coming from St. Louis and being successful," Slay says, then adds what, for him, is a funny line. "Nelly's done more to promote St. Louis than the City Living Foundation has," he says, referring to the foundation that spent about $300,000 to promote city living but failed to produce an advertising campaign.
On more substantive issues, Slay went against his father's position on home rule, coming out in favor of the state legislation that would enable city voters to change their form of government by popular vote. The state bill is seen by many as a precursor to reforming the structure of city government, including making the offices that perform county functions appointed rather than elected. Those offices include treasurer, collector of revenue and the job his father held, recorder of deeds.
In the old days, those "county offices" provided thousands of patronage jobs. Now, with the courts ruling that patronage workers cannot be fired so easily in the wake of election outcomes, the turnover is lower and the political power of those offices is diminished.
Influential politicians who are Slay allies -- such as Sharon Quigley Carpenter, the current recorder of deeds -- oppose home rule, describing it as a change that doesn't guarantee reform while giving the mayor significantly more power. But every former living St. Louis mayor, including Bosley, supports home rule, and even Harmon lately has expressed support. In that light, Slay could hardly stand against the home-rule proposal -- to do so would be seen as retro.
But if Slay looks like a Johnny-come-lately on home rule, he's been out front on other issues. In one of the city's more highly charged neighborhood disputes, Slay spoke out against the construction of a Kmart at the site of the old Southtown Famous-Barr store at Chippewa Street and Kingshighway while Harmon remained neutral. Slay gave the living-wage proposal -- a move to require any business receiving city funds to pay $8.84 an hour plus health insurance ($10.77 without insurance) -- his early support while Harmon vacillated. The mayor has since declared downtown a living-wage-free zone and has continued to express other concerns about the ordinance.
Slay also paints Harmon as someone who is leaving the Cardinals hanging with regard to a new baseball stadium downtown, saying Harmon isn't doing enough to move the process along. In public, Slay pledges to do what needs to be done to keep the Cardinals downtown as long as it's "fiscally responsible," whatever that is. Without saying publicly exactly what he would agree to, Slay attempts to portray Harmon as someone who isn't doing enough in his negotiations with the Cardinals.
So the campaign will have its share of political posing. Harmon, the incumbent, will continue to portray himself as the nonpolitician who has run a clean City Hall. Bosley will focus on his energetic and charismatic personality as what the city needs to sell itself. Slay has to overcome his underwhelming public persona and convince voters he has the know-how, desire and energy to rally the city from the brink.
One public official who wants to appear neutral privately prefers Slay because "he's steeped in his political background. I mean, he understands politics, who to talk to and how to talk to them." That doesn't mean he is his father or is set to dole out patronage jobs as in the olden days -- it just means he has a political connectedness that can cause things to happen. Plus, his legal negotiating skills are transferable to civic matters, where compromises are reached by convincing several sides to make trade-offs. To these supporters, these are not the skills that are developed by police chiefs or clerks of the circuit court.
As with any election in a city this old, there is plenty of water over the political dam. Ironies abound. For starters, look at Slay's staff. Twenty years ago, before he was the 16th Ward alderman, Jim Shrewsbury was working the 7th Ward just south of downtown, going door to door, stumping for Ed Bushmeyer to be re-elected as state representative. Bushmeyer was being opposed by Bob Brandhorst, who was backed by Sorkis Webbe Sr., the 7th Ward committeeman and former state senator. Webbe, along with Paul Simon, Ray Leisure and Francis R. Slay, was among the influential Lebanese-American politicians in St. Louis.
When Shrewsbury entered the Webbe Senior Citizen Building at 14th Street and Chouteau Avenue to see whether anyone needed an absentee ballot, two men jumped him from behind and beat him up. Shrewsbury was left with a concussion and partial amnesia. Bushmeyer went on to lose to Brandhorst.
The two men who were convicted for the assault, Norman Clark and Pat Gandy, worked for the 7th Ward Democratic organization. Sorkis Webbe Sr. was indicted in connection with the mugging, but he died in 1985, before he could be tried. His son, Sorkis Webbe Jr., was convicted of obstruction of justice in the case.
In 1983, after Shrewsbury was elected to the Board of Aldermen, he became entangled with another powerful Lebanese-American power broker. Eugene Slay, the barge magnate, wanted to fleet barges north of the Arch, even though the Coast Guard was against the idea, saying it was unsafe. Shrewsbury argued against the bill, but it passed the Board of Aldermen anyway as a result of Eugene Slay's political influence. Schoemehl vetoed the bill, and the veto was upheld by the aldermen. Later, Shrewsbury opposed awarding another riverfront lease to Eugene Slay because he contended he was paying less than other, comparable lessees.
Now, in 2001, Bushmeyer is an administrative aide to Aldermanic President Francis G. Slay. Bushmeyer worked briefly as Harmon's press secretary early in his administration. Shrewsbury backed Harmon in 1997, and his ward delivered 6,678 votes for Harmon, the highest ward total in the city. This time around, Shrewsbury says, he will support whichever candidate his ward organization supports. The 16th Ward last week endorsed Slay.
From his perspective, Shrewsbury says neither Francis Slay -- father or son -- should be linked to their cousin Eugene. "Personally, I don't know anything Francis R. Slay or Francis G. Slay has ever done that would cause me to question their honesty or integrity," Shrewsbury says. "While they're related to Eugene Slay, they are not closely politically tied to him. Eugene Slay's political allies were people other than Francis the aldermanic president and Francis the committeeman. Gene Slay had closer relationships to Aldermanic President Tom Zych, Gov. Joe Teasdale and JoAnne Wayne more than either Francis."
Eugene Slay, 73, still pops up in Jerry Berger's Post-Dispatch column fairly often, usually in relation to fundraising for the Boys Club or related charities. His business, Slay Transportation, still dominates the riverfront. He has the largest share of mooring privileges along the Mississippi River -- 9,838 linear feet, or 32 percent of the total available space. And his company's 740,179 square feet of riverfront lease agreements represents 16 percent of the available square footage, which is the second-largest amount.
Francis G. Slay, as an alderman and as aldermanic president, has taken great pains in his official capacity to distance himself from Eugene by avoiding voting on anything remotely connected to him. But when asked about his cousin, particularly in relation to the federal conviction related to the cable-television fiasco in the '80s, the mayoral candidate bristles.
"That was thrown out. He was charged with something that wasn't a crime, basically, is what they found," Slay says. "But I'm not going to defend him on that at this point. I understand what the issues are. The fact is, he's a legitimate businessman with a number of quality businesses, including warehousing, transportation, and fleeting and harbor services on the riverfront. He should not receive any favoritism at all, and he will not under my administration. But he should not be penalized by the fact that I'm the mayor, either."
People connect other ghosts with St. Raymond's -- for instance, when organized-crime boss Jimmy Michaels was killed by a car bomb in 1980, he'd just left St. Raymond's; the killers nearly blew up the car in the church parking lot. Much of the violence and political scandal in the St. Louis of the 1970s and early '80s was associated with Lebanese-Americans such as Webbe, Leisure and Michaels. Guilt by ethnic association -- no matter how unjustified -- is a shadow that continues to dog some political families. It's something that Francis G. Slay, the squeaky-clean attorney, may have to contend with. One alderman yet to take sides in the mayor's race, speaking on background, says it could hurt Slay in some areas of the city: "Francis has his baggage, too. He won't do well in the corridor. They connect Slay with Gene Slay."
And the accusation of old-style St. Louis politicking is a theme the incumbent is playing as well. In fact, Harmon has not only described Slay and Bosley as old-school politicians but suggested that his two opponents have worked in concert for years. "They represent the style of politics that has failed the city," Harmon says, using the term the "Bosley-Slay years" to refer to Bosley's mayoralty. "For 15 years, Slay's been on the Board of Aldermen. He and Bosley were hand-in-glove. The arrangement was, in my understanding from several well-placed political people, that Bosley was going to run for this term in '97, then it was going to be Slay in 2001."
According to that theory, Harmon's win in '97 upset the rumored Bosley-Slay pact. The alleged deal was that Bosley supported Slay for aldermanic president in '95 in return for Slay's endorsing Bosley in '97 for mayor. Despite Slay's endorsement four years ago, Bosley did not receive any substantial vote from South St. Louis. The idea that Slay supported Bosley in '97 as a payback is a drum that Harmon continues to beat: "After four of the absolutely most terrible years of any administration in the last 40 or 50 years, Slay endorses Bosley and campaigns for him."
Harmon goes so far as to suggest the conspiracy continues to the current race, with Bosley entering the race late to take North St. Louis votes from Harmon, thereby helping Slay.
"I think that was initially arranged," Harmon says. "Then I think Bosley did a poll and thought he had a chance. That's what has changed the dynamic. Certainly that's what I'm saying. I think they're both wary of each other."
Slay denies any deal was cut with Bosley for him to stay out of the race. Slay says he didn't run in '97 because he had just been elected to his first citywide office in '95 and wasn't ready professionally to leave his law practice. "Freeman had supported me for the Board of Aldermen; I wasn't going to turn around and run against him in two years," says Slay. "That wouldn't have been the right thing to do anyway."
Harmon intends to pound away on what he sees as Bosley's bad record and Slay's lackluster one. "They don't want to talk about their past records," Harmon says. "Slay's got a record; they both do. They're not going to talk about it. They're going to talk about what their "vision' is and all that other stuff. What was their record? The relevance is, "What have you done? Not what you want to do, but what have you done to qualify you to be mayor?' Francis has never operated in anything larger than several people in a law office."
Not surprisingly, Guilfoil sees that legal experience as a way to predict Slay the mayor. As a litigator in class-action suits, product-liability cases and other civil matters, Slay has had to negotiate complicated issues where the stakes are high.
"I've seen him as a lawyer," Guilfoil says. "Underneath that baby face there's a real core of toughness. There has to be. You can't succeed in this business without it; you're gladiators. He's been very successful for us. We don't get down and wrestle on the floor; it's a toughness of mind. You know how much to give and when not to give. Sometimes it's very difficult, if you've got an offer on the table, to turn it down, because there's always a chance you'll lose. It takes a lot of inner toughness to say, "To hell with it; we'll not take, we'll go ahead and let the court decide.' You're taking a lot on your shoulders for somebody else, and that requires a good deal of toughness."
Guilfoil says the city needs a mayor who's on top of what's going on now. "We always stand at a crossroads, but it really is true this time. There has been more movement in St. Louis by individuals than I've seen in my lifetime," says the 81-year-old lawyer. "It's not government-sponsored, and it doesn't have all the admirals and generals of Civic Progress doing it. It's individuals going out and doing it on their own, which is a very healthful sign. A political leadership that encourages that and ties it together, then you really do have a chance to reinvigorate the city of St. Louis."
Because city government is a political entity in need of help from other political entities, Slay backers think it only logical that a skilled hand in the art of the deal be given a chance at this critical time.
One public official active in attempts at regional cooperation thinks whoever the new mayor will be, he will have to come up with an agenda he wants to accomplish and work urgently to fulfill it: "The city is flat on its ass here. It's not like the mayor doesn't have responsibility for anything. You got a real problem. Tell us why you want to be mayor of this place that's going down the shit tubes. You got to have a good answer to that," the official says. There is financial trouble ahead. "The key thing for the city is, they can no longer do it on their own. They have to reach out. They have to get more from state, more from their surrounding neighbors. They can't do it alone anymore."
For the next mayor, that means having to deal on an intergovernmental basis with many entities. To the extent that Slay can convince voters and the rich, the influential and the involved that he is able to pull off those types of alliances, he could become mayor.
Looking at this mayor's race, it's easy to slip into fuzzy math, or old math. Historically, for Democrats -- in the city, the only party that matters -- the primary colors are black and white, with election results often determined by race. On the surface, 2001 offers the same dynamic, but scratch that surface and things get weird.
Even though more than 50 percent of city residents are black, whites retain about a 60 percent share among registered voters. A newcomer to the city would look at the three major candidates and see a black incumbent mayor, challenged by a white president of the Board of Aldermen and a black ex-mayor. The conventional take is that two blacks split the African-American vote and the aldermanic president coasts in, carrying the white vote. But that's no longer certain, or even likely. Ideally this would be untrue because candidates are judged on the content of their character. But this election may be as much or more about parochialism as pigmentation. Where the candidate lives, his résumé and his style may trump ethnicity and race.
The main power base for Harmon, who lives in Compton Heights, is predominantly white South St. Louis. Four years ago, he drew the bulk of his votes from where Slay lives, the 23rd Ward and the southwest city wards surrounding it. So if the focus is shifted from race to geography, the political base of South Side residents Slay and Harmon could be split on March 6 and Bosley -- who is expected to clean up in North St. Louis -- might be seen as having the edge. But there aren't enough votes in North St. Louis to carry the day, so Bosley will have to do well in the racially mixed central-corridor wards.
If anyone should know that a mayoral race in this town is a crap shoot, it's the man who might have been mayor, Tom Villa. The longtime state representative and former aldermanic president also knows the power and limits of a local political heritage. Villa was seen as the heir apparent to Schoemehl when the mayor left office in 1993. The aldermanic chamber where the 28 aldermen meet every Friday morning is named for his father, Red Villa. Tom Villa lost the mayoral election to Bosley as Villa and former state Rep. Tony Ribaudo split the South Side vote and businessman Steve Roberts came in fourth.
Among other lessons he learned then and has learned since then, Villa says you can't assume a name is going to get you votes. Each election has a different math to it, and no two electorates in any two elections are identical.
"I can see it when Matt and I run around down here in our little corner of the world in the 11th Ward," says Villa, referring to his nephew, Ald. Matt Villa (D-11th). "One thing my father was, he was a dominant name down here in South St. Louis, but a lot of his voters are out in Calvary and Resurrection cemeteries. They are. You really got to go back and prime the pump."
Villa was director of intergovernmental affairs for Harmon in '97 but quit to be elected again as a state representative. Having visited Room 200 as aldermanic president, having run for mayor unsuccessfully and having worked on Harmon's staff, he knows what hazards lurk in that job.
"It's a different city. It's a changing city," says Villa. "The person walking into Room 200 has to realize we have the big-city infrastructure, the big-city police and fire departments that come along with their big pension systems; we've got the big-city workforce; and we've got all the county offices -- but we've only got 335,000 people to pay taxes. And that is going to be the ultimate challenge of whoever inhabits Room 200 over the next four years."
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