Carl Officer is seated at the reception desk in the foyer of his family's Missouri Avenue funeral parlor, answering phones. The 52-year-old mayor of East St. Louis, who typically favors dark tailored suits, is uncharacteristically casual today in a mustard-green turtleneck sweater and olive slacks.
"It's election day," Officer rationalizes. "I never know when I'm gonna have to wrassle."
The mayor rises, strolls to his office and commences slurping on a Styrofoam cup of soup. Always svelte, Officer looks even skinnier than usual on this late-February afternoon, perhaps because he's given up meat for Lent. Not that the mayor, an ordained minister, thinks the Eye in the Sky is keeping score.
"I don't think God gives a crap whether or not I eat a cheeseburger," he deadpans as he welcomes a stocky woman in her mid-sixties into his office.
As it turns out, this woman is enrolled in a program called Fore Thought, which allows an individual to start planning and paying for her funeral long before the day of reckoning. She is here to establish a financing plan to pay for the basics: flower arrangements, steel-blue casket, plot of land, et cetera. The woman, who subsists on a fixed income in a housing project in the East St. Louis suburb of Venice, winces when it comes time to talk about a down payment.
Not to worry, Officer interjects. He proposes an arrangement, based on his firsthand appreciation of her proficiency with all foods soul: He'll take care of the down payment, he says, "as long as you keep feeding me for the next sixteen years."
The deal sealed, Officer beckons a mortuary employee to fire up his jet-black 1974 Stutz Blackhawk so he can drive the client home. (At one time Carl's late father, Marion -- his predecessor as funeral director and the founder of Officer Mortuary -- owned more than 80 cars, many of which he kept stashed in Arizona to guard against rust.) After depositing his client in Venice, Officer speeds to city hall, parks in his reserved stall and ascends to his third-floor office, where his four-year-old daughter, Carli, is camped out with a blanket and pillow on the floor near Officer's desk, eating popcorn and watching Nickelodeon in the dark under the supervision of the mayor's lone full-time aide, Girt Clemons.
"Daddy, you've been a bad boy," she says. She allows herself to be scooped up in her grinning father's arms and toted through city hall's front double doors, repeating the phrase over and over, as four-year-olds are wont to do. Placing her in the back seat of the Stutz and plopping himself in the cockpit, Officer turns the key in the ignition.
The engine fails to respond. The Stutz is dead.
But then, Carl Officer is plenty comfortable with death. The possessor of a degree in mortuary and funeral services from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, he's comfortable looking a living, breathing woman in the eye and telling her precisely how she's going to be remembered after her ability to witness such a ceremony in the flesh is rendered moot by her Savior. And he's comfortable plotting the resuscitation of East St. Louis, a decrepit urban relic of Industrial Age politics, even though some claim Officer himself had a heavy hand in squeezing the last drop of life out of the city during his first go-round as mayor in the 1980s.
It could be said that Carl Officer began and ended his tumultuous twelve-year reign as mayor of East St. Louis chest-deep in trash. When he took office at the age of 27 in 1979 with the full backing of East St. Louis' influential Democratic Party machine, he hopped in the back of a garbage truck to personally haul litter amid a refuse-collectors' strike.
"He's a go-getter, he's young, he's trusted," recalls Andrew Theising, a Southern Illinois University Edwardsville political science professor and author of Made in USA: East St. Louis. "It really did look like a new day was dawning."
The college-educated, affluent heir to a revered East St. Louis family of morticians, Officer, then the nation's youngest mayor, was unlike any politician the town had ever seen, seemingly free of the shackles of political-capital deficits and personal financial need that had hamstrung past leaders.
"A new day really did dawn for a while," says Debra Moore, director of SIUE's Institute for Urban Research and an East St. Louis native. "He was not only the mayor, he was the hope for the city. Carl came to the position well-educated and having a financial capacity that did not dictate a need. So he came from a perspective that he could make a difference and really turn the city around."
By all accounts, Officer spent his first term doing just that, aided by federal and state grants and a large staff over which he had direct supervision. But in time the task proved daunting. Officer had inherited a city that had lost nearly two-thirds of its commercial base and nearly half its population in the 1960s and '70s, with a citizenry ground down by Depression-era unemployment levels that led to high rates of crime and poverty.
"East St. Louis was collapsing," says Norman Ross, head of the local Chamber of Commerce. "Regardless of who the mayor was, you were gonna have the same problems."
Others, however, maintain that it wasn't the city that stymied the mayor, but Officer who tripped up the city.
"I think he lost sight of what his purpose was: to rebuild the city," says East St. Louis City Council member Eddie Jackson, a onetime Officer ally who's now an arch nemesis. "He was horrible administratively. He spent over $80,000 on limousines. And he didn't get along with any elected officials. Anywhere."
Adds fellow city councilman Charlie Powell, who does double duty as chair of the city's Central Democratic Committee: "At the end of Carl Officer's twelfth year, we were $150 million in debt, couldn't pay police officers and couldn't pick up the trash."
He's right: When Carl Officer was defeated in the 1991 Democratic primary, East St. Louis was in such dire financial straits that there was no garbage truck for the soon-to-be-ex-mayor to hop onto, no cans for him to sling over his shoulder from city block to city block. Moreover, the Illinois legislature had taken the unprecedented step of creating a special panel to oversee the city's suspect financial dealings. In the space of twelve years, Officer had gone from favorite son to prodigal son, his reputation sullied by allegations of egotism, recklessness, womanizing, selfishness, immaturity, corruption, megalomania, senseless grandeur and race baiting.
Knocked out of the fast lane and the public eye, on the cusp of his 40th birthday Carl Officer saw in himself a maturity deficiency. So the lifelong bachelor spent the next decade-plus finding a wife, finding Jesus and finding a way to expand his family's flourishing funeral business. For the first time in his professional life, he was a civilian -- and making an earnest go of it with his political future seemingly dashed.
But never underestimate the restorative talents of an embalming-school graduate. Them boys are trained to make a corpse look as though it could jump right out of the coffin and walk again, if the Lord would just grant permission.
I remember my first visit to East St. Louis two and a half years ago like it was yesterday. I was new to the area and looking for a roller rink located on a dead-end road near Officer Mortuary. Unacquainted with the city's grid system, I came at the rink from the wrong side and ended up in an industrial area bordered by a chain-link fence. I'd just pulled into a parking lot to reverse course when another motorist motioned to me from the cab of his imposing truck. We both rolled down our windows.
"Do you know where you are?" asked the driver, a Caucasian who appeared to be in his early thirties. "You're in East St. Louis, boy. You'd better get the fuck up out of here."
Properly redirected to Missouri Avenue, I could see what he meant, in a way. West-side legend paints a portrait of an East St. Louis rife with machine-gun-toting gang bangers and a drug dealer on every corner, the sort of place where the mere sight of a honky at a stoplight equals a carjacking. Such characters exist in East St. Louis, of course, but in no greater concentration than in any other downtrodden urban area. What was striking about that first visit to East St. Louis wasn't any palpable menace, but rather a pervasive sense of desolation, as if the municipal lords had thrown in the towel on this city a quarter-century ago, hightailing it without even troubling to stitch up its wounded shell. I wanted to get the fuck up out of East St. Louis not because I was scared, but because it was so depressing.
Not surprising, then, that the city suffers from a dearth of capable young adult residents. Men and women who saw the city brought to its knees as youths during Carl Officer's first reign want little to do with their hometown today.
"There's a youth outage, quite frankly," says recently appointed city manager Alvin Parks Jr., a 1979 Lincoln High grad who went on to earn degrees at Morehouse College in Atlanta and Washington University in St. Louis. (Lincoln High has since been turned into a middle school, leaving the city with just one public secondary school, East St. Louis Senior High.) "People from the '70s and '80s have chosen not to come back. I lived through the wheels coming off. People would just run, knowing police cars couldn't go more than 35 miles per hour. We had trash literally blocking the streets. Sanford & Son was junk. This was vermin. This was trash."
While the 1990s saw a return of garbage collection and operable police cruisers to the streets of East St. Louis, the hopelessness remains.
"There are limited opportunities inside the city limits," explains Chris Hudlin, an insurance broker headquartered in the flagging wasteland that passes for downtown East St. Louis. "You get your degree and then a headhunter calls and says, 'Come to New York, come to Atlanta.' So of course you leave."
Some have chosen to stay. Take, for instance, Patricia Gibson, an east-side native who in 1994 expanded her small nursing home on State Street to a million-dollar facility next door. Like Parks, Gibson went away to school -- she holds a master's in public health and nursing administration from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill -- yet she never wavered in her intent to return home.
"African Americans, in general, don't have the ability to say where our roots are," Gibson says. "I can't say anything about the tribe I come from, but this is home. East St. Louis is rich in culture and location. It's almost as if it's a silver teapot with tarnish on it. You just need to wipe it off.
"Most people either love East St. Louis or hate it," Gibson concludes. "I love it."
Her affinity is tested often, however, especially as it pertains to tax-increment financing (TIF) funds Gibson and several fellow entrepreneurs claim are being unfairly diverted to outside interests.
"We were approved three times during the [Mayor Debra] Powell administration," says Cedric Taylor, who owns Javon's Fine Dining downtown and Club Casino on the south side and has yet to see a dollar of TIF money. Taylor says that when it comes to TIF funds, small businesses like his and Gibson's are passed up in favor of big developers, who hog the whole pie. "It seems like the only TIF money they release is to the Casino Queen and Foot Locker," he alleges, citing two recent beneficiaries, both of which have ties to out-of-town developer Jim Koman.
"The city's supposed to help local businesses, but TIF dollars go to those who can give the biggest campaign donations," seconds Wade Wicks, a Republican precinct committeeman and Officer supporter who owns a Mobil station at Collinsville Avenue and State Street. "Outsiders come in and raid dollars. Small businessmen don't have a voice."
It was this breed of pent-up street-level frustration that created the perfect scenario for Carl Officer to strike a populist, anti-establishment tone in his successful run for mayor in 2003, a campaign that saw him nudge out machine-backed candidate Eddie Jackson by 233 votes after finishing a distant second in the primary. (East St. Louis employs a nonpartisan runoff system, in which the top two mayoral candidates advance to the general election.)
"It had nothing to do with Carl whatsoever," scoffs Charlie Powell, leader of East St. Louis' legendary Democratic machine. "If you're an Officer in East St. Louis, you're just like a Kennedy. He's royalty. And he's a schmoozer."
But this time Officer arrived at city hall to find a mayor's office that had been stripped of virtually all the authority it wielded during his first go-round. Where once he was surrounded by nineteen staffers and possessed the power to hire and fire at will, nowadays Officer is designated a lone paid civil servant and must rely on volunteers to answer his phone and man the reception area -- duties he occasionally undertakes himself if nobody's available. The city manager -- a position that was created in the wake of Officer's first tenure -- does all the hiring and supervises all city services. These days the office of mayor is considered a part-time job (though interestingly, Officer's annual salary is $50,000 -- $20,000 more than he earned as a full-time mayor in the 1980s).
Beyond the role of symbolic public figurehead, the extent of the mayor's reach is a single vote on the East St. Louis City Council. And considering that Officer spent a great deal of his campaign trashing the council's power brokers -- one of whom was his opponent in the general election -- he now finds himself completely shut out of Powell and Jackson's inner circle and on the losing end of virtually every three-to-two council vote.
"Carl has to get permission to call a cab," quips SIUE's Moore. "And the council won't give him that permission today."
After a year and a half of cranky public gamesmanship, matters came to a brisk boil at the December 30 city council meeting at which Alvin Parks was confirmed as city manager. After interim city manager Bob Storman announced his retirement amid published allegations that he'd exposed himself to a female staff member, Jackson, Powell and council ally Eddie Russell tapped Parks for the $81,000-per-year post without consulting Officer or Karen Cason, the mayor's lone council collaborator.
"I find it personally insulting that you guys would have met and chosen a city manager without offering me, Ms. Cason and the taxpayers a minimum of input," Officer sneered. "I think this government's being run in a cesspool of back-room bullshit."
The mayor then fixed his gaze on Parks. "Don't get sucked into this crap. They will chew you up and spit you out after the April elections," Officer said, referring to the fact that both Powell and Jackson are up for election. "Alvin, I implore you: Don't do this to yourself."
(Counters Parks, who attends the same church as Officer and is a long-time family friend: "If you're calling it a cesspool, why do you want to be a part of it? If it's good enough for you, then why not me?")
As the meeting drew to a close, it became evident that Officer's venom was not directed at Parks but at the kingmakers who'd anointed the city manager-to-be.
"If you think I've been a thorn in your side up until now," the mayor addressed Powell, Jackson and Russell, "I'm gonna be on you like white on rice, like stink on shit. Whatever I can do to get rid of the three of y'all, I'm gonna do it. Every single breath of my day is gonna be concentrated on getting rid of the three of you from public service."
As the events of the next two months unfolded, Officer would discover that his frustration was shared by two powerful cohorts: the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Five dollars and a sandwich is the going rate for vote buying in East St. Louis -- or so it has been alleged by many people, for many years. Political corruption is one of the worst-kept secrets in a city rivaled only by Chicago for its purported capacity to cast votes for dead folks or to make a ballot box disappear.
"East St. Louis has had a negative image since the cowboy days," says nursing-home operator Pat Gibson. "Nothing shocks me anymore."
But even in a town inured to having its elected officials paraded in shackles before federal grand juries, the indictments of January 21 packed an unprecedented wallop.
On that Friday, the FBI apprehended four government employees, including two key department heads, on charges ranging from perjury to conspiracy to kill a federal witness. One of the department heads, police chief Ronald Matthews, resigned shortly after his arraignment. Matthews and his secretary, Janerra Carson-Slaughter, were each charged with obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice for their alleged roles in helping a member of Matthews' auxiliary force, a convenience-store owner and ex-con named Ayoub "Dave" Qattoum, illegally obtain a firearm. Qattoum faces the same charges, plus a count of unlawful possession of a firearm. An additional charge of perjury was leveled against Matthews for allegedly providing false testimony to a federal grand jury.
"He's pled not-guilty to all counts and intends to defend himself," says Matthews' lawyer, Stephen Welby, whose client's trial date is May 10.
On March 15 Carson-Slaughter and Qattoum entered guilty pleas to the conspiracy and firearms charges leveled against them; in exchange, the government dropped the outstanding charges. Sentencing is scheduled for June 13.
"Obviously, we want to bring all the favorable information available to the court's attention in support of Ms. Carson-Slaughter," reports Carson-Slaughter's lawyer, Scott Rosenblum.
Qattoum's lawyer, Jim Stern, declined to comment on his client's case.
Meanwhile, the revelation that East St. Louis' auxiliary police force included a convicted felon led to the subsequent dismissal of 22 of the unit's 58 officers, after background checks revealed that they too carried substantial rap sheets.
As serious as those charges are, they pale in comparison to the plight of Kelvin Ellis, the city's director of regulatory affairs. A precinct committeeman and integral cog in the Powell-Jackson political machine, Ellis ascended to his post despite having served 21 months of hard time on a federal extortion charge in 1990, when he was employed as the city's personnel director during the first Officer administration. This time around Ellis is charged with three counts of income-tax evasion and four counts of obstruction of justice -- one of which involves tape-recorded conversations during which Ellis allegedly contracted for the murder of a government informant. (For highlights from the tape transcripts, see "Problem's Over" in the January 26 Riverfront Times.)
That allegation, in turn, sheds new light on rampant but unfounded rumors that Ellis put out a similar hit on former city manager Harvey Henderson, who died in 2002 after mysteriously falling from an overpass. (Illinois State Police classified Henderson's death as accidental.)
Ellis, who is being held in prison without bail, was snared via wiretapped conversations with Deputy Police Chief Rudy McIntosh, who'd offered his services to the FBI as an informant. A little more than a week later, McIntosh, a former undercover narcotics officer who is currently a precinct committeeman and a candidate for East St. Louis township supervisor, was put on paid administrative leave pending a state police investigation into whether he shot and killed Floyd Reese in 1979. (McIntosh, a nineteen-year-old civilian at the time, confirms he was at the scene of Reese's murder but denies having played a role in the unsolved crime, which occurred during an altercation involving a dice game.) The East St. Louis Police Department's internal-affairs unit is also looking into whether McIntosh and three of his fellow officers joined the force without having earned either a high school diploma or GED -- a benchmark requirement. McIntosh says he earned the equivalency degree after being expelled from high school.
Also revealed at Ellis' January 29 detention hearing were allegations that the defendant had been operating a prostitution ring from his office in city hall.
"In all my years of public service, I could never have imagined these allegations against a municipal employee," Officer says of the charges faced by his former director of personnel. "This is a small southern Illinois community. There's no oil here. Yet these boys play politics at a level found nowhere outside of Chicago or New Orleans.
"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.
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.
Just as confidently, Officer predicts that the festivities are winding down. How he can make this determination without being able to see the pulpit is anyone's guess, but for a man who officiates a dozen such services every week, it must be second nature. Once upstairs, Officer gracefully ushers weeping old women to the casket, where they pay their last respects.
After ensuring that the coffin is snugly ensconced into his mortuary's white hearse, Officer distributes orange pennants emblazoned with the word "Funeral" to motorists who will be following his white Cadillac down Route 3, across the Jefferson Barracks Bridge and on to the military cemetery for an early-afternoon burial. As he leads the procession, Officer takes a long drag off a Salem and peers at a tacky spackling of cartoon dog stickers on his vehicle's right-rear window. This is where his daughter sits, and his daughter likes to talk to the cartoon dogs. And so the stickers stay.
"They give a certain ambiance to this Cadillac," observes Officer, whose family's commitment to death's silver lining has spawned East St. Louis' version of the Kennedy dynasty.
"His family's done so much for so many, and Carl continues that tradition," says SIUE's Debra Moore. "A lot of people have enjoyed very respectable funerals at no cost, and people remember that. People could never thank them enough."
Seconds St. Clair County Circuit Judge John Baricevic: "Carl's mother and father and sister and brother have been great leaders to the community. They are very good people, not just from a business standpoint, but religious and social. They help folks."
That Baricevic omits Carl from his roll call of esteemed Officers is no accident. If he were to be presented with the choice of having a deaf-mute two-year-old run the city of East St. Louis or having Carl Officer run the city, Baricevic would tap the silent toddler, reasoning that he couldn't possibly fuck things up as spectacularly as the judge believes Officer did in the '80s.
"When I was state's attorney from 1979 to 1990, in almost every instance East St. Louis' problems had to do with Carl," Baricevic says. "Carl was interested in Carl, not his city. The city of East St. Louis got a criminal conviction [for failing to repair its sewer system] when Carl was mayor. Police would go on the street without gas, without their radios. Cops would literally have to take a quarter with them to make a phone call.
"There was a public housing project with a leaking sewer," Baricevic recounts. "Carl just made excuses: It was the white man trying to bring burdens on him. When in reality it was an African-American system putting African-American children in danger. One time in 1981, there were twenty inches of snow and the county offered to help with snowplows. Carl's response was: 'Don't come into my city, or I'll confiscate your trucks and you'll never get them back.' In every one of these instances, his response was: 'It's the white man trying to take over East St. Louis.' As far as I'm concerned, he's never done a thing for the city. A lot of us would have said he'd have run for statewide office one day. Not anymore."
Still, Baricevic didn't get serious about holding Officer's feet to the fire until late 1989, when he successfully convicted the city of failing to clean up the aforementioned sewage spill. That resulted in Officer getting thrown in the slammer for contempt of court. During his couple of hours behind bars, the mayor penned a letter in which he likened his incarceration to Martin Luther King's arrest, 26 years earlier to the day, in Birmingham, Alabama.
Similar histrionics marked Officer's entire third term. Furious at the machine's decision to back another candidate in the 1987 mayoral election (which Officer won narrowly amid great controversy and allegations of corruption), he referred to the East St. Louis Democratic Party as the "Nazi Afrika Corps," the St. Clair County Democratic Party as the "Nazi Democratic Party," the Southwestern Illinois Development Authority as the "Ku Klux Klan Development Authority" and city council chairman Oliver Hendricks as "Rommel the Desert Rat." And when Officer was invited to accompany a group of U.S. mayors on an economic-goodwill excursion to Zaire, he publicly expressed concern that he would be transfused with "monkey blood," whereupon he was dropped from the delegation.
These outrageous utterances might have been viewed as eccentric chinks in a small-town mayor's armor, had they not landed on the likes of 60 Minutes and Donahue and on the pages of the New York Times.
"As local issues begin stirring and a new day doesn't appear to be dawning, you have Carl at the center of media attention -- and a lot of that attention is negative," says SIUE's Theising. "You'd see the audience clapping on Donahue, but it proved to be very destructive to him in the big picture."
Sums up fellow faculty member Debra Moore: "Carl was the ultimate postmodernist in terms of defying authority. The county felt like there was a way you did things, and he would come back and say East St. Louis would not be dictated to by anyone. Had he been amenable to dialogue, the city would have benefited more."
Carl Officer the boy mayor had a reputation for playing fast and loose with the rules. Critics love to dredge up the time he was pulled over by state troopers on Interstate 57 for driving in excess of 100 miles per hour in a buddy's Jaguar, citing the incident as proof of Officer's impatient tendency to put his own self-interest above the greater good.
Moore, a long-time friend of the Officer family, offers a more nuanced theory. "It's not that he doesn't care about people," she says. "He just cares about Carl more."
"If we didn't have the financial problems," says Chamber of Commerce honcho Norman Ross, "his flamboyance would have been a positive asset."
A trip from city hall to inspect a firehouse in a neighborhood near downtown reveals that the mayor's lead foot still rests heavy on the gas pedal. He's not red-lining his Cadillac on State Street, though; it glides past motorists and pedestrians just slowly enough to put its driver on the receiving end of countless honks and admiring waves.
At 14th and State Officer points to the corner where he got in his first primary-school scuffle. The way he tells it, his father made him take accordion lessons, for which young Carl was subjected to an endless amount of ridicule from his schoolmates. When at last he resolved to throw down with his belittlers, he realized his instrument had a fringe benefit. "After wearing a couple brothers out with that accordion case," the mayor punch-lines, "I didn't have another fight until high school."
Still, Officer subsequently switched to the (much cooler) saxophone.
Engine Company 422 looks deserted as Officer pulls into the driveway. The firehouse suffered significant damage a few months back in -- irony of ironies -- a fire, and Officer has come with his friend and insurance agent, Chris Hudlin, to assess whether reconstruction funds are being spent wisely. Almost as soon as they shake hands, the firefighter in charge has Officer steaming about two municipal gaffes: First, the entryway isn't high enough to allow clearance for some new trucks the city has just purchased. And second, while the station is equipped with computers, the city has not yet supplied the software necessary to file reports electronically.
"What do y'all use them for, besides solitaire?" Officer inquires.
"Nothing," replies the fireman, proceeding to rattle off a rundown of what he sees as administrative shortcomings, among them a scarcity of grant money for staff development and recruitment.
"There's not a grant writer in East St. Louis," mutters the mayor. "But we have fifteen people in the TIF department. Belleville has one. We just create jobs for people, and they don't do shit."
This is part of what Officer sees as the city's ongoing inability to properly allocate staff resources, a situation he lays at the feet of Powell and Jackson and their handpicked city manager, Alvin Parks. To alleviate such problems, Officer is sponsoring an April 5 ballot measure that would eventually return East St. Louis to the strong mayor/aldermanic form of government.
The proposal stands a good chance of passing, which scares the heck out of Powell, who views the move as a potentially disastrous reversion to the maladies of the first Officer administration.
"Pick up and go," says the city council member when asked what advice he'd offer East St. Louisans if Officer's measure passes.
Officer's former deputy mayor, Lamar Gentry, sees both sides of this coin.
"Carl's got great ideas, but he has to have people around him who can bring him back to earth," says Gentry, who served as city manager from 1994 until 1996 under Mayor Gordon Bush. "He wasn't an administrator. He's a big-picture type of person. When he started trying to handle the meticulous stuff, that's what got him into trouble. He sort of lost focus and was frustrated."
Carl maintains he's not that Carl anymore -- a notion the likes of Charlie Powell, Eddie Jackson and John Baricevic flatly reject. So it should come as no surprise that Officer's main focus these days is convincing voters to boot Powell and Jackson out of office.
"We got to exorcise these brothers," he says to a crowd of about 50 at a pre-primary campaign rally masquerading as a town-hall meeting. "In the last two years, we've had 55 special meetings, which means 'stuff we don't want you to know about.' We're going to spend a couple million dollars on Thursday at noon that you won't know about. Is that the kind of government you want? Follow the money. We need city councilpersons who cannot be bought. They ain't gonna stop until you stop 'em."
As if on cue, a woman in the crowd shouts, "Beat the machine! Beat the machine!"
The results of the February 22 primary election provided evidence that Officer is getting his point across. While Jackson came out on top with 2,127 out of 4,981 votes cast amid light (20 percent) turnout, Marion finished a surprisingly close second (2,098 votes) ahead of Powell (1,995 votes). Anderson cracked the final four, with 1,529 votes. The four remaining candidates split 1,482 votes, the bulk of which will likely go to Officer's "Renaissance Team" slate. That gives Anderson an outside chance of trumping both Powell and Jackson come April 5. Marion is sitting pretty, and Officer would need only one of his chosen candidates to emerge victorious in order to tilt the city council's three-to-two majority in his direction.
"Clearly the Carl of today is a different Carl," says Andrew Theising. "He's very reflective. He's been supportive of outside forces coming in. But I also see someone poised to fill a power vacuum."
Undoubtedly the Carl Officer of yesteryear would have been maneuvering to take that power for granted, but Theising is withholding judgment on what might transpire if the recalibrated chieftain were to snag the council majority. At that point, the professor says, the man in charge would no longer be in a position to blame adversity on his adversaries.
"He's doing the role of symbolic mayor very well," Theising says of Officer. "But we haven't seen Carl perform when political elements are at their worst. And that's where he should be measured."
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.