Newly elected St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay apparently hasn't read that book, or at least he disagrees with its premise. Slay has a political background and makes no apologies about his family's calling, particularly his father's stints as recorder of deeds, state representative and longtime 23rd Ward committeeman. But in the current aldermanic-redistricting storm, Slay is indeed making waves, and in pushing the proposed redistricting map, he looks to be backing a loser.
Oh, there are likely enough votes on the Board of Aldermen to pass the redistricting bill, but Slay will have hell to pay and it will all end up in court. But before getting into the legalities, there are the personalities.
The target here is Ald. Sharon Tyus (D-20th). Make no mistake: The bull's-eye is on her back. The plan is to move the ward she represents to an area south of Cherokee Street and east of Grand Boulevard, where the current 10th Ward is. Ald. Craig Schmid (D-10th) would see his ward move to the Hill. What had been the 20th, up around Kingshighway and Natural Bridge Avenue, would be carved up for the surrounding wards. On the new map, Tyus would be living in the same ward as Ald. Irene Smith (D-1st ), a longtime ally. To remain an alderman, Tyus would have to run against Smith or move to South St. Louis to run in the "new" 20th Ward.
North St. Louis has lost more population than South St. Louis, so the thinking is that a ward must move. But even if one accepts that concept, why pick on the 20th Ward? The answer is Sharon T. This is payback from the board -- and former Aldermanic President Slay -- for every in-your-face comment or fractious filibuster Tyus pulled on the floor during meetings, for all the times she dominated televised meetings of the board, for all the times she was her relentless self. If anyone doubts the dynamics, consider what took place two weeks ago at a meeting attended by Tyus, Slay, Smith, mayoral chief of staff Jeff Rainford and Ald. Irving Clay Jr. (D-26th), brother of former Congressman Bill Clay and uncle to U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay (D-1st). From several accounts, whatever benign intent existed at the start of the meeting dissipated quickly when Tyus and Rainford got into it.
Rainford says Tyus started off the meeting calling Slay a "double-crosser" and told Rainford he had no business talking during the meeting. "She said, 'I don't want to talk to you, I'm not talking to you, I don't talk to staff. You shut up, and you're not running the meeting, and you're not talking in the meeting.' So I said, 'Fine, if you don't consider me a person worthy of entering into a discussion, if you ever need anything, then don't bother to call me. If I'm not a human being, then when you need something, don't bother to call me.' Then she got huffy about that," says Rainford. "She accused the mayor of all sorts of other nefarious acts and then got back to 'Oh yeah, we really want to work with you,' then accused him of some more nefarious acts. She was sort of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, all in one meeting."
That isn't exactly what Tyus recalls happening.
"While I was talking to Francis, Jeff Rainford interrupted, and I said, 'I'm not talking to you.' He started yelling and screaming and saying, 'You better never ask me for anything again.' He started threatening me, saying, 'You better call the mayor,'" Tyus says. "I looked at Francis and said, 'You're letting your staff member threaten me, and I don't appreciate that. I'm not talking to him.' Rainford made a big issue about how he was going to punish me and how I better never ask him for anything."
Tyus claims the first time she met "Mr. Rainford" was at that meeting. Then she delivers a response in classic Tyus style: "The only thing I know about him, and that is because others brought it to my attention, is that he is the one who set up the priest from Illinois and attempted to catch him with a male prostitute," says Tyus, referring to the 1993 sting attempt Rainford was involved in while working as a reporter for KMOV-TV (Channel 4). The report never aired, but Tyus' bringing it up shows that with her, no weapon goes unused. "I never needed anything from Jeff Rainford," says Tyus. "The mayor's chief of staff has never done anything for me. I've never asked him for anything. I thought it was real inappropriate." Tyus also says Slay "egged" Rainford on, telling his chief of staff, "'I told you you couldn't get along with Sharon Tyus.'"
That would have been a good bet: Among some, Rainford's nickname is "Crash," suggesting a bit of a temper and a tendency to explode. And Tyus has never backed away from a fight, having survived a couple of recall attempts, so any redistricting plan aimed at her would trigger a street fight. For the record, Rainford is tying the redistricting bill to others outside Room 200, but anyone who believes that spiel might be hoodwinked into thinking the River Des Peres is a scenic waterway.
"She's not a target for us, but she may very well be the target of other aldermen. This is not our map," says Rainford. Indeed, the sponsor of the proposed redistricting map is Ald. Phyllis Young (D-7th). "Sharon Tyus expects people to treat her with respect, but she refuses to treat other people with respect," Rainford says. "That may be, in large measure, why the other aldermen are taking the action that they are."
For public consumption, the mayor's office is distancing itself from Young's redistricting map, but anyone who's half-awake has known for weeks that the Amerigo Vespucci of City Hall is Ed Bushmeyer, Slay's appointee as public-safety director. Bushmeyer and zoning czar John Koch huddled in what Irving Clay calls a "hideout" at the city water works to do their mapmaking. Rainford insists Bushmeyer only gave Young "technical assistance."
Rainford also tries to downplay the acrimonious air of the mayoral meeting with Tyus: "It went fine, from our standpoint. It was exactly what we expected to happen. It was not anything unusual. When you meet with Sharon Tyus, you know what you're going to get, and we got what we expected." And the Tyus reference to the prostitution-sting imbroglio at Channel 4 is a sign of her predicament and is not his problem, Rainford says. "When politicians have their backs against the wall and are about to lose their jobs, they will say anything or do anything to protect their jobs and their power," he notes.
That became painfully obvious on Monday, when Tyus put on a bravura performance in a standing-room-only meeting of the Legislation Committee, chaired by Young. Of course Tyus said it was all about race. Of course she packed the room with her supporters. Of course she went over the top with her rhetoric, but the attorney and former public defender also laid the legal groundwork for the upcoming court fight. In redistricting legalese, she knows "packing" and "dumping" and "regression" when she sees it.
Before the meeting, Irving Clay didn't hesitate to add his own histrionics, comparing what was happening to "slavery when Simon Legree beat Tom to death because he couldn't break him." He describes Tyus as "better informed than anybody on this board. She does her homework." Clay says he told Slay "personally" that the mayor has his "fingerprints all over this." According to Clay, instead of fulfilling his pledge to bridge the gap between his administration and African-Americans, Slay has "done the worst thing in the world: He's really created a wedge, a schism, in this community between black and white that I don't think is going to be resolved in a short period of time. The sides are lined up now."
The collateral damage in this shipwreck is Schmid, who was arbitrarily but justifiably named Best Alderman by the RFT last year. If this bill passes, he'll have to represent the Hill and then run for re-election in his old ward, which will be renamed the 20th Ward. Why he's been picked as the fall guy in this is unclear, other than the fact that his ward has a slight majority of African-American voters and therefore could be seen as a minority ward.
Compromise seems unlikely. But Ald. Gregory Carter (D-27th), as head of the African-American caucus, is pushing an alternative map in which all the wards would drift south to follow the population but would not pull a ward from the north completely. Tyus says she's drawing a map, too.
Tyus calls Slay and those pushing the plan "the biggest chickens I've ever met in my life" because she thinks they don't want to deal with her, or her perceived obstacles, if she remains on the board.
Maybe the dream for those wanting the 20th Ward to move south is "What would the Board of Aldermen be like without Sharon Tyus?" Well, wake up to this reality: Trying to get rid of her is going to be a nightmare, and there's a good chance that when the dust settles, she won't be gone. Odds are, she'll be on Channel 16 for as long as I Love Lucy is in reruns.
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