Changing Captains

Why refinish the deck when the hull's leaking?

Dec 13, 2000 at 4:00 am
Remember Dennis Hill? He was the guy Freeman Bosley Jr. plucked from the ranks of his campaign workers to be city assessor during the Boz's first year as mayor, back in '93. Hill was an affable guy who blew into City Hall with good intentions and a willingness to take a fresh look at things. Three years later, he was blown back out, terminated by the Boz after Hill secretly tape-recorded a mayoral aide telling him to lighten up when dealing with some of the mayor's backers. The tape was close to indecipherable, so what exactly was said and what was meant by what was said was unclear. But Hill was dispatched, another political novice-turned-casualty.

Like a ghost of Christmas past, Hill called the other day from his home in Iowa. Must be the time of the season, what with the mayor's race coming in March and fundraisers being held, political machines getting fueled up. Hill gave his take on the race, offering that incumbent Mayor Clarence Harmon, elected in '97, won't be re-elected and that Aldermanic President Francis Slay is the prohibitive favorite to succeed him. Hill predicts that if Slay wins, he'll be a one-term mayor like his predecessors Bosley and Harmon. Any new mayor will be stymied by the city's pathology: old housing and schools, widespread brownfield contamination, dwindling population and tax base, prevalent poverty. "We'll have a succession of mayors who constantly promise the world but can't deliver crap for one reason or another," says Hill. "No matter how many times you change the captain of the ship, it doesn't change the fact that there's a hole in the hull. Everybody wants to refinish the deck, but what they need is a welder."

No matter how much water the city is taking on, Slay wants to be mayor. He even read A Prayer for the City, the brutal behind-the-scenes account of Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell's first term in office, and he still wants to be mayor. Prayer is a good book, the product of author Buzz Bissinger's unlimited access to Rendell and his administration. Lately Rendell, who is now Democratic Party chairman, has gotten a lot of face time on MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews. He's one of the few partisan pundits able to laugh and deliver insight at the same time. But when Rendell became mayor in '91, Philly was in the Dumpster, with union problems, high unemployment and a shrinking census.

At one point in the book, Rendell says that as mayor, "a good portion of my job is spent on my knees, sucking people off to keep them happy." In a less graphic but more political observation, Rendell says, "Everything that goes on is a power struggle between black politicians and white politicians, and it isn't because of what's for the good of the citizens. It's about who controls what project. I'm so fed up with this blackmail stuff that goes on I could just scream. I could just take a machine gun and shoot 'em all."

The same situation has been in evidence during St. Louis' last two aldermanic meetings, at which black members of the board have railed against a street bill they say favors roadwork in predominantly white sections of the city. In coverage of the debate in the St. Louis American, Ald. Sharon Tyus (D-20th) called Slay, whose name is on the road bill, racist and sexist. But on the floor Friday, Tyus said the issue is beyond race and that "what I do care about is the dollars -- it's the money, honey."

So does Slay grasp what Rendell meant by his comments? "I'm in the thick of it right now. I understand the frustrations," says Slay. "What you have to keep in mind is, you're in this for a higher civic purpose."

Can he handle it?

"Absolutely," Slay says. "I can handle it; I've been handling it. I know there are people like Sharon Tyus and others out there who are out to race-bait me on issues to serve their own political ends, but in the end we need leaders who can stand up to that type of stuff and still keep this city progressing -- because once we buckle to that type of pressure, those types of allegations, those type of tactics, we might as well all give up."

Apocalypse apparently is now, according to the venerable Tom Eagleton, former senator, briefly a vice-presidential candidate and the only living person to have a federal courthouse named after him. At Slay's fundraiser last week, Eagleton introduced the mayoral candidate by declaring St. Louis had turned into a "city of decay" and observing, "Francis Slay does not want to be a pallbearer at St. Louis' funeral. Francis Slay does not want to turn out the lights at City Hall." For starters, if elected, Slay could fix the clock at City Hall, but to do that he has to defeat the incumbent mayor, and that may not be as simple as it looks.

Harmonious held his own fundraiser last week, and a St. Louis Hills couple at the Windows on Washington event wondered aloud to Short Cuts what all the fuss was about. They recalled that when Harmonious challenged the Boz, several people on their block had decided to put their homes up for sale if Bosley was re-elected. Now, buyers anxious to move into the couple's upscale Southwest City neighborhood often bid up the sale prices of houses. What's so awful about Hizzoner when property values are up? they ask.

And then there's Bosley. The former mayor won't say, but most folks who think they are in the know say he will run. The conventional take is that he will announce his candidacy after the holidays. A run by the Boz would aid Slay, though Harmonious says Bosley's entry "would energize a voting base that I would look forward to energizing." He means South St. Louis, folks who don't want Boz II: The Sequel to play the city. Trouble with that scenario is that those energized South Side voters will have more than just Harmon on the ballot to pick from.

This mayor's race, with or without Boz, should be a doozy. If we could graft attributes together to create the best mayoral candidate, it would be a composite of Slay's work ethic, Bosley's personality, Harmon's résumé and, from Bill Haas -- well, maybe perseverance in the face of insurmountable odds. That, too, will be needed, because whoever "wins" should remember this: The job doesn't come with a machine gun or kneepads -- and it might come without a prayer.