Christmas in August, a Louisville Slugger Next to the Bed

Can Jennifer Joyce parlay a healthy campaign war chest and family connections into a Democratic nomination for St. Louis circuit attorney?

May 10, 2000 at 4:00 am
The political stars were aligned in such a way at Jennifer Joyce's official announcement of her desire to be the city's new circuit attorney that she looks to be the anointed one. The list of those endorsing Joyce includes U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt, who may be the next speaker of the House. Those who showed up to speak on the candidate's behalf at St. Raymond's Maronite Church included Aldermanic President Francis Slay and former U.S. Sen. Thomas Eagleton, who in 1956 was elected circuit attorney at the age of 26.

As if that weren't enough, the 37-year-old prosecutor has raised a lot more money than her opponent in August's Democratic primary. But as the other candidate in the race, Jerryl Christmas, says, endorsements don't vote. According to campaign-disclosure reports, Joyce had raised more than $80,000 as of April 15; Christmas had raised about $22,000. Joyce, however, has also been spending more: As of mid-April, her campaign had a balance of about $45,000, compared with $14,000 for Christmas. By now, those amounts likely have decreased. Christmas believes the money gap is shrinking and is not crucial.

"If you look at the cash on hand, it's a lot closer. My cash on hand is about $13,000. I'm going to have enough money to run a successful election," Christmas says. "We have a lot of voter apathy in this city, and we're going to work hard to improve voter turnout. I'm at ward and neighborhood meetings, the police meetings. I'm everywhere people will listen to me."

Christmas will have to be everywhere to have a shot at winning the primary -- Joyce was raised in the voter-heavy 23rd Ward, and both her parents served terms on the Board of Aldermen. In the last mayoral election, the 23rd Ward was one of only three city wards -- all on the South Side -- to turn in more than 5,000 votes. But aside from the money and the endorsements, the two candidates aren't that dissimilar.

Both Christmas and Joyce are assistant circuit attorneys in current Circuit Attorney Dee Joyce-Hayes' office. Both have worked there for six years. Both have handled a wide range of cases. Both talk about pushing a concept called "community prosecution," in which prosecutors serve as liaisons with specific neighborhoods. Before joining Hayes' office, Joyce was in private practice with Peper Martin, which has since merged with another law firm. Before finishing law school, Christmas was a parole officer in Atlanta. Christmas is married with two children; Joyce is single.

No, the two "Joyces," Dee Joyce-Hayes and Jennifer Joyce, are not related. Hayes is staying away from endorsing anyone. At one point, another assistant circuit attorney, Rufus Tate, was going to jump into the primary mix, and as of January he had raised $1,125 for his campaign fund. Word is, he's planning to run as an independent in the general election in November.

In her coming-out party at St. Raymond's, Joyce played the usual cards, including fighting violence in public schools. During her speech, she said she had been active in Mentor St. Louis, a program that hooks kids up with adults. After the speech, she said she had dropped out of the program because of the demands of her job and the campaign, though she plans to return. She talked about violence in public schools, but after the speech she admitted that she can't name her neighborhood public elementary school, in the Holly Hills area of the 13th Ward.

As for her work in the circuit attorney's office, Joyce characterizes the South Side Rapist case as "very gratifying." Joyce handled the city case in which serial rapist Dennis Rabbitt pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five consecutive life sentences. "Not much of a plea bargain," Joyce says, but she calls the outcome a real and symbolic victory. "As a single woman living in the city, there have been many nights when I put my Louisville Slugger next to my bed, hearing a noise, thinking 'Oh my God, that's the South Side Rapist.' So, personally, it meant something to me. The second thing is, we didn't have to have the victims go through a trial. Some of the victims were elderly, and the things they would have had to testify about in detail, I feared that some of them couldn't even do it."

As for what she wants to do if elected, a version of a "scared straight" talk to children is part of her plan. "I feel I can give a talk to students of a certain age that will emphasize to them what they're doing. I don't think they realize their mortality. I don't think they realize this road that they're on -- this gang stuff, this 'g-code,' as they call it -- leads to the penitentiary or to the cemetery, nowhere else. I'm not just some old lady telling them that -- I got pictures, I got stories, I got real-life incidents."

Not everything will be that dramatic. Joyce plans to focus on the everyday perpetrators, not just the stone-cold killers: "People don't move out of the city because they're worried about being murdered -- they move out because their door's been kicked in four times or their car windows were broken out."

Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Joyce's announcement is that Eagleton, in the throes of lung cancer, showed up to demonstrate what a gamer he is. Though his voice was impaired, he delivered a funny, concise speech. Most elder statesmen with his résumé and failing health wouldn't have bothered with a municipal election, even though it involves the post he won 44 years ago. "I'm the second-oldest former circuit attorney in captivity," the man who is about to have a federal courthouse open with his name on it says. "The first-oldest is Edward Dowd. Some of you do not know Edward Dowd the elder, but I'll identify him. He's either the father or the uncle of practically all of the judges in the city of St. Louis."

WHEN YOU REALLY, REALLY NEED TO CONTACT JOHN MILLS: Although KSDK-TV is congratulating itself on having launched a Web site, KMOV's John Mills, a mere reporter, was ahead of the game. Just check out his Web site, at, subtitled "News Coverage for the 21st Century," a phrase that suggests he's covering things happening next January. The top of Mills' home page features six photos, each representing Mills in some prototypical news stance: the requisite hurricane shot against a backdrop of palm trees buffeted by high winds, a Hong Kong shot, an Oklahoma City shot, a desert shot taken in Somalia. Under a headline that sounds like a bad Indiana Jones movie -- "Covering the Cities of Death" -- Mills states, "I considered myself one of the most fortunate 22-year-old reporters in the business." Yeah, it's not often a young newshound gets lucky enough to cover a world-class famine.

Mills sees his Web site as just another way to reach the Channel 4 audience. "It's a good way for my viewers to find out a little more about me other than just that one story I did on the news last night," says Mills, who previously worked at WCSC-TV in Charleston, S.C., and for UPI Radio. Although he says the Web site is "not a major marketing campaign," Mills hands out pens emblazoned with the site's URL. There's also a link on the home page that reads, "It's so easy to contact John Mills right now. Thanks for visiting." It might seem medium-strange that a reporter would have his own Web site, but some folks live in a dot-com world. Mills says the site is for people who don't want to call the newsroom directly with news tips.

What's missing from the site is any account of Mills' brief irritation of George W. Bush when the presidential candidate came to town in March. Each television station was given five minutes of face time, though as he sat down Mills was told he'd have four minutes. Unlike other, more decorous interviewers, Mills brought up cocaine right away. He asked something about the message Bush wants to send to parents and children about drugs, specifically cocaine: "He said he wasn't going to play that game." Mills thought that because Bush's refusal to discuss whether he had ever used cocaine would continue to be a campaign issue and was still the focus of jokes by Jay Leno and David Letterman, it was a legitimate question. "He never once really threatened to get up," Mills says. "I wasn't really happy with the answer. I thought he should probably address something because he never denied using it. So I said, 'Can I ask you one more question about cocaine?' and then that guy who had put his hand in my face and said, 'Four minutes,' yelled out, 'No.' And then Bush said, 'The answer's going to be the same. I'm not going to play that game.'" So Mills spliced together a piece on the role of religion in Bush's life and left the cocaine sound bite "at the end of the package."

Too bad Bush didn't walk off in a snit. That might have resulted in a new screen for the Web site, complete with a snappy head: "George W: What Does He Know About Blow?"

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