Citizen Callow

The mayor names a PR wiz to a city board and ends up with a PR problem

Richard Callow is no stranger to City Hall, and his fingerprints are all over the place. The guerilla publicist takes great pride -- and considerable earnings -- from being the hired gun most hired to make things happen at Tucker and Market.

Outside that medieval edifice, Callow's profile falls off considerably. Ask folks streaming out of nearby Busch Stadium, "Who's Richard Callow?" and 99 percent of them wouldn't have a clue. Short Cuts always thought he liked it that way. Of course, the Cardinal owners know Callow, and they hired him to pump up the push for a new stadium. Historic Restoration Inc. of New Orleans found out in a hurry that they should hire Callow so the convoluted convention-hotel scheme could be sold to all the necessary government bodies. Callow does work for Downtown Now and a variety of corporate, nonprofit and government clients.

As has been documented in these pages repeatedly, Callow's main attraction is his perceived power to plant items -- often verbatim -- in Jerry Berger's Post-Dispatch column. Callow's campaign to reconfigure the new city jail to "save" the building at 11th and Walnut streets was a classic example of that modus operandi. But Callow, aside from a sporadic e-mail entry in online forums with his "Public Eye" handle, stays out of the public eye.

That's why it's so baffling that he took a seat on the city's Preservation Board, the guardian of the city's historic buildings. It may sound noble, but all too often the board's agenda is consumed by passing judgment on signs, paint colors and window mullions -- those bars between window panels. And the meetings can be horribly long and dull.

But give Callow points for starting his new gig off with a bang. During his first meeting, on Sept. 24, the Preservation Board's staff recommended that the board vote against allowing the owners of the Bevo Mill to use synthetic-slate tile to fix the roof. The board agreed with a 6-to-1 vote, Callow being the sole dissenter. Well, on Oct. 2, Preservation Board members woke up to a new reality: Berger announced in his column's last item that "Mayor Francis Slay's office has asked the city's Preservation Board to reverse itself" on the Bevo Mill decision.

"I thought [the 6-1 vote] was a done deal," says one board member, who, in the spirit of the witness-protection program, was granted anonymity by Short Cuts. "If they wanted to appeal it again, fine. But I didn't expect to be reading about it in the paper."

The "they" refers to the owner of the Bevo Mill: Anheuser-Busch Inc. The wacky windmill at the crossroads of Gravois, Morganford and Delor was built during Prohibition as a promotion for a root beer A-B was peddling. Since then it's housed different restaurants, with varying degrees of success. The roof is leaking, and the synthetic tile could be as much as $100,000 cheaper than the genuine article, according to A-B. For the record, in the past A-B has hired Callow, and the company contributed to Slay's mayoral campaign. Symbolically, at least, the brewery is to St. Louis what General Motors is to Detroit.

But even considering the steam held by A-B and the power of the Callow-Berger connection, some members of the board were taken aback by Callow's audacity and the Berger bit. "Here's this guy sitting here and he's reporting back to the mayor's office and publishing things in Berger," a perturbed Preservation Board member says. "Generally speaking, all the people on the board are doing civic duty. To have pressure brought through the media about their decisions, to read in the paper that the mayor is going to ask you, Mr. Board Member, to reverse your decision, well, what's the point in being there if the judgment of board members is not going to be respected in matters like this?"

There isn't much mystery about how the Berger item appeared. Jerry isn't in the habit of sitting through tedious board meetings where there's no smoking section and shouting out, "Hey, babe!" is considered inappropriate. Carolyn Toft, director of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis, the city's primary preservation group, doesn't have many doubts. "How did it get directly from the commission meeting to Berger saying that in fact the mayor was going to ask for a reversal? Is that not odd?" she asks. More important, she worries about the message the possible reversal sends to other property owners.

"Bevo Mill has to be considered one of the most photogenic and the best-known and best-loved fantasies/follies in town," says Toft. "The last I heard, Anheuser-Busch was not financially stressed, so if it can't be done right here, where is it going to be done right?"

Slay's chief of staff, Jeff Rainford, takes that argument and stands it on its head. As a former KMOX-AM and KMOV-TV reporter and, later, a public-relations consultant, the Rainmaker is a deft communicator and an accomplished spinmeister, à la Callow. In his view, A-B is a fine corporate citizen and keeps its buildings looking good, so if the initial ruling is reversed by the board, other property owners should be given the same leeway. Rainford says Slay is in favor of letting the brewery use the faux tiles.

"We need to preserve historic architecture and historic features, but not to the point that we're driving businesses and homeowners batty," says Rainford. "That's the mayor's position, and I would fully expect Richard and other members of the board to reflect that in their deliberations."

Rainford does not see the appointment of Callow to the Preservation Board as a gratuity for his behind-the-scenes work during Slay's mayoral campaign. "Payback would be a city contract; this is not exactly payback," says Rainford. "People are not beating down our doors to be on these boards."

Indeed, it appears that about 200 openings exist on the city's boards and commissions, fully one-third of the total. And it appears either that Callow was found during a dredging of the bottom of the barrel or that he's doing his civic duty by stepping forward to do a thankless, tedious job.

Despite this "Good Citizen Callow" talk, people who spend their waking hours pondering city politics needn't be called paranoid when they voice suspicion or incredulity about Callow's appointment. One former mayor who was singed by Callow's use of Berger's column has described Callow as a "flamethrower." It's clear that the Slay camp has decided to keep Callow inside the tent, even giving him an official position. Maybe Callow has tired of scheming in the shadows. Whatever the reason, giving the longtime political operative a seat and a title on a public board runs some political risks and raises legitimate conflict-of-interest questions.

Beyond Callow's political past, there is the issue of Callow's POSSLQ (person of opposite sex sharing living quarters). Barb Geisman, the mayor's development czarina, is Callow's significant other -- or is it the other way around? -- and she has already said that she recused herself from talks on the new stadium because Callow was a Cardinal hireling. Makes sense. But what about the convention hotel? What about anything involving Downtown Now interests? What about Callow's lengthy client list?

Rainford and Callow dodge that pie in the face by saying that Callow is a mayoral appointee and should do the mayor's bidding. "I regard it as a very important part of my job to do what the mayor wants," Callow says. "And he has an absolutely direct line to my house: It's Barbara. I see that as a qualification. I serve at the pleasure of the mayor. I was appointed by him." Well, all Preservation Board members are mayoral appointees.

Callow declines to say whether Geisman should recuse herself on other issues in which Callow has a dog in the fight. "I'm not going to answer for her; that's dangerous," he says. "That's how you end up sleeping on the sofa."

The Bevo Mill issue may be a blip on the radar screen, or it may be a preview of coming attractions. Both Rainford and Callow expect cultural-resources director Kate Shea to "reconsider" the tile issue. Rainford says similar synthetic tiles were approved and used on a church in Hyde Park. Callow says he will recuse himself from voting on any issue in which he has an active client. And although he has worked for the brewery in the past, he sees no problem voting on this issue.

"I love Bud Light, and it inclines me to listen to them. It makes me favorably inclined to them, as does the fact that they have a substantial economic presence in the city and they have a giant history of taking care of their buildings," says Callow. "I am neither a bubble boy or a virgin. I see what they do with their buildings."

Bubble boy, virgin, flamethrower. Whatever you call the man, it appears that for as long as St. Francis and the Rainmaker can manage it, they want to keep Callow on their crew. Early on, Callow backed Freeman Bosley Jr. and then Clarence Harmon before jumping off each sinking ship, though some would say he shot holes in the hulls and then jumped off those ships. So the urge to keep Callow on board is understandable but dangerous. But have they considered tossing him overboard?

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