Dollar for Dollar

The politics of Vince Schoemehl's fundraiser for Frankie the Saint

Sep 4, 2002 at 4:00 am
There's nothing like a master politician throwing a double message with the smooth delivery of a single pitch.

Former St. Louis Mayor Vince Schoemehl, known to his poker pals as Vinny One-Game, did just that by holding a modest little fundraiser at the Bistro last week for current Mayor Francis Slay.

The booty wasn't all that bountiful. But the political points underscored by Vinny's little fête were. By putting some money into Frankie's political coffers, Schoemehl dampened speculation about his own mayoral ambitions and fears among Slay's handlers that he is the de facto head of the not-so-loyal opposition, a ready critic of a mayor who is about to cross the midterm of his rookie administration without having assembled a track record of accomplishment.

"You have to view it in the context of it being early in the mayor's administration, and this is a good way to show the mayor that he's a part of his team," says one former city official.

Of course, the short-term focus of this fundraiser is Vinny One-Game's newest enthusiasm -- a colossal Chicago-style tax incrementfinancing district for Grand Center, which is Schoemehl's current perch in the political arena, a position strongly backed by St. Louis University president Lawrence Biondi [Jim Nesbitt, "Terrible Twins," June 16].

Vinny needs Slay's support to shepherd this noveltoSt. Louis plan to pump a steady stream of dedicated tax revenue into a $300 million bundle of projects aimed at revitalizing Grand Center over the next fifteen years or so. Specifically, Vinny needs Slay's backing to help get his Grand Center dreamchild past city Comptroller Darlene Green, who prefers using TIFs on a project-by-project basis.

Slay, of course, needs a Big Win for an administration that has seen little but setbacks and stallball, including the dead-on-arrival effort to secure state money for a new Cardinal baseball stadium and the troubled plan to renovate the Old Post Office.

But Frankie doesn't need that win badly enough to hand another laurel of civic action to a suspected critic and potential rival, particularly Schoemehl, a one-man dynamo of vision with moves as smooth as an Isadora Duncan pirouette. So Vinny needed to convince Frankie that he really isn't that bad a guy at all. And what better way to do this than with the green milk of politics -- money -- and a strong public statement of support backing the mayor's shaky play?

Vinny, who loudly denies any ambition to be mayor again, says his fundraiser was not quid pro quo for Slay's support of his plan.

"The mayor was committed to this long before the fundraiser," Schoemehl says. "The purpose of this was to send the message that I'm supportive of his efforts to revitalize the city. I think it was a successful event, and people expressed their gratitude to the mayor for the leadership he's providing the city."

Slay allies such as License Collector Gregg F.X. Daly are also making nice.

"You got a former mayor and a current mayor, and it's a great idea for them to come together," Daly says. "They share a wealth of knowledge and a vision for this city."

Proud members of Vinny's old court privately amplify this message, noting that although Slay still needs a big-ticket project to put on his résumé -- hell, at this point, he needs anything he can get -- the current mayor is still way ahead of the game simply because he isn't Clarence Harmon or Freeman Bosley Jr.

"There is sort of this comparative benefit that Francis is getting versus Harmon and Bosley -- the feeling that at least there's a serious effort afoot to do business in St. Louis," says a Vinny One-Game acolyte. "Francis needs one big score, but you got to remember that organizationally, City Hall just had its gloves down. You can't imagine how much catch-up he's had to do just on organization."

Other sharpies who aren't in Vinny's camp trot out a similar line, noting Frankie's tireless appearances at neighborhood meetings and other civic gatherings.

"People are seeing him," says one veteran of the aldermanic wars, "and that's significantly different from Harmon and Bosley."

And this from another veteran pol: "Is Slay a 100 percenter? No, but you know what? He is infinitely better than the last two guys."

To put it politely: Horseshit. This city is nearing the end of the second year of Frankie the Saint's administration, and the best argument that can be made on his behalf is the same one he campaigned on -- he's the Un-Harmon and the Anti-Bosley?

That and the fact that Frankie tirelessly shows up at every dog-christening and calf-birthing in town, including a recent ribbon-cutting on South Grand Boulevard for the new Kabob International restaurant, are not the keys to building a sterling record.

Frankie the Saint has yet to get untracked.

True, he's established a derelict-housing program, devoting cops and a special court to the ceaseless task of chasing down slumlords and forcing them to fix up their eyesores. But he hasn't tackled major issues such as taxes and schools. And when he has made an attempt -- most notably on crime, which he tried to pin the problem on lenient judges -- it's blown up in his face [Nesbitt, "Crime Story," July 24].

That's why Frankie's handlers are so nervous about Vinny One-Game. Love him or hate him, Schoemehl has track record to spare -- good, bad and flat-out awful. He also has enemies by the bucketful: You can't rack up three terms as the city's top cat without pissing off hundreds of people, including longtime ally Kim Tucci.

Against the backdrop of two failed mayors, though, and a current administration that's flailing, political folks have a certain rose-colored nostalgia for the days of ol' Ready, Fire, Aim! and tend to gloss over his more spectacular failures, such as the moribund St. Louis Centre.

"Former mayors are centers of attention, whether they like it or not," says the aldermanic veteran. "Vince's name gets brought up every time there's speculation about the political future."

A former alderman agrees: "It just hasn't been the same since Schoemehl was mayor. Say what you want, he got things done. He's the straw that stirs the drink."

But this same pol gives Francis credit for being willing to play ball with Vinny One-Game.

Truth is, the last thing this city needs is Schoemehl back in Room 200, and the last thing Vinny One-Game needs to do is roll the dice on one last hurrah. Deep down, Vinny knows this.

But the longer this city's political players think they're staring at another failed mayorship, the rosier that view of Schoemehl becomes. The temptation of a still-youthful Vinny, happy to be back in the political arena, also grows.

Despite his fundraiser and strong statement of support for Slay, there's nothing stopping Schoemehl from scratching that gambler's itch two years from now should Frankie continue to flounder, inviting a challenger or two for an election scheduled for the spring of 2005. The sharpies say Vinny could back Slay's play now and wait to see whether Frankie rights himself, then make a Kennedyesque decision to launch a last-second run in the fall of 2004.

"I don't think the idea is ever far from Vince's mind," says the former city official. "In that way, he's like Bill Clinton -- if Clinton could figure out another way to be president, he would. This fundraiser takes it out of play for right now, but what happens in the fall of 2004, which is an eternity in politics -- those chapters have hardly been written."

Although it's nice to get kind words and a small slug of money from Vinny, it can't make the boys in Room 200 anything but nervous that Schoemehl, a legendary fundraiser, is again dialing for political dollars. He may be dialing for you today, but he might be dialing for himself in a year or so.

All of this brings up the validity of Vinny's latest passion -- a TIF district for Grand Center -- and the lure he's tossing in front of Slay -- that this project could be the Big Win Frankie needs to lifesaver his administration.

The concept is a simple one. Take tax revenues from the district -- from payroll taxes to sales taxes -- and use them to leverage bond issues for projects. As those projects come into being and start generating their own tax revenues, use this new money to fund the next phase of projects. This is the preferred method of jump-starting development in Chicago, a city that has 100 TIF districts.

Schoemehl, who built his share of big-ticket projects that promised far more urban revitalization than they ever delivered, thinks the Chicago way gives St. Louis the best chance of creating sustained and concentrated development. It also overcomes the primary pitfall of the old reliance on big-ticket silver bullets -- the collapse of financial and political willpower that seems to inevitably follow one of these massive endeavors, wiping out the opportunity to capitalize on the success and momentum of a large project.

But the idea of tying up huge hunks of tax revenue on a single slice of the city is a scary one for the cash-strapped denizens of Room 200. There's also fear that Schoemehl has oversold the potential of his project by posting "aggressive numbers," as they say in the development game, on expected rental revenue for office and retail space that will be created in Grand Center and the size of the bond issues that can be created with all that dedicated tax money.

Wisely, perhaps, Frankie is hedging his bet on Vince's project. His minions, led by deputy mayor Barb Geisman, have trimmed back the scope of Schoemehl's project -- from $105 million in bonding capacity to $80 million. And they've X'ed out several tax-revenue engines from the proposed TIF district, including the Veterans Affairs hospital and the juvenile-detention center.

Schoemehl says he has no problem with City Hall's fine-toothed comb and bristles at the notion that his fundraiser is political payback for Slay's support.

"I don't think anybody thinks the city will make a decision of this magnitude based on someone holding a fundraiser for the mayor that raises a few thousand dollars," he says. "They've dealt with us in a professional way and run our numbers through the grinder."

Vinny One-Game says Frankie the Saint has plenty of time to build a list of accomplishments before the re-election campaign truly starts. The old pro points to his own first administration, when dinosaurs still ruled city politics. No one thought Union Station was going to be the success it turned out to be, people weren't giving Schoemehl credit for it and he was in the process of slicing and dicing the City Hall payroll from 11,000 employees to an eventual 4,700, pissing off a lot of people.

Of course, Vinny's allies are pointing to his TIF project as just the kind of big-ticket medicine needed by Frankie the Saint. Their old boss is only here to help, they say.

"If he needs a big win, this could be it," says one.

In other words, Vinny One-Game has put himself on Frankie the Saint's leash. Only time and the appearance of a track record will tell whether he stays there.