Freedom on a String

Nance says City Hall didn't influence the Clergy Coalition's delay on home rule

May 1, 2002 at 4:00 am
When a man such as the Reverend Earl Nance Jr. wears two hats of the political persuasion, folks always wonder whether actions taken while wearing one are the product of obligations incurred while wearing the other.

Case in point: Nance's back-to-back decisions to delay the St. Louis Metropolitan Clergy Coalition's consideration of the St. Louis home-rule initiative that will be on the ballot statewide in November.

On consecutive Thursdays -- at a May 18 executive-committee meeting and a May 25 general meeting -- Nance, wearing the presidential fedora of the influential African-American clergy group, stiff-armed requests by the Reverend B.T. Rice, a home-rule supporter, to hear a formal presentation by Citizens for Home Rule head George "Bert" Walker III and former Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. and start mulling over a potential endorsement of the measure.

Nance says he got the group to table the issue until sometime after their summer hiatus, which ends in September. That's plenty of time, he says, to decide whether to endorse the measure and spend considerable pulpit time selling it to vote-conscious church members before the election.

But only if Nance doesn't play more stall ball in the fall.

Consider the following quote and see whether this sounds like a man ready to run-and-gun for home rule when election season heats up:

"We'll look at it in September.... The Clergy Coalition will make its own determination. And we'll make that decision as a group, if we decide to even make a decision as a group. We may decide not to endorse it as a group. Individual ministers may decide. It's issue oriented, it's not candidate driven. We look forward to the discussion and we look forward to putting our input in."

Allrighty, then -- a rock-solid waffle. Time to admire Nance's other piece of headgear, the $40,000-a-year chapeau he wears as Mayor Francis Slay's part-time liaison to the St. Louis Board of Education, where Nance once served as school-board president.

Nance won this pricey homburg by backing Slay in the 2001 election, earning him enduring enmity from the camps of the other two candidates in the contest -- then-Mayor Clarence Harmon and the man Harmon beat in 1997, the Boz.

This is the hatband that pinches Nance most. It's the one that makes it so easy to see him as a puppet on a string that runs straight out of Room 200, the one that makes him protest loudly and way too much about his independence from Frankie the Saint and the mayor's chief of staff, Jeff Rainford.

The good pastor and part-time mayoral aide says he didn't have a conversation with Slay about delaying consideration of a home-rule measure the mayor publicly supports. Nor did he do a gut check with Rainford, the loosest cannon this side of Alderwoman Sharon Tyus (D-20th).

"I don't have to get my marching orders from [Rainford] on Clergy Coalition matters," Nance says.

There's ample reason to doubt this bleat.

It was Nance who held a midwinter press conference to call state Representative Jim Murphy (D-Crestwood) a racist for this boneheaded crack while speaking at an aldermanic meeting -- that going to a baseball game in East St. Louis was no one's idea of a safe family outing [D.J. Wilson, "Perfect Attendance but No Presence," March 6].

Murphy, who showed up at this gig and engaged in a heated throwdown with Nance that made him look like a seriously unhinged redneck, is one of the biggest legislative opponents to giving the Cardinals a bargeful of state money to build a new downtown stadium. And that makes him the natural political enemy of Frankie the Saint, who has staked his shaky mayoral reputation on giving the Cardinals all the state money they could possibly want.

Although Nance sharply denies it, the notion that he played the race card at the behest of the Slay camp may be the surest political double play this side of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance. Or publicist Richard Callow-to-Rainford-to-Nance, who does admit to giving Slay's chief aide a heads-up the morning of the Murphy press conference.

Clearly this incident still stings Nance, who bristles at any suggestion of being Slay's puppet. "I didn't need to get any clearance to call a press conference on Jim Murphy," Nance says. "That was a Clergy Coalition matter. Period."

You make the call.

The focus of Nance's latest activity is a dry-as-boxed-oatmeal "reform" measure called home rule. If approved in a statewide vote, this would give St. Louis voters the right to change the structure of an unwieldy city government that features 28 aldermen and eight "county" offices that are elective posts with their own payrolls and potential for patronage.

Because the aim of Citizens for Home Rule luminaries such as Bosley and fellow former mayors Vince Schoemehl and Jim Conway is to trim back some of those elective offices, make them mayoral appointees and give the mayor of St. Louis more power, you might think this is something Slay would wholeheartedly endorse.

But it isn't that simple. All but two of the "county" officeholders are white South Siders, dwelling west of Kingshighway and south of Chippewa. Three of them -- Recorder of Deeds Sharon Quigley Carpenter, License Collector Gregory F.X. Daly and Collector of Revenue Ronald A. Leggett have tight ties to Slay.

Carpenter is Committeewoman-for-Life in the 23rd Ward, which Slay used to represent as alderman. Daly, who brandishes the "Francis Xavier" initials like rosary beads and is seen as the sharpest dresser in City Hall, was Slay's assistant when the mayor was president of the aldermanic board.

They're not going to quietly give up power.

"It's awfully presumptuous to say, 'Let's cut this out,' with no discussion whatsoever," the F.X. says. "I certainly hope the mayor will hear the cries of the county officers as well as the other coalitions in the city."

Aldermen such as Craig Schmid (D-10th) are also skeptical: "This has nothing to do with the police department; it has nothing to do with the board of education; it has nothing to do with all the pressing problems this city has, so I can't really see the reason for putting this much energy into it. As it stands now, I don't see any reason to vote for it."

Rank self-interest of the colorblind kind also adds to the home-rule hostility.

"You have white and black political leaders who like things the way they are," says one insider who supports home rule. "They like a city stuck in the mud because a city on the move makes them more accountable and means they have to step up."

Nance, who has publicly supported home rule in the past, is caught up in similarly nasty cross-currents.

Although prominent black leaders such as Bosley and Rice are staunchly in favor of the home-rule initiative, other black political players see the measure as a Republican power grab -- Walker is related to President George W. Bush. Home rule is also seen as a plot by whites to take away a slew of political offices and patronage slots just as blacks are on the verge of gaining enough ballot-box clout to snatch all those county offices away from the white South Siders.

All the more reason to see Nance and Slay joined at the hip on home rule, each responding to pressure from his constituency, both moving in the same cautious direction.

Do they talk about this thing they share? You bet, says the Boz: "I am sure the two of them have probably discussed the issue, and I would hope Mayor Slay has encouraged Reverend Nance to support it as he supports it."

Call it a hat trick.