Hand-Me-Down District

After 32 years, Bill Clay is retiring from his congressional seat. He wants to leave it to his son, but a crowded, eccentric field of candidates is contesting the will.

Jul 19, 2000 at 4:00 am
Bill Haas is the candidate who won't go away. But all those political defeats in races for mayor and state representative haven't dulled his political insight or his wit. In the race for the 1st Congressional District, Haas says, if he had money for television spots -- which he doesn't -- one of his ads would show William "Lacy" Clay Jr. in a cowboy hat with the line "Lacy Clay: All hat and no cattle." His other ad would be a takeoff on U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen's shot during his vice-presidential debate with then-Sen. Dan Quayle. It would go something like this: "I know Lacy Clay. Lacy Clay is a friend of mine. And Lacy Clay is no Bill Clay."

Haas admits he's running for the seat Bill Clay held for 32 years partly to take votes away from opponents of Bill's son, Lacy, in the hope that when Haas runs for mayor for the third time, in March 2001, Clay backers will support him. Lacy Clay must wish the rest of his rivals for his father's office had such alternative, far-fetched motives.

Charlie Dooley, who in 1994 became the first African-American elected to the St. Louis County Council, poses the biggest threat to Lacy Clay's succession to the congressional seat held by his father. Dooley, who retired last year after working for McDonnell Douglas Corp. for 30 years, also served as mayor of Northwoods for 12 years. His base is the suburbs, where two-thirds of the 1st District's residents live and where County Executive Buzz Westfall supports him. According to the latest filings, Clay has raised $358,018 and Dooley has raised $243,728. Donations from political-action committees account for 42 percent of Clay's money; Dooley has a lot of contributions from construction and development interests.

Lacy Clay has held office for 17 years in the state Legislature, but this is the first time he's run for a truly contested seat. He was appointed in 1983 as the Democratic Party candidate to replace retiring state Rep. Nathaniel Rivers, and he was appointed in 1991 as the Democratic candidate for a state Senate seat after Bill Clay helped create a vacancy by finding a $100,000-a-year job for state Sen. John Bass working for a federal subcommittee.

The elder Clay, when he was elected in 1968, was one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Bill Clay was a trailblazer, a liberal ideologue always ready and willing to supply an acerbic retort to the latest Republican stance. In 1998, the American Civil Liberties Union gave Bill Clay a score of 95 percent on the basis of his voting record; on the American Conservative Union's scorecard, he got 5 percent.

Bill Clay had a great run, but the primary election on Aug. 8 will be the first electoral evidence of how far the acorn, Lacy Clay, may have fallen from the tree.

Dooley's campaign billboards are topped with this bit of news: "Congressman Bill Clay is retiring." Around the 1st District, there's evidence to the contrary. At bus-stop shelters, poster-size ads show a photo of the U.S. Capitol, with "CLAY" superimposed in large letters and "Democrat for Congress" below. The name "Lacy" is nowhere in sight; in the fine print, a "clayjrforcongress" Web site is mentioned, but that's it. Lawn signs and cardboard signs stapled on buildings go further, with the "Clay Jr. for Congress" line so small you have to hold the sign in your hand to read it.

Dooley insists he's not running against Bill Clay, but it's unclear how much of the populace knows that. Ken Warren, a St. Louis University political-science professor who worked with Bill Clay on an upcoming biography, believes not everyone is paying attention. "There's going to be a lot of people who are going to vote for Clay and not even know it's Clay Jr. That's how ignorant people are; they don't follow politics," says Warren. "It's sad but true: Americans don't follow politics very well."

That said, Warren doesn't see the political inheritance of an office as an uncommon event. "This is done all the time, whether it's a Symington in Missouri or a Kennedy in Massachusetts, a Brown in California or a Rockefeller -- it's done all the time," says Warren of incumbents who step down but keep their offices in the family. "George Wallace did it with his wife in Alabama."

In addition to 52-year-old Dooley, a colorful and high-profile -- though long-shot -- field includes attorney and activist Eric Vickers, 47; city school-board member Haas, 55; attorney Steven Bailey, 42; and Joe Mondrak, 51. Dooley, for one, doesn't want to talk about Bill Clay, for good or for ill.

"I'm not running against Bill Clay. I'm running for an open seat in the 1st Congressional District. People have to understand that Bill Clay is not going to be there. People need to wake up to that fact," says Dooley.

With an apparent lack of drastic differences on issues, Dooley is focusing on Clay's personal business dealings and indirectly questioning his judgment.

Foremost in this strategy is Clay's past business involvement with Dino Rodwell and Calvin Rodwell, two brothers who in June were indicted in Atlanta for Medicare fraud in a scheme that, federal authorities charge, bilked $626,000 from a Georgia nursing home. Dino Rodwell is the owner of ARG Associates Inc., which is based in Maryland and did business in Georgia. The Rodwell brothers also owned 80 percent of ARG Medical of Missouri Inc.; Lacy Clay owned the other 20 percent. Clay says he first met Calvin Rodwell about 20 years ago when Clay was an assistant doorkeeper in the House of Representatives and Rodwell was a page.

In a June 3 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Clay was quoted saying, "I have no relationship with that company in Georgia," referring to ARG Associates Inc. But the release of Clay's W-2 tax forms for 1995, 1996 and 1997 showed that he received $22,000 from ARG Associates during that three-year period. The federal indictments against Dino Rodwell, the owner, and Calvin Rodwell, a sales representative for the company, concern dealings over two years, 1994 and 1995. In '95, Clay's W-2 form shows, he received $1,000 from ARG Associates, though his campaign claims it was for work done in Missouri for ARG Medical of Missouri Inc. Clay says he was a sales representative for ARG Medical of Missouri, dealing with Missouri nursing homes.

State Rep. Rita Days (D-Bel-Nor), a Dooley backer, has asked the Missouri Ethics Commission to investigate Clay's failure to report his 20 percent ownership of ARG Medical of Missouri and his income from ARG Associates Inc. on personal financial- disclosure forms. Clay released his W-2 forms in response to Dooley's divulging his past seven federal tax returns.

Clay says he has no plans to reciprocate. "That was Dooley's prerogative to release his tax return. It's my prerogative not to," says Clay. "I release mine annually to the IRS. That's who deserves to get them, the IRS."

Despite the fact that his former business partners are under federal indictment, Clay seems puzzled that he's drawing flak on this issue. He has not been indicted, and he says he is not under investigation.

"My territory, under my agreement with ARG, was Missouri. I had no idea what the company's operations were in Georgia or anywhere else. My territory was solely Missouri. My board membership was not with ARG Inc., it was with ARG of Missouri. What's so difficult about figuring this thing out?" Clay asks. "I didn't know what they were doing. I don't know what those operations consisted of in Georgia or anywhere else, only in Missouri."

Dooley's camp doesn't see it that way. "For three years, he received income from the indicted company, but he claims it was for work done for the other company," says Dooley campaign manager Lee Brotherton. "If he had nothing to hide, he would disclose his tax returns for those years."

Another recent bump in the road for Clay was a July 3 letter from James O'Mara, who is both a St. Louis County Council member and business manager for Local 562 of the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union. O'Mara was a supporter of Lacy Clay's, but in the letter to Clay, he withdrew his support and urged other union members to do the same.

In his letter, O'Mara accused Clay of being only interested in the city's welfare and not concerned about the county. "I can no longer support your actions," O'Mara wrote. "Almost 2/3 of the 1st Congressional District is located in St. Louis County, and if you are elected I fear County residents would have no representation." O'Mara cited Clay's opposition to a proposed casino in Lemay -- which is located just outside the county's boundary with the city of St. Louis -- as one example of Clay's bias in favor of the city: "Had the county subscribed to that same philosophy, the city would not be the home of the Rams, would not have a new convention center, nor a football stadium. It was County Council members who endorsed the financial commitment that the county had to make in order for those projects to move forward."

Clay seems unfazed by O'Mara's criticism. To more than one audience since O'Mara's letter was sent out, Clay has made a point of saying he has had the city's interests at heart, then adding that once he's elected by county voters, he'll look out for them, too.

"His union sent us $5,000, his international, and he wrote the letter to request the money," Clay says of O'Mara's defection. He believes his former supporter's reaction has to do with Clay's appearance before the County Council the previous week to oppose changes in the county health clinics. Does he think O'Mara is miffed about that? "I couldn't care less," says Clay. "I got the money."

Warren sees it not as unethical or weird but as right and proper that the endorsements that were the father's should be visited upon the son. "Clay has been one of the unions' main go-to guys in the U.S. Congress for three decades," he says. "It's a matter of loyalty. They do owe something to Lacy, because Clay Sr. has been so loyal to labor. When he says, 'This is a favor I want: I want you to back my son' -- and they back off? The Pipefitters Union backs off? Give me a break. There's something wrong there."

Another anti-Lacy Clay letter making the rounds comes from Fran Brady, who was a state representative in North County's 73rd District for 18 years before moving to St. Charles. Brady claims Clay became angry and used profanities at a Jefferson City restaurant when Brady told Clay he was going to support Dooley. Brady wrote that "Sen. Clay informed me in a threatening tone that his campaign was going to 'register 50,000 voters' and that once he is elected to Congress 'there won't be any white elected officials left in the district.'" Clay has denied making that statement.

If Dooley poses a threat from a mainstream, suburban-based, Westfall-backed perspective, Vickers offers another alternative. Vickers, who received 5,523 votes when he came in third against Bill Clay in the 1994 congressional race, could pare away city voters who might otherwise vote for Lacy Clay. Longtime radio-talk-show host Richard "Onion" Horton has been a critic of Lacy Clay's on certain issues, particularly Clay's bill that precipitated the St. Louis school-desegregation settlement. But Horton says he wishes Vickers would drop out of the race.

"I love Eric, but it's time for Eric to get out of the race unless he wants to give the race to Charlie Dooley," says Horton. "All he can do is take votes away from Clay," Horton says. The outspoken radio host -- currently off the airwaves -- says he is diametrically opposed to Dooley because Dooley has the support of Westfall, the former county prosecutor whose office handled the 1983 murder case against Ellen Reasonover, who was exonerated last year. "Buzz Westfall put an innocent Ellen Reasonover in the penitentiary for 17 years. Westfall will be controlling Dooley, and black people in North St. Louis will be in worse shape than they've ever been in as far as a congressman is concerned."

Vickers was the high-profile leader of last July's Interstate 70 blockade, which resulted in a commitment by Gov. Mel Carnahan to more job training for minorities and better representation of minority contractors in state highway work. Just in the past few weeks, Vickers has led the less effective but media-hyped protest of the killing by police of a suspected drug dealer and his companion on the parking lot of a Jack in the Box on North Hanley Road. Clay did participate in the I-70 demonstration last year, though he was not arrested, as Vickers was; he says he had to leave in order to fulfill a commitment in Washington, D.C. Dooley says he supported the goals of the demonstration but claims they could have been achieved "in another way." Clay has supported the FBI investigation of the Jack in the Box killings and attended early protests but was not involved in last Wednesday's demonstration. Clay says he hasn't been pushed in one direction as a result of Vickers' activities.

"I don't have to change that tune for any particular individual or at any particular time," says Clay. "People of the district that I have represented have certainly felt confident about how I represented them and have taken on these issues of social justice, of economic justice."

Just after a 4th Ward meeting at 4106 St. Louis Ave., city Treasurer Larry Williams stands inside a tent, talking about the way things used to be. The tent, pitched in the back parking lot, covers most of the more than 100 folks in attendance as they head for the barbecued bratwurst and coolers full of Vess soda and Miller and Stag beer. They have turned out to hear talks by their alderman, Miguel Mitchell, state Reps. Louis Ford and Amber Boykins, Williams and Lacy Clay.

Williams, who this year is running unopposed, says he has turned out just "to thank people" for their previous support. The gathering has Williams recalling the good old days when city ward meetings were crowded and ward organizations could get out the vote. Implied in his reminiscence is that, despite this example, times have changed.

Lacy Clay admits this, and as he runs for Congress to replace his father, he knows the dynamics that put Bill Clay in Congress and kept him there for three decades are no longer the rule of the day. When Bill Clay was elected in 1968, the 1st District was entirely in the city. For the Aug. 8 Democratic primary, two-thirds of the voters will be county residents, some of the same people who previously supported Dooley for County Council. Racially, the split of blacks and whites is about even.

Even after the drift to the suburbs accelerated, Bill Clay kept winning because he won so big in the city. Even with the city only consisting of a third of the vote, Bill Clay's winning 80 percent or more of the vote there allowed him to get as little as 40 percent of the vote elsewhere and still win.

So as Lacy Clay addresses the city faithful in the 4th Ward, he invokes his father's legacy. "For 32 years, your congressman has been Congressman Clay. I certainly hold him up as my hero. He is the one I look to; he is the one who has taught me what I need to know in this business." Then, as Clay talks about the renovation of the long-closed Homer G. Phillips Hospital into apartments for seniors, he quotes another old-school liberal, former Sen. and Vice President Hubert Humphrey: "Humphrey said, 'The test of a skilled politician is the one who provides for those of us in the dawn of our lives, the children, and those in the dusk of their lives, the seniors.'"

When it comes to defining a skilled politician, even his enemies give Bill Clay that appellation. After the 1990 census, he swapped some Republican turf in the 1st District for Democratic turf in the 2nd District. The swap, made possible by the seniority and clout of Clay and U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-3rd), ensured Clay would keep his seat as much as it jeopardized the re-election of Democrat incumbent Joan Kelly Horn in the 2nd District. Horn lost to Jim Talent (R-Chesterfield) in 1992.

So it's fitting that as Bill Clay retires, he's providing for his son, who, as a result of term limits, cannot run again for the state Legislature. Something had to give. And even if Lacy Clay succeeds his father, Missouri has lost a congressman every 20 years since 1940. After the census of 2000, redistricting could have Gephardt and whoever holds the 1st District seat scrambling for Democratic voters. And as a first-term congressman, whoever wins the 1st District race probably won't have much to say about what happens.