Sep 22, 1999 at 4:00 am
At last there's new hope for revitalization in the city of St. Louis.

I'm not referring to downtown or the neighborhoods. This is no cerebral essay on economic development or urban renewal. Look elsewhere for statistical analysis.

This city needs to revitalize its politics. It needs a City Hall filled with life and emotion, with animated characters saying scurrilous things about one another, overacting and demonstrating a flair for sound bites and headlines.

City government needs to be interesting again.

A significant step forward was taken this week with the announcement by Aldermanic President Francis G. Slay that he'll be seeking to unseat Mayor Clarence Harmon in 2001. After a news drought of many years, City Hall insiders, media cynics and the public at large will be able to view the actions of city government with eyebrows raised over unspoken agendas, hidden meanings and tricky politics in general.

This is good.

Whether you love Harmon, despise him or — most likely — are somewhat indifferent, it can't be denied that his two-and-a-half-year-old administration has been the political equivalent of a quilting show when it comes to local TV-news ratings. We're talking deep sleep here.

Now Slay, a soft-spoken coalition-builder who has heretofore avoided headlines as if they were STDs, is a most unlikely Energizer Bunny for City Hall. Jesse Ventura, he ain't.

But Slay's mere declaration as a candidate has spawned new hope that at least an occasional spark will be combusted at City Hall. For now, the mainstream press isn't overly interested, but I can assure you, after briefly interviewing the two combatants myself Tuesday, that harsh headlines are bound to follow.

Both men say all the expected things about running positive races and putting forth leadership agendas for city government, but it didn't take long for either to move into the hostile territory previously reserved for the likes of ex-Mayor Vince Schoemehl and ex-Comptroller Virvus Jones.

OK, things aren't that interesting yet, but this has potential. And when you consider that the past 30 months have hardly featured "Slay Slams Harmon as Worst Mayor Ever" or "Mayor Retorts: Up Yours, Francis," we ought to be grateful for baby steps toward conflict, in any case.

Here's a humble beginning, for your reading enjoyment.

"What I've found is that there doesn't seem to be any direction in city government under Mayor Harmon," Slay told me. "There seems to be a lack of leadership and a large degree of confusion with the development agencies and within the administration in general.

"This has had a detrimental effect on the city's ability to take advantage of a tremendous number of opportunities to revitalize the city, downtown and our neighborhoods."

Granted, these are Pat Buchanan-esque zingers, but coming from Slay, they're a pretty fair shot across the bow. And Harmon reacted in kind.

"Let me ask you this," Harmon said to me. "I've got 50 bucks that says you can't name anything he (Slay) has done, and that's after a long term in office. Any takers? I rest my case."

I, of course, was precluded by haughty journalistic ethics from participating in such a wager, but Slay apparently believes he could have picked up a quick Grant had the offer been made to him.

Slay rattled off his "leadership role" on a long list of matters, ranging from the airport to MetroLink and other transportation issues to job-training programs to legislation reforming how the city awards professional-services contracts. He also counts among his accomplishments, ironically enough, "sponsoring and shepherding through most of the significant bills that have come from this administration, and with little or no help from the mayor's office."

Meanwhile, Harmon — who proudly maintains the absence of excitement in city government is a result of "not having a scandal a week" — boasts a similarly endless list of the achievements for his administration. He says he's virtually rebuilt the infrastructure of city government, that "more homes have been built in the past two years than the previous six" and that he has personally sparked a revitalization of downtown, featuring new residential and hotel developments.

Harmon says his efforts are paying off.

"Just this weekend, I was at the Bevo Day celebration, and people kept coming up to me and saying what a good job I'm doing because their neighborhood is getting better," Harmon said. "Guess who was standing next to me (that would be Slay). I'm sure it didn't escape his notice."

Well, maybe not. But it didn't keep Slay from going on to his folks' house to announce his candidacy to unseat Harmon. And it didn't keep him from telling me this:

"This administration has shown so little leadership ability that it couldn't get a single bill passed through the Board of Aldermen without my support." He added, in response to Harmon's assertion that things are looking up in the city, that "while other cities have experienced a rebirth in this strong economy, our city continues to lose residents and businesses. We have not experienced that sort of rebirth."

Harmon says Slay is really speaking for "a lot of the City Hall-crony types who have asked him to run. They thought the keys to the kingdom were going to be given to them when I was elected because I was supposed to be some naive guy without political experience. Well, it didn't happen for them, and the insiders are miffed that I'm not throwing contracts at people and doing the kinds of things that have caused people to hold the city in such ill repute for so many years."

Hot stuff? Maybe not the sex-and-drugs-laced political programming we've come to expect at the federal level, but I'd say it's pretty interesting banter for a couple of guys who haven't exactly been known as Ali and Frazier.

"We're like two boys in the circle with guys egging us on to punch each other out," Harmon complains, promising — as Slay does — to campaign on his own record and not with negatives.

Fine. But let's hope they don't revert to that boring stuff.

A little excitement never hurt City Hall.