Money Walks

Did a state representative yank the purse strings in an effort to frighten off a would-be challenger to one of his closest allies?

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Debates on state appropriations by the Missouri General Assembly are often used by lawmakers as rhetorical stomping grounds -- great for repaying favors, garnering support and legislating idealism through the backdoor. They're also great for sending messages, even though at times the messages are mixed.

For example, in last week's debate on appropriations in the House, Rep. Louis Ford (D-St. Louis) asked that $1 million be transferred from one part of the University of Missouri's budget to another. The switch, approved on a voice vote, moved the money from the university's fund for campuses and operations to the Ellis Fischel Cancer Center, operated by the university in Columbia.

Ford says he offered the amendment in the name of a former Kansas City state representative who died of cancer last March. "I just took a little money off the top of their budget and sent it over to the cancer-research hospital in the name of Fletcher Daniels," Ford says. "I just thought the university was a little top-heavy in staff, and I just thought it would help the hospital a little, that's all."

That's not quite all. The "top-heavy" staff referred to by Ford happens to include Betty Van Uum, an assistant to the chancellor of the university's St. Louis campus. Van Uum is considering a run for Congress against one of Ford's closest allies, state Sen. William "Lacy" Clay (D-St. Louis). The 1st District seat is currently held by Clay's father, William Clay.

Ford acknowledges that his moving the $1 million might be perceived as sending a message to the university -- and to Van Uum -- that he would rather she not run for Congress against his colleague. And that's just fine with him.

Van Uum, a key player in women's political circles in the state, was the first woman elected to the St. Louis County Council, in 1974. Despite her experience -- or maybe because of it -- she declines to publicly analyze Ford's amendment or his motivation. She does note that the Legislature can't specifically target the salaries of individual employees of the university. The University of Missouri is considered a "constitutional entity," which means lawmakers approve an entire budget, which then goes to the Board of Curators, who distribute it as they see fit. If, for example, the curators continue to pay Van Uum's $114,802 annual salary, the money taken out by Ford would be removed from someplace else in the university's budget.

As for Ford's amendment and whether she thinks it was meant to scare her out of the race, Van Uum has little to say. "I haven't decided to run," she says. "People are talking to me, but I haven't made any decisions at all." The filing deadline is next Tuesday.

This year will be the first time in 32 years that the heavily Democratic 1st District is open to new representation. The elder Clay first took the seat in 1968 and has been reelected by huge margins ever since, garnering 75 percent of the vote in '98. Slightly more than half of the 568,472 people who live in the district are African-American, and at least two-thirds of the registered voters are Democrats.

Lacy Clay, who entered the state House in 1984 and moved to the state Senate in 1991, announced his candidacy for his father's chair late last year. As a state senator, Clay has always been considered an advocate for women's issues, particularly the right to abortion. But Van Uum is just one of several white women whose names have been tossed around as potential rivals to Clay. At one time, Joan Kelly Horn, former U.S. representative for the 2nd District, and state Rep. Joan Bray (D-University City) also considered running for the seat.

Clay is supportive of Ford's amendment. "I think the action taken by Rep. Ford was very noble," Clay says. "He did it in memory of a colleague who was very near and dear to me. It's a good cause that the Legislature should support."

Asked whether Ford's amendment was made to send a message to Van Uum or anyone else thinking of running against him, Clay says, "No, not at all. I have no idea what his (Ford's) motivation was. I would never discourage anyone from seeking public office."

The money was taken out of a $403 million budgeted by the House for the university's various campuses, including UM-St. Louis, and boosted the cancer-research center's budget to $6.5 million. The bill is expected to go to the Senate when the Legislature returns from spring break next week. Senate appropriations chair Wayne Goode (D-Normandy) says that whether the money is returned to its original funding slot will be left up to the entire Senate.

"I don't know why he (Ford) did it," Goode says. "When I first heard about it, I thought perhaps it was requested by the hospital. But apparently, after checking on it, that was not the case. It was something that was apparently done for some other reason."

Goode, by the way, supports another Clay opponent, St. Louis County Councilman Charles Dooley, an African-American, a Democrat and Clay's most serious challenger.

As of March 20, the Missouri secretary of state lists the following people as running in the Democratic primary: Joe Mondrak of St. Louis, Steven G. Bailey of Clayton and Francene LeMondes of St. Louis. Two other candidates who have filed are Richmond A. Soluade of Florissant, a Republican; and Robert Penningroth of Spanish Lake, of the Reform Party.

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