Perfect Attendance But No Presence

Slay shows up for work, but what gets done?

If mere media mentions were the measure of an effective mayor, Francis Slay's administration would be going like gangbusters. St. Francis is like lead dust in Herculaneum: He's all over the place -- in the Post-Dispatch, on TV news, appearing with Charles Jaco on KMOX-AM and even making time for a sit-down interview with the Suburban Journals.

The problem is that the mayor has been riffing on two high-risk, high-profile issues, leftovers from the previous administration: the Cardinals' lust for a new stadium and the demolition of the Century Building as part of the renovation of the Old Post Office area. Another matter that has given Slay major media face time is his handling of last week's jailbreak from the St. Louis Medium Security Institution.

Credit the ministers of information in the Slay bunker for turning five felons' flight from the Hall Street workhouse into an example of get-tough mayoral management. On Feb. 27, just four days after the breakout, Slay's handlers had Post-Dispatch editorial-page editor Christine Bertelson and P-D gossipmonger Jerry Berger kicking in chorus like the Rockettes, both saying how Slay was not about to put up with such shoddy work. That the Bergermeister's top item and the lead editorial on the same day said essentially the same thing had some City Hall observers fearful that PR wiz Richard Callow had gone beyond Bergering and begun conniving with Bertelson.

Oh, the horror.

Although some of the political cognoscenti worried about a dearth of graybeard wisdom when St. Francis picked former TV-news reporter Jeff Rainford as his chief of staff and kept Callow inside the tent, the picks have paid off, media-wise. The P-D editorial, which quoted Rainford, avoided placing blame anywhere near Slay for the jailbreak, heightening the sense of drama surrounding Slay's Friday announcement of suspensions and firings.

Slay's morphing of the workhouse crisis into an example of take-charge management doesn't carry over to the stadium and Old Post Office campaigns. Both those deals are tricky because they require significant legislative approval on the state level, Gov. Bob Holden is thus far an unproven commodity and Jefferson City falls outside the zone of control for Slay's spinmeister staff.

Another major problem with Slay's choices is that neither gives people any idea who Slay is or what plan he has for the city.

"If I look at the stadium and the Old Post Office, it's hard to find Slay's fingerprints on them," says one City Hall veteran. "Win or lose, that makes it problematic for him. Even if it's successful, he doesn't own it as much."

So far, St. Francis looks more like a water boy for the first team than he does a letterman. The Cardinals are behind the wheel of the drive for a new stadium, and attorney/developer Steve Stogel concocted the convoluted Old Post Office package that includes the Century Building demolition and the renovation of the Syndicate Trust Building.

By picking these two projects to champion, Slay has shown what he thinks he needs to do to prevent the one-term fate of his last two predecessors.

Former Mayor Clarence Harmon thought that to be a good mayor, all he had to do was not be former Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. Harmonious became known for indecisiveness and a weak work ethic but clung to the notion that avoiding the perception of scandal that plagued Bosley would be enough to survive.

It wasn't. Harmon got 5 percent of the vote last year in his re-election bid.

St. Francis must think that not being Harmonious -- by putting in long hours, appearing decisive and keeping his name in the media -- will somehow be enough.

Maybe. But probably not.

Slay has shown up for work, but it appears that his attendance doesn't translate into much of a presence. There's been little evidence of interest in the mundane matters that that eat up most of a big-city mayor's time, including campaign promises to revitalize blighted neighborhoods and the use of his office as a bully pulpit on public-school problems.

And, again, there's that "vision thing."

In fronting for the stadium, Slay has picked a position unpopular with most of his constituents. Knowing this, he has consistently opposed letting the public vote on the issue, spouting reasons that come across as elitist and politically tone-deaf. Slay's weak-kneed argument against a plebiscite is that the stadium issue is just too complex and overheated campaign rhetoric might mislead voters.

On the basis of that logic, St. Francis should do what has to be done to cancel the next mayoral election.

"That's an insult for everybody who voted for him," says a neighborhood activist. "I guess we weren't smart enough to make an informed decision on who should be mayor."

There appears to be little Slay's operatives won't do in support of the ballpark and its believe-it-or-not "village." When state Rep. Jim Murphy (D-Crestwood), got carried away -- as he often does -- and made a crack about how no one would feel safe going to a baseball game in East St. Louis, there was some low-level audience grumbling in the aldermanic hearing room.

The next day, the Rev. Earl Nance, a $40,000-a-year part-time employee of the mayor's office, held a news conference to charge that Murphy's comments were racist. Nance tells Short Cuts that he did this on his own but admits to calling Rainford that morning to inform him of the press conference. The idea that an opponent of a subsidized stadium would be broadsided by a leader of the African-American clergy apparently didn't seem like a bad idea to Slay's staff. Murphy showed up at that news conference, and a shouting match ensued between him and Nance, making both look daffy.

Having a functionary such as Nance malign a foe of public subsidies for the stadium shows just how far Slay will go to help the Cardinals fulfill their current ambitions. Calling Murphy a racist for making a lame comment shows that Slay doesn't mind taking the low road to get where he wants to go. The ballistic response to Murphy's rambling comments was more than overkill -- it was a diversionary act designed to help the subsidized stadium by skewering its opponents.

It didn't work.

Nance's part-time presence in the mayor's office also shows Slay's unwillingness to spend any political capital on tougher issues. Arguably the most difficult, intractable problem facing the mayor -- but one that is jurisdictionally out of his control -- is the state of the city's public schools.

To address this problem, Slay has not turned to visionaries or reformers -- he's hired two alumni of the status quo. Nance, a former school-board president and former head of the African-American St. Louis Metropolitan Clergy Coalition, is Slay's educational liaison. To research data on charter schools, the mayor hired Robbyn Stewart Wahby, another former school-board member and the wife of Brian Wahby, a former aide-de-camp to Treasurer Larry Williams and a committeeman from the 7th Ward, the old power base of the Lebanese political machine that once put Slay's grandfather in the alderman's chair.

Both appointments have more to do with politics than with education. Both spotlight Slay in a less-than-courageous glow, a contrast to the take-charge auras of other big-city mayors past and present, such as Ed Rendell of Philadelphia, Rudy Giuliani of New York City and Richard Daley in Chicago. Rendell took on the unions to win wage and work concessions; Giuliani and Daley directly addressed public-education problems.

In St. Louis, back-channel talk about the disciplinary action on the jailbreak centered on mayoral chief of staff Rainford's rumored desire to devalue or eliminate public-safety director Ed Bushmeyer as a rival because Bushmeyer was thought to be the favorite for the chief-of-staff post before Slay picked Rainford.

But back to the present. Big-ticket projects such as the Old Post Office and the ballpark with-or-without-a-village are consuming all of the new mayor's time and attention. In a city starved for development, there is still no director of the Community Development Agency. The head of the St. Louis Development Corp., Otis Williams, is filling the post on an interim basis. The beleaguered health department, which Rainford complained loudly about shortly after the election, appears to be off the radar screen.

And there's the sense that if the stadium proposal fizzles in Jefferson City and the Old Post Office scheme implodes as a result of its own complexity and weight, Slay doesn't have much waiting in the wings.

"What's behind these projects? What's next? Nothing that they've talked to the public about," says one politico, discussing the Slay administration. "The trouble with focusing on these two projects is that nothing is queuing up behind them."

If they fall through, what can be said about the first year under the new mayor? Maybe that Slay is a younger, more energetic version of Clarence Harmon. And that's not the image his handlers want played across the pages of the P-D or on nightly newscasts.

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