Price of Thugdom

Hardball tactics sully the robes of St. Francis and drown out his message

Mar 27, 2002 at 4:00 am
Rude behavior always has its price.

Just ask rookie Mayor Francis Slay about the mighty butcher's bill his death squad is accumulating for all that wet work against opponents of his pet projects and rivals of his political allies.

Torn and blood-streaked, this is the check everybody in the mayor's office wants to walk.

Tough to do, though. Damn thing keeps whipping around the stately suites of Room 200, riding the furious backdraft generated by supporters of the latest victim of Slay's button-folk -- downtown developer Craig Heller, otherwise known as Loftboy, the foolish grandstander who dared float a rival to Hizzoner's anointed plan for the Old Post Office block.

Even the marginally guilty might get face-whapped by this gory debit.

For his show-dog trouble, Loftboy got a blast of buckshot mouthwash from Callow, Rainford & Co., mayoral specialists in the darker political arts.

Just for making Hizzoner look bad to all those state legislators who hate funneling millions of tax dollars into any St. Louis project during these draconian budgetary times, be it a new stadium for the Cardinals or a mausoleum in the middle of one of the worst stretches of abandoned office space in a city brimming with same.

Had to be done, say the wiseguys of city politics. Never mind that Loftboy's plan had the fiscal sturdiness of an Enron clone. And forget that his pitch to save the Century Building was a self-serving valentine to the downtown believers of Metropolis and collapsed of its own weight.

Loftboy pissed off St. Francis and had to go down. With prejudice. No matter the appearance of extreme overkill. No matter the long-term cost to the political fortunes of Slay the Self-Sainted.

"It's costing him goodwill; it's costing him votes," said Margie Newman, a documentary producer who is part of the gaggle of hardcore downtown activists known as the 10th Street Loft Taliban. "There's a shock and outrage among young people who thought they'd have a voice in City Hall."

Grim lesson for the kiddies.

The mayor they supported so passionately wants them to sit the hell down and shut up. The politician they thought was their friend turns out to be another shill for the big-money boys. The man they thought would give them an ear refuses to give them anything but the dead look of a made-up mind -- and started doing so long before the Loftboy contract.

Hizzoner also confuses autocratic pettiness for balls of brass. Put a whack on your enemies, the enemies of your allies, anybody else who gets out of line. It's what a big-city mayor does. Richie Daley, Mean Rudy Giuliani, Fast Eddie Rendell, guys like that? Never saw them break a sweat over a bit of necessary nastiness.

But it's a sorry-ass sham to invoke the names of these municipal Hall of Famers in defense of a mayor who confuses getting elected with getting canonized. Those guys know that blood, iron and brass knuckles have to serve a higher purpose.

And when heavy hitters such as Daley put the bee on a political dead man, they want people to know the trigger got pulled by the Man himself -- not a second banana who fancies himself the mayor behind the mayor or a rogue operator who prays he'll someday be the Cardinal Richelieu of City Hall politics.

Not so with St. Francis. His boys do a whack, then deny it -- as chief of staff Jeff Rainford did to Speedloader the Monday after the Heller hit. Never happened. No permits were pulled, no paperwork buried, no bankers called; nobody was forced to eat a shovelful of crow.

It is a denial with zilch credibility.

A flatliner.

Dead before uttered.

Partly because sources tell a far grislier tale [Elizabeth Vega, "Wrecking Crew," March 20], but mostly because Slay and his crew have shown a zest for gutter-hugging politics since taking office [D.J. Wilson, "Perfect Attendance but No Presence," March 6].

It's abundantly clear Slay wants all of the credit for being a tough guy but none of the mess. Tough having it both ways. Hard to keep looking heavenward when your feet keep sliding through all those viscera and the brain splatter. And those stains of gore flat-out ruin the satin sheen of saintly raiment.

As a result, Slay gets all of the blame and outrage for the thuggery done in his name and none of the credit that builds both the track record of decisive action and the image of toughness he clearly covets.

And clearly needs if he is ever to win a second term.

Worse still, Slay gets no props for the weighty rationale behind his actions. Consider this baseball burst from Crash Rainford, who wears this moniker for reasons beyond his lack of snowstorm driving skills:

"It may not be the last chance, but it may be the last, best chance for this city.... Can you build a downtown around baseball? No. But are they an anchor tenant of downtown? Yes.... Are they a moneymaker for the city? Big-time. And we've got to keep them."

Quite a ring to those words. Passion fueled by desperation. Sounds almost Churchillian -- like something a truly gutsy politician can use to really rally a beleaguered city instead of the cheap gunsel tricks that currently tangle him up.

Want to be a real stand-up guy, mayor?

Trust the people and put the Cardinals' new ballyard up for a vote. Sell it on your conviction that it's a do-or-die issue for St. Louis. Ditch all that Ballpark Village crap and its empty promise of urban renewal.

Show some independence from the Money Power that has you slavishly yapping about the virtues of tired white-elephant formulas and talk to the 10th Street Loft Taliban and other New Urbanism acolytes. Live up to your promises and take the loftanistas seriously.

And leave the thugball to Rudy, Richie, Eddie and them.

They play it better.