Push is coming to shove in a dispute over Aldermanic President Francis Slay's polling tactics in his bid for mayor

Sep 15, 1999 at 4:00 am
Sunday looks to be when Aldermanic President Francis Slay will announce his run for mayor, but the preliminary skirmishes have already begun, never mind that the election isn't until 2001. Early shots have been fired in a mix of places — mainly as "Berger Bits" and in the letters-to-the-editor section of the daily newspaper of record.

An Aug. 27 mention by the P-D's own oracle at Delphi, Jerry Berger, related that Slay was doing a telephone poll including a question asking the voter whether Harmon was "indecisive." Gee, how caustic is that? That's like saying the Rams' Dick Vermeil gets choked up too easily (e.g., in a world where people get hacked to death with machetes, Trent Green's tearing up his knee isn't a blip on the screen). Suggesting that Harmon is "indecisive" may not be kind, but it's not far-fetched.

In reaction to Berger and a short follow on the Berger mention by City Hall lifer Mark Schlinkman, St. Louis University Professor Ken Warren dashed off a letter that was published Sept 5. Warren is a for-hire pollster when he's not doing his political-science teaching gig at SLU.

Warren called Slay's poll, conducted by a Washington, D.C., firm, a "sleazy push poll" and said it was "disappointing" that someone running for mayor would start his campaign with one. Missing from Warren's letter was any statement that he assisted Harmon in his efforts to avoid allegations of "voter fraud" in the '97 election against incumbent Freeman Bosley Jr. and that he is widely held to be a supporter of Harmon. At the end of Warren's P-D letter is a mention that he's a professor at SLU and "head of a polling company." The question lingers: Will Warren be doing any work for Harmon in the upcoming election? Warren, out of town until next month, was unavailable for comment.

Frederick Yang, a partner in the Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group in Washington, D.C., which conducted the poll, was available, and he categorically denies that it was a "push poll." Generally, in a push poll large numbers of voters are asked two or three "has the candidate quit beating his wife?" questions. The questions are designed to cast a negative light on the target candidate.

"We never do, and did not do, a push poll," Yang says. "We asked a variety of questions about the mayor and about Slay. This was an attempt to gather information — it was not to impugn anybody; it was not to call people to tell them bad things about Clarence Harmon.

"It was testing the waters, doing a lot of different things — testing some stuff on Francis, obviously testing some stuff on the mayor. I'm sure (George) Bush's pollsters in 1980 tested "Is he a wimp?' But that doesn't mean they're calling him a wimp. They're just asking, do people think he's a wimp?"

Each call to 413 city voters lasted about 20 minutes and was designed to get information from people, Yang says. In Slay's poll, he gets 42 percent of the vote, Harmon has 40 percent and 18 percent are undecided.

Yang wrote his own letter to the editor in the P-D, stressing that he was "astonished" that Warren's letter to the editor wasn't put in the proper context, because on Sept. 3 the SLU prof/pollster was described by Berger as a Harmon "confidant." Also, there are dangers in reacting just to a "Berger Bit." "Warren never saw the poll. He was just reacting to what Jerry had written, characterizing the poll," Wang says. "You should see the questions first."

And if anyone doubts that the campaign season looms, Harmonious has sent out a fundraising letter. Like all incumbents, the mayor takes credit for anything mildly positive that's happened since he took office, though the letter went out too late to include responsibility for the Rams' first win of the season last Sunday. He's most proud that he's "worked non-stop to restore integrity to City Hall," which, translated, means that Clarence is not Freeman and his name has not been mentioned in any stories containing the phrases "Midnite Basketball" and "cell phones."

In the "P.S." is the ominous mention that "your check of $1,000 or more — by September 30th — will send a strong statement to any would-be opponents." Uh, Sept. 30 may be too late.