The Rainmaker

Public-relations pro Jeff Rainford helped end a 27-year drought in the St. Louis school- desegregation case, but he's still bothered by the bucket of cold water Mayor Clarence Harmon threw on the victory celebration

Feb 10, 1999 at 4:00 am
When the sales-tax increase to fund the school-desegregation settlement passed last week, Jeff Rainford was feeling pretty good about himself and, for a change, the city. It didn't last.

"Tuesday night at the election, you had African-Americans, whites, stuffed-shirt lawyers, ministers, politicians, parents, county people, city people. Everybody was together," says Rainford. "I was thinking, 'This city might really be ready.' And the schools said, 'We really want you to help us.'

"For the first time, I was somewhat optimistic that we might look back on that election as a day that things really changed. Then boom, the next day -- typical St. Louis," says Rainford, referring to the Page 1 and 10 o'clock news treatment of Mayor Clarence Harmon's comments about the campaign's racial targeting. "I was disappointed -- not so much personally as I was disappointed that we had created this momentum and I had hoped we could then take the energy that was focused on the election and focus it on the schools."

Rainford had been, for lack of an official title, the campaign manager for the push to pass the two-thirds-cent sales-tax increase on Feb. 2. The tax hike was necessary to help fund the agreement among the parties in the desegregation case, and early on there were serious doubts a tax increase would pass, given the deseg case's volatile 27-year history. The parties finally agreed on Jan. 9 to a settlement in principle, leaving less than four weeks for Rainford and others to convince skeptical city voters that a new tax would be spent wisely to improve city schools.

Thanks to an election with nothing else on the ballot, an effective campaign with broad-based political support, and about $500,000 from Civic Progress and others, the sales tax passed with a 63 percent majority. That led to much interracial hugging, congratulating and back-slapping on election night.

What happened the next day wasn't so positive.
Harmon held a press briefing in his office Wednesday morning, where he used adjectives like "sleazy" and "scurrilous" to describe Rainford's work. Turns out 14 different bro-chures or fliers were mailed to different ZIP codes and, alas, they were not all identical. Some were suited to particular audiences, and sometimes those audiences had a dominant racial component. That is, the photos of the politicians on one of the brochures sent to mostly African-American North St. Louis depicted four African-Americans: St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Cleveland Hammonds, U.S. Rep. William Clay, state Sen. Lacy Clay and -- this may be part of the problem -- former Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr.

The one that went to South St. Louis had two Caucasian politicians: U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt and aldermanic President Francis Slay. It also had an African-American officeholder, Mayor Harmon.

Harmon was clearly upset about his exclusion from the North Side brochure -- and may have been miffed that his former mayoral opponent Bosley was included. Harmon alluded to different wording on different brochures and said that the campaign was pandering to one audience over another. He said that in his 1997 campaign against the city's first African-American mayor -- a race that was sometimes bitter -- he had tried to exclude "racism" and "the other -isms" from his campaign.

Rainford doesn't buy the criticism. He was merely going with spokesmen who would help the cause. In the '97 election, Bosley got 89.7 percent of the vote in 11 North Side wards. Harmon received 88.7 percent of the vote in 12 South Side wards. Harmon won the election with 56.3 percent of the vote, compared with Bosley's 42.9 percent.

So, on the basis of those numbers, the use of photos seems justified.
"The fact is that the mayor is just coming off a very racially divisive race," says Rainford. "I'm not saying it was his fault, but it was a racially divisive race two years ago. I didn't contribute to that and I know maybe he didn't either, but that's just the way it was.

"The challenge for Mayor Harmon is that there are still hard feelings from the campaign against Bosley two years ago in the African-American community," Rainford says. "He is still viewed by some voters -- this is all perception -- he is seen as a polarizing figure among some voters in the African-American community. Sen. Clay is not."

Conversely, Harmon remains popular in South St. Louis, so using his photo there made sense. As for other charges that emphasis was put on different parts of the settlement agreement depending on where the direct-mail piece was addressed, Rainford is unapologetic. With less than four weeks to pull off a victory in a single-issue election in the middle of winter, the campaign focused on yes votes and tried to solidify those voters' resolve. About 40,000 households, many of them inhabited by parents of public-school students, were targeted.

This wasn't the same, Rainford contends, as political candidates' designing different literature for different audiences, a tactic that former Mayor Vince Schoemehl was criticized for when he ran for governor in 1992 ("The Two Faces of Vince Schoemehl," RFT, May 13, 1992).

"If it's a person running, you are who you are -- you're not everything to everybody; you stand for certain values," says Rainford. "This was not a person on the ballot. This was a settlement. It was a compromise. There was something in it for everybody. African-American parents who send their kids to the county schools like it because it preserves that program. Parents who have kids in the magnet schools like it because it preserves that program. Parents in regular school may not like it a lot, but they were willing to support it because it will keep schools from collapsing."

On the South Side, the settlement's selling points were that it removed the courts from the schools and seems to be the end of mandatory busing, which currently affects very few -- an estimated 100 or so -- of the district's 45,000 students. On the North Side, the continuation of the choice African-American students have to attend suburban schools is a plus. Brochures mailed to those areas reflected those concerns.

"Different people in the community like different parts of the settlement. That is a fundamental given," says Rainford. "There is only one common element, the magnet schools."

Considering that the tax passed in every one of the city's 28 wards, it's clear that the majority who supported the tax, and the minority who opposed it, crossed racial lines. Not all of the direct-mail materials varied by ZIP code; some were mailed citywide. Most media coverage didn't stay within rigid boundaries. "If we were trying to divide the city the way the mayor thinks we did, why would we have the African-American Clergy Coalition do a news conference and invite the South Side Journal and Channel 5 and KMOX, which last time I looked were beamed into South St. Louis?" says Rainford. "If we were trying to do that, why would we try to beg and plead the Black Leadership Roundtable to hold a news conference?

Why would we ask Lacy Clay to be our campaign chairman? Wouldn't we have tried to hide those things and only offer it to the St. Louis American, if what he is saying is true?"

And even when the content of an advertisement is catered to the audience, it doesn't necessarily qualify as scurrilous or sleazy.

"What I'd be curious about is if the mayor is going to condemn Southwestern Bell because its ad in the St. Louis American has an African-American in it and its ad in the South Side Journal has a white guy in it," Rainford says. "I guess he ought to call up the president of Southwestern Bell and condemn them."

Rainford was not alone in this campaign; he was aided by a list of usual suspects when it comes to political public relations. In addition to out-of-town pollsters, Rainford worked with Joyce Aboussie, Richard Callow, Missy Slay and, for the GOTV (get-out-the-vote) effort, Tim Persons and Mike McMillan. In the beginning, passage of the tax seemed like a long shot, Rainford says. "Everyone thought it was a loser, telling me, 'You're going to crash and burn; you're going to get in the middle of 27 years of racial politics; it's going to lose and the whole thing is going to come tumbling down on you.'"

A poll last fall showed the tax had 44 percent in favor, 41 percent opposed. But only 19 percent felt strongly yes and 39 percent strongly no. Rainford called the proposal a "dead-dog loser" because if citizens are "ambivalent or undecided," they often either don't vote or vote no.

On top of that, the mayor was coming down not-so-firmly on both sides of the issue. He said the schools needed to be improved but wouldn't commit to an endorsement until he was assured of "accountability." When the terms of the settlement began to be leaked, Harmon made noises indicating that he wouldn't back it, but some cajoling by Civic Progress types brought him back into the fold. But Rainford was clear that part of the reason other politicians were used for the taped endorsement was that they were more cooperative than Harmon.

"It may have been he had turned us down for a couple of other events and we were under a very tight time frame," says Rainford. "There were a lot of people who were heavily involved in this campaign who not only said they would endorse it but worked hard. When you have three-and-a-half weeks to do four-and-a-half months' work, you need people who you don't have to chase down and are willing to take time out of their busy schedules to drive down and do things."But for a brief interlude on election night, before the postmortem coverage, the city seemed to be a better place.

"Then to have this happen, not only did it slow down the momentum, it just stopped it," says Rainford. "Instead of concentrating on what mechanism to get the Clergy Coalition and Civic Progress and the elected officials and whoever to get them involved. Instead we're debating whether or not Clarence Harmon is right or wrong.