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If you thought Irene Smith was strange, you haven't been to City Hall lately

Questions of journalistic ethics sometimes can be momentous, but more often they present tedious dilemmas. Rarely is the decision whether to hand over your notes to the judge or risk jail; more often, it's whether to use a particularly tacky and meaningless quote uttered by a public official that makes him appear even more foolish than usual. And seldom do the questions get as surreal as this: Should a female photographer go into the women's restroom to get a shot of two alderwomen trying to reach a compromise on the redistricting map?

But that's where journalism was Friday morning in St. Louis City Hall, where word trickled out that Ald. Phyllis Young (D-7th) and Sharon Tyus (D-20th) had retreated to the restroom so they wouldn't be bothered by their male counterparts. At this time, Ald. Freeman Bosley Sr. (D-3rd) was already 30 minutes into a de facto filibuster over cable television. As Bosley rambled on, discussing Howdy Doody, the number of lines of resolution on a TV screen and how "cable TV is probably one of the greatest things to happen in the last 100 years," he played for time to see whether Young and Tyus could patch together a deal.

That the Post-Dispatch's Mark Schlinkmann and Laurie Skrivan were now parked outside a lavatory, discussing what to do next, seemed somehow fitting, given the scatological turn the redistricting fight had taken. Last week, Ald. Irene Smith (D-1st) requested a bathroom break during her filibuster against Young's redistricting bill; when she was turned down, Smith apparently relieved herself behind a curtain of sheets and redistricting maps held up by her supporters. It's the first time an aldermanic leak has resulted in national headlines, from Los Angeles to Orlando. On Friday, with potential news being made in a restroom, Schlinkmann, the reporter, and Skrivan, the photographer, wrestled with how much the public needed to know: Skrivan seemed good to go, but Schlinkmann wondered whether her entering would disrupt the negotiating process taking place next to the stalls. The Fourth Estate should remain a spectator, no?

The restroom, meant for alderwomen and support staff, was locked, but eventually somebody would have to enter or leave. So Schlinkmann, Skrivan and Short Cuts waited. And waited. Finally housekeeping showed up, and when the worker unlocked the door, Skrivan peeked in to discover ... that no one was in the inner sanctum. It had been a bum steer.

Before Bosley began his cable-TV soliloquy, activist Anthony Shahid, clad in a white sheet with a hole cut out for his head, walked between aldermen's desks. In case anyone missed the subtle symbolism, Shahid had written "KKK" and "The Mayor's Office" on the sheet. An agitated Ald. Thomas Bauer (D-24th) -- yes, yes, he's the alderman who has his own personal donkey -- demanded that Shahid be removed. At least he didn't ask that Shahid be ridden out of town on his ass. But Shahid, it turned out, was Tyus' "special guest," so he was allowed to stay, so long as he kept to his seat.

Shahid wasn't the only "special guest" allowed on the floor. The folding chairs on each side were filled and the electronic media had shown up as though City Hall were a crime scene and the aldermen were giving away free doughnuts. Instead of Krispy Kremes, Ald. Ken Jones (D-22nd) was passing out annotated copies of news articles, including a recent Short Cuts in which Tyus warned that Jones' ward might be moved because so many people had left [RFT, May 2]. On Jones' handout, next to the two paragraphs about his possible plight, were these printed words: "Truth Crushed to the Ground Shall Rise again -- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr."

Jones complained that Short Cuts made him look like a "buffoon" but that in this country, "you have a right to do that." In the Short Cuts Jones handed out, the alderman was described as being "known for his derby hats and rambling references to dialectical materialism during aldermanic speeches." This makes him a buffoon? Stylish, distinctive, insightful even, aware of the sociopolitical cosmos beyond City Hall, yes -- but buffoonish? No, no, no. Telling Short Cuts out in the hallway after Friday's meeting that "you liberal white boys are all alike; you think that a black man doesn't know when you're making fun of him" -- now that's being a buffoon, Kenny. Call Short Cuts whatever you want, man, but don't call it liberal. Yecchh.

Also falling into the buffoonery category is the whole redistricting clusterfuck. Any which way you hold this up to the light, it's terminally flawed. The map, which now has 18 co-sponsors and a nihil obstat from Mayor Francis Slay, attempts to rid the board of Tyus by moving her ward to South St. Louis. But even if that ploy succeeds, she will be an alderwoman until her term expires in 2003. By then, one rumor has it, Tyus' longtime friend and colleague Smith will be running for state representative and Tyus will run for alderwoman of the reconfigured 1st Ward, which will by then include the homes of both Smith and Tyus.

Either way, Slay and the rest of the board will be seeing Tyus in their dreams and in the daylight. She's not going away. Whether you like Tyus or hate the ground she walks on, the question is, what good thing has she prevented the board from doing? In British terms, she's a professional backbencher, almost always in the minority and usually providing little more than the loyal, sometimes obsessive, opposition. So shift someone else's ward, one that has lost more population -- which means virtually any North Side ward but the 2nd -- or try something new.

One outwardly sensible idea would be a map similar to the one offered by Ald. Gregory Carter (D-27th), which shifts every ward's boundaries to the south, following the population drift, but doesn't force any alderman to move. But it does disturb every alderman's constituency enough to prevent widespread support. Some wards would be 50 to 80 percent new. But isn't the idea of redistricting to shuffle the cards a bit and get a new deal? Or maybe it's about keeping the status quo and dealing out payback.

The board is in recess until Sept. 14. A special session could be convened before then, but because backers of the current map have enough votes, it's doubtful that they're anxious to bargain. Ald. Mike McMillan (D-19th) asks this rhetorical question: "If you have already gone in, co-sponsored this bill, cut a deal, arranged your community in a way you see fit, will you be willing to negotiate in a manner that will provide for Craig [Schmid] to remain where he is, with Sharon to remain where she is and the rest of us to be in some decent order?" He continues, "The mayor, the president [of the board] and the sponsor need to take some leadership. This has the capacity to rip this city apart. We don't need that."

If Slay did take on Tyus to show he has cojones, it may be that he's realized more than that is needed to be a useful mayor. During Friday's meeting, Young walked over and met with Slay in the mayor's office, but nothing was worked out. Tyus believes that's because Slay is "still mad" at her.

There's some talk that Slay will attempt to "blacken" some wards in the current map but still exile Tyus. A revised map could placate some of the opposition on the current plan without dropping the goal of targeting Tyus.

But for Sharon T., it's not over. Ever.

"I'm going to keep doing what I need to do," she says. "I tried to work it out; I almost had it with Phyllis. Francis wants me to disappear. That's the deal-breaker for me. I'm not going to disappear."

"The gang of 15 said, 'We got the most; the hell with you.'" Tyus says. "That's why it's going to the courts. They just want to win at all costs. They want to show they can punish me, and they can't. When this is all finished, I'll still be standing, and they'll be looking stupid."

She's at least half-right.

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