Jeff Rainford, St. Louis’ longest-serving chief of staff who has defended and helped shape St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay’s agenda for nearly 15 years, is leaving City Hall.
“It really comes down to this: I’m 55. I’ve got time for one more career, and I decided I wanted to have one more career,” Rainford told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Monday. “I have loved this job. It has been an honor and a privilege to serve Mayor Slay and the people of St. Louis. The job is exhilarating, but it’s also been frustrating and demanding at times. When I finally retire, and I’m not retiring, but when I finally retire I’ll probably look back at this as the best job I ever had.”
Rainford’s last day will be Feb. 6. His exit makes way for Mary Ellen Ponder, the city’s first female chief of staff. Rainford will return to Rainford and Associates, a company he created before joining Slay’s campaign efforts. “I’ll do strategic communications, public policy. I’ll help people solve their problems,” Rainford said. “Really, largely what I’ve been doing for Mayor Slay.”
Before venturing into politics and government, Rainford was a news reporter, working at KMOX and KMOV (Channel 4) in the 1980s and ’90s.
“Back in college, I thought I wanted to be a sports reporter. As a sports reporter, I really felt like a passive player. I decided to quit sports and go into news,” he said. “News is much more dynamic. You really go out and you find evidence of wrongdoing, and in essence you can right wrongs. You can make a real difference. But I still, even there, felt more like a passive player, where I was watching the action but I wasn’t part of the action.”
That’s where joining Slay’s staff appealed to him, Rainford said.
“I really felt like I was part of the action, that I was driving the agenda, was actively, every day, trying to make things better,” he said. “It really just suited me better.”
Rainford said his media background helped him in government. He said it taught him to listen, to dig for answers and to be accountable.
“Every day we just assumed that anything we are doing, anything we are saying to each other or planning would end up on the front page of the paper, and therefore we never went to bed at night wondering ‘OK, is somebody going to uncover some nonsense that we’re doing?’ ” he said of his time in Slay’s administration. “(The press) does make government better, and it makes elected officials more accountable.”
A lot has changed in St. Louis’ media landscape since Rainford was on-air. There are fewer local media outlets, more accessible national options and, of course, social media.
“I think that nationally you still have some very, very strong coverage of politics, driven a lot by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, that sort of thing,” he said. “Locally, it’s not what it used to be at all because there’s just less money in media. When I first came into the business, you had two newspapers that competed very hard against each other, and all three of the major local affiliates of the networks had one or two reporters who competed very hard to break stories. Competition was amazing.”
Now, “it’s very difficult for news with things going out on Twitter and Facebook and social media,” Rainford said. “There’s just not much money in it, and therefore the quality of the reporters — the amount that they can pay — is not what it used to be; therefore the quality of the reporting is not what it used to be. I think it suffers a lot. If an important story does not get the attention of the relatively small number of really high-quality local reporters, or it gets the attention of a high-quality national reporter, there are many stories that go untold. I do think that hurts. In the case of St. Louis, that hurts our region.”
Crossing over from bylines on stories to being quoted in stories, Rainford said he was surprised that there wasn’t more wrongdoing.
“There’s a lot less day-to-day corruption than I would have imagined, and maybe than people imagine,” he said.
As chief of staff, Rainford, who said he has a reputation for “being kind of rough,” said his job includes “everything.” “When you go to bed every night, you’re the person who gets the 3 o’clock calls when something goes wrong,” he said.
Recently, that has included working with law enforcement on responses to Ferguson-related protests, and talking to business owners about St. Louis’ image.
“We have to show the rest of the country that racial issues and racial divisions aren’t just a St. Louis phenomenon — they’re an American phenomenon,” Rainford said. He said that the city took cues from Cincinnati, which experienced riots in 2001 and, Rainford said, handled it poorly. But today, no one thinks of riots when they think of Cincinnati, he said.
“Part of this is that we have to get this right,” Rainford said. “Part of it is that we have to have confidence in ourselves. And part of it is that we have to involve everybody in this and not make, for instance, our police department or police officers the enemy.”
“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.