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Analysis: In this year's mayoral race, the big issue for some blacks is leadership - not Slay's

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 19, 2009 - During the St. Louis mayoral election in the spring of 1933, a black man who wasn't on the ballot turned out to be a big winner. His name was Jordan Chambers, a savvy politician who looked out for the interests of his constituents and showed whites and fellow blacks the meaning of political leadership. He got much of the credit for taking the black vote to the Democratic Party to support mayoral candidate Bernard F. Dickmann. The move paved the way for Democrats to win their first mayoral election in 24 years -- and for Chambers' constituents to reap more job opportunities.

This Depression-era event was a dramatic and defining moment, helping to transform Chambers into the gold standard for black politicians. He showed that a black leader didn't necessarily have to sit in the mayor's chair in Room 200 in City Hall to effect improvements for the betterment of his community. He made political deals as the liquor flowed, smoke twirled, and musicians like Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington entertained guests inside the Riviera, the night club Chambers owned at 4600 Delmar Boulevard.

More than 75 years later, the building has vanished, the casualty of a fire, but the black community has more political representation. St. Louis has elected two African-American mayors (Freeman Bosley Jr. and Clarence Harmon). Curently, African Americans hold 12 of 28 aldermanic slots; the presidency of the board of aldermen (Lewis Reed), along with the offices of comptroller (Darlene Green), treasurer (Larry Williams) and license collector (Mike McMillan). While some say these elected officials are good public servants, others say their collective leadership isn't always up to the task of tackling the pressing problems on the North Side.

Two Grand Boulevards

South Grand Avenue is booming, filled with businesses and people; stretches of the upper section of North Grand look like a war zone.

To some extent, the contrast between the two sections of Grand is a reflection of political leadership. It also may be a reflection of the limits of an alderman's power nowadays compared to what a powerful committeeman like Chambers did in his time. After all, Chambers operated during a period when the black population was more heavily concentrated in certain neighborhoods due to segregation. He had a captive audience and the benefit of representing economically diverse neighborhoods stabilized in part by the presence of mentoring doctors, teachers and other professionals.

Add to these a community where sons and daughters returned to live after college; where people knew one another and embraced common values; and where drugs, and the dysfunctional behavior they produce, were less prevalent.

Aldermen rightly note that this isn't the Chambers era. They say they cannot be blamed for demographic changes, the decades of disinvestments, the flight of banking and business, the disappearance of factories where even the unskilled used to find work. They note that these changes also drove out the businesses where people could buy fresh food, do their banking, get their shoes shined and their clothes cleaned, and take in a full-course meal after Sunday church service -- and enjoy other amenities that residents around much of South Grand still take for granted.

Even though many of these elements have been lost on the North Side, some aldermen point to signs of hope in their wards -- a growing shopping district on North Grand near Page; new housing replacing vacant buildings in other wards; improved streets; more cops on the beat; emerging small businesses and, with them, the promise of jobs opportunities. But some observers say these leaders must roll up their sleeves even higher and work even harder to make sure these promising sparks of hope aren't overshadowed by ever-threatening blight, both physical and spiritual.

"The leadership among some in the African-American community, in my view, is more self-serving than public-minded," says Dr. Donald Suggs, a dentist and publisher of the St. Louis American.

"We have 12 members of the Board of Aldermen, and two out of three members of the Estimate and Apportionment Board (the comptroller and president of the Board of Aldermen), yet you see public policy driven by a mayor who seems pretty insensitive to the need to be inclusive."

Suggs points to several cities -- Chicago, New York, Atlanta, Washington and Dallas -- as examples where both black leadership and white leadership are more dynamic and inclusive. He mentions Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, the first African-American woman to serve as mayor of a major Southern city, as an example of a leader who is making a difference in a big city.

"She's not only a good politician, but a good manager who understands how to build coalitions, how to build consensus around important issues and how to get things done."

Yet even in vibrant cities, the problems of the have-nots don't necessarily disappear, adds Suggs. He also notes certain demographic shifts that have placed St. Louis at a disadvantage. The flight of young, bright African Americans who choose not to live or work in St. Louis has affected the caliber of leadership here, he says.

Still, he points to many dynamic former St. Louis aldermen who once made a difference in spite of the shifts. These include: Michael Roberts and Steve Roberts, now business owners; Mike Jones, an executive in St. Louis County government; and former Comptroller Virvus Jones. Others who stood out, Suggs says, include former U.S. Rep. William L. Clay Sr. and former state Sen. J.B. "Jet" Banks. He adds that St. Louis has some African-American professionals, particularly doctors, lawyers and business executives, who have provided the region with good leadership in areas other than politics.

What set these elected officials apart, Suggs says, is that they were "big idea" politicians who eschewed parochialism in their search of new ways to address citywide problems. Among mayors, Suggs says that Vincent C. Shoemehl stood out during his first two terms for boldness, bringing in talent as far away as Boston to improve city government.

Not Just A Black Problem

While giving Mayor Francis Slay credit for some city improvements, particularly in downtown, Suggs argues that the city's leadership in general needs to do a lot better, starting with the mayor.

"There are countless examples of communities with fewer resources and natural assets than St. Louis and they have made more progress," he says. 

Slay's campaign manager, Jeff Rainford, says, "I can understand that Don (Suggs) is mad about the fire chief issue, but unfortunately he's not looking at the whole record of the mayor's performance. This campaign has given us a chance to talk about that."

Rainford says that many of the mayor's programs have helped residents in general and African Americans in particular. He cites one in particular that has put the brakes on foreclosures in the city. "The foreclosure rate nationally is skyrocketing, but it's flat in the city because of our program to help families, including African Americans," Rainford says.

Under Slay, the city has also spent $1 million on a prison recidivism program, which has reduced the city's prison recidivism rate to no more than 4 percent, Rainford says, compared to more than 20 percent for programs nationally. He says the city has spent millions of dollars to reduce homelessness, and he cited the mayor's efforts to reduce lead poisoning, which afflicts many African- American children. 

Finally, Rainford says Slay's cabinet is diverse, with blacks serving as deputy mayor for operations, head of the Board of Public Service, a leader of the St. Louis Development Corp., and at one time, the airport director. Rainford says economic development isn't occurring only downtown but in neighborhoods, including those on the North Side.

He adds that the Slay administration has pushed for more inclusion than some people give it credit for.

"That's what so unfair about some of the things Don is saying," Rainford says. "He has not taken the time to look at what's going on in the city."

For Suggs, the pivotal example of Slay's failed leadership and insensitivity involved his demotion of Sherman George, an African-American, as fire chief. (Slay demoted George after George refused to obey Slay's order to promote 28 firefighters, only four of whom were black. George had argued that the tests underlying the promotions were racially biased. George left the department following his demotion.)

While Slay called the controversy a personnel issue, Suggs argues that the Fire Department and race "have been around for 50 years" and each mayor has been "more balanced in his approach" by turning to compromise. Slay, he says, is the first mayor "who unequivocally aligned himself with the interest of Local 73," the union overwhelmingly favored by white firefighters, rather than finding ways to accommodate both sides.

Suggs has been struck by the muted response of nearly every political leader to the George-firefighters issue. To Suggs, the issue offered an opportunity for black leaders to speak out publicly while working through front and back channels to bring blacks and whites together and build a consensus and work to close the racial divide. That, he says, is one meaning of effective leadership.

As early as last summer, the Beacon talked to former St. Louis mayors about how they might have approached the controversy.

Clarence Harmon, also a former police chief, suggested that George could have protected both his integrity and his job by simply making the promotions under protest. Harmon added that St. Louis was hurt by a "tendency of politicians on both sides of town to inject race indirectly into campaigns by playing voters on each side against one another" on issues ranging from crime to city services. Harmon's hope was that Obama, not then elected president, would show candidates and voters how to move beyond racial politics.

While saying Slay was doing a good job, Schoemehl argued that the fact that black and white firefighters want to be represented by separate organizations is a major problem blocking harmony in the Fire Department. Schoemehl says the city should insist that this practice be discontinued.

One surprising response came from Freeman Bosley Jr., the city's first African-American mayor. He disclosed last year that Slay calls him from time to time for advice on handling issues concerning African Americans. Bosley said he wasn't sure how much the mayor embraced his confidential advice.


The Obama generation


License Collector Michael McMillan says he understands people who ask, "Where is the black leadership, and why can't black politicians get their act together? People who are asking the questions are talking specifically about the time when people could point to one person as the black leader -- such as Jordan Chambers, William Clay Sr., and Freeman Bosley."

The questioners forget the many black elected officials in city government and the work these politicians are doing, said McMillan, adding that in the era of Obama, he expects to see fewer examples of "the black leader" because President Barack Obama has changed the dynamics of black politics and leadership, making the process more inclusive.

Ironically, Suggs, who knows Obama, singled out the young president as being a "big ideas" politician who knows how to get things done. Suggs cited Obama's stimulus package and its billions for housing, health and economic programs as an example of good leadership. 

Some black voters had hoped that McMillan would take on Slay in the primary. But McMillan says it wasn't the right time -- even if he were interested. He responds that "89 percent of blacks want me to run and 89 percent of whites are urging me to wait until the next (mayoral) election." He says he never was persuaded by the argument that a city that is over 50 percent black has to have a black mayor.

"First of all, that doesn't mean that percentage will vote in an election," he says. "In addition, if the candidate is white and is giving voters the respect and representation they deserve, then there is no reason why that candidate shouldn't be elected."

On the other hand, he adds that a candidate, black or white, who has no respect for his constituents doesn't deserve to be elected.

In some ways, McMillan may be like Obama -- trying to avoid alienating people by talking about sensitive issues, such as race, indirectly.

Still another view about black leadership comes from the Rev. Douglas Parham, one of the few local ministers to champion George's cause against Slay. Parham thinks finances are one reason that some capable African Americans have not entered the mayor's race, but he says he wanted to make that statement without "demeaning those who are running." 

(Neither of the two black candidates in the Democratic primary -- former alderwoman Irene Smith or Denise Watson-Wesley Coleman -- have anywhere near Slay's million-dollar-plus campaign treasure chest. The same can be said for former state Sen. Maida Coleman, who's running as an independent in the April general election.)

Parham says it's now up to ordinary citizens to take the lead by demanding more accountability from those elected to serve the community.

Political leadership isn't everything

Some white leaders asked about African-American leadership chose instead to focus on an issue they felt equally, if not more, pressing: education. Scott J. Wilson, president of S.M. Wilson & Co., and chair of the board of Associated General Contractors of St. Louis, takes pride in the strides he and others have made in setting up a charter school for the building trades.

"This wasn't something we were forced to do, but something we've all worked hard on because we think it's the right thing to do," Wilson said, adding that the school could help break the poverty cycle and "help young African Americans find real futures in the construction industry. To me, education is an important issue."

Last spring, Washington University appointed Henry S. Webber vice chancellor for community and government affairs. He brings a different perspective because he came here from the University of Chicago.

Like Wilson, Webber stresses that access to education is the one thing society can do to lift people up and bring them into the mainstream. He says that's one reason he's excited about the university's sponsorship of St. Louis KIPP, the charter school expected to open this spring.

While holding much promise, these initiatives will take at least a generation to make a difference. They don't address the more pressing need for better black-white leadership in the meantime while this community waits for the educational initiatives to pay off.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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