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Government, Politics & Issues

Will Slay accomplish a City Hall hat trick?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 26, 2009 - When it comes to running for mayor in the city of St. Louis, the third time isn't always the charm.

If Mayor Francis Slay succeeds in winning a third term in April, he will join a small club.

Only three other mayors in the city's history have won elections to three terms, although others - notably A.J. Cervantes in 1973 - have made the attempt in vain.

In fact, some St. Louis mayors have had trouble even winning second terms. Slay is among only two in the past 35 years.

Still, even Slay's critics admit that he heads into Tuesday's primary with the political winds at his back. He has a huge edge in money and supporters, and his opposition is split.

None of that is deterring St. Louis teacher Renee Racette, as she heads to the polls to vote for one of Slay's rivals. "At the moment, I won't vote for him,'' said Racette. "I have a vested interest in this election. I think the mayor's office has to be held accountable for the city's charter schools and their poor performance."

But for supporter David Goldstick, an IT analyst who lives downtown, the mayor deserves four more years. He likes Slay's emphasis on improving public education, as well as his focus on urban redevelopment.

"Separating himself from the other candidates, Mayor Slay supports improved schooling options and is not afraid to do what's right for our children -- even if it makes some adults uncomfortable,'' Goldstick said.

That debate over Slay's involvement in the city public schools, over which he has little direct control, has become a flash point for many city voters.

Indeed, Slay says it's the challenge of such tasks - not the number of terms - that fuel his quest to remain in Room 200 at City Hall.

"I'm running again because I'm still healthy. I still feel energetic,'' said Slay, 53. "I'm still having fun with it even with all the challenges we have. I'm still engaged by the job."

"I think St. Louis is a better place than it was eight years ago,'' the mayor added. "But I want to finish what we started."

His goals for a third term are broad:

  • A continued focus on improving the city's public education system and expanding the alternatives, including charter schools.
  • Additional investment in the city's poorer neighborhoods, where Slay says close to $2 billion already has been spent.
  • Tackling the city's aging infrastructure.
  • "Working with other regional leaders to find our place in the global economy."

All of those objectives, Slay admits, have been affected by the rapid economic meltdown that has gripped the nation and the region since last fall.
"Until the economy collapsed, the city was gaining jobs and popularity,'' Slay said bluntly.

Over the past two years, crime also had declined, along with the number of city residents living in poverty. Slay admits that he's concerned about how those favorable trends will be affected by what has been a tsunami of bad national financial news.

On the housing foreclosure front, Slay says he's glad that his economic team helped put together a small program more than a year ago to help some threatened homeowners. The federal stimulus package adds more money to that effort.

The mayor reluctantly acknowledges that he's personally feeling the effects of the troubled housing market, but he emphasizes that he isn't suffering.

Slay and his wife, Kim Slay, recently bought a new home in the city's 12th ward. After trying in vain to sell their old house in the 23rd ward, the couple is renting it out.

Slay says he's as appalled as anyone about the recent tow-lot scandal involving the city police department that forced the departure of former Chief Joe Mokwa. Slay notes that he has limited powers over the department, which is largely run by the state of Missouri, even though the city pays the department's bills. The governor names four of the five members of the Police Board. The mayor is the fifth member.

Slay does oversee the city's Fire Department, where he did force some changes during a volatile dispute that led to the ouster of the city's first African-American fire chief, Sherman George. Slay says the department's morale has improved.

Familiarity a mixed bag

The city's most recent three-term mayor was Vincent C. Schoemehl Jr. (1981-93), who - like Slay - had previously been an alderman.

The longer Schoemehl was in office, he increasingly found himself in controversies - many of them reflecting the city's racial divide - that seem similar to the headaches that continue to plague Slay.

St. Louis' Three-Term Mayors

Henry W. Kiel (1913-1925)

Raymond Tucker (1953-1965)

Vincent C. Schoemehl Jr. (1981-93)

(This list excludes three mayors in the 1800s who served three or more one-year terms.)

"Mayors have to make tough decisions, and if they're around awhile, their enemies add up,'' said Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

In Schoemehl's case, some of his longtime local critics teamed up with his statewide political rivals to help deep-six his bid for governor in 1992.

For Slay, some old allies are no more.

Take, for example, former state Sen. Maida Coleman. In 2003, she was among Slay's public defenders when he first came under fire during a dispute with then Chief George.

Now, Coleman is launching an independent bid to oust Slay in the April general election.

But first, Slay will compete in next Tuesday's Democratic primary against two opponents: Irene J. Smith, a former judge and alderman, and Denise Watson-Wesley Coleman, a local lawyer. The latter denies accusations by allies of Maida Coleman that she is a "stalking horse'' who filed on the last day to divert votes from Maida Coleman, who initially had planned to run in the Democratic primary.

For all the talk of political antics, there's no dispute that when it comes to finances and endorsements, there's no contest.

Slay's latest report, filed last Monday, shows him heading into the final stretch with $1.18 million in the bank. Smith reported $1,444 on hand, with a debt of $11,600.

The Missouri Ethics Commission, the depository of campaign finance reports, had no record of any new filings by either Coleman.

As for endorsements, Slay also trumps his opponents, with endorsements in 22 of the city's 28 wards. On Wednesday, for example, the mayor announced support from several key African-American wards and officials, including Alderman Greg Carter, D-27th Ward, and his nephew, state Rep. Chris Carter, and veteran Alderman Freeman Bosley Sr., father of Freeman Bosley Jr., St. Louis' first mayor who was African-American.

Bosley Jr. served one term as mayor, 1993-97, and was ousted by another African-American, then-police chief Clarence Harmon. Both men lost to Slay in a racially polarized contest in 2001 that arguably still affects Slay's relations with African-Americans at City Hall and throughout St. Louis.

"My opinion is, he needs to be more inclusive,'' said Alderman Samuel Moore, D-4th Ward, who notes that he's staying out of the mayoral contest. Moore contends that Slay needs to "make the people feel he's working as hard" in the city's African-American neighborhoods, as he is in the predominantly white parts of the city.

But Alderman Jeffrey Boyd, D-22nd Ward, says that Slay has done more for African-American residents and neighborhoods than he often gets credit for. "He has done nothing to make me not support him,'' Boyd said.

As mayor, Slay sits on the three-member Board of Estimate and Apportionment, which handles most key city decisions, with two other citywide officials -- Comptroller Darlene Green  and Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed. Both are African-American, and both are staying out of the mayoral contest.

That's particularly true of Green, who also will be on Tuesday's ballot, seeking a record-setting fourth full term. Through a spokesman, Green called her relationship with Slay "a professional relationship that puts forth the best interests of the residents and businesses of the city of St. Louis."

Business generally loves Slay

On the economic development front, like many mayors, Slay has had his share of successes and disappointments. The latter includes the promised Ballpark Village "hole" that still exists outside the new Busch Stadium, and the financial troubles facing the Renaissance Grand Hotel.

But overall, Slay's efforts to re-energize downtown development have gone well and garner a lot of praise from major area business leaders.  

Tom Reeves, president of Pulaski Bank, opened three of his four city branches during Slay's eight-year tenure. "He is a great mayor,'' Reeves said. "He's a strong force in fostering development."

Dennis Matheis, president of Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Missouri, gives Slay and his economic team a healthy chunk of the credit for the health-insurance firm's announcement this week that it is consolidating its regional operations in downtown St. Louis. That means about 300 employees are being moved from Creve Coeur.

"The mayor's commitment to the city played a big role,'' said Matheis, who adds that he and his wife are "big fans'' of Slay.

Similar praise comes from Richard C.D. Fleming, president and chief executive of the St. Louis Regional Chamber & Growth Association. Although emphasizing that the association makes no political endorsements, Fleming -- a city resident -- made clear that he supports Slay's re-election.

"He's a real 'roll up your sleeves' mayor,'' Fleming said. "His turnaround of the city central has been critical. It's taken a lot of partners to get those things to happen, but he set the tone.''

Fleming acknowledges that some of Slay's actions have been controversial -- notably his foray into the debate over how best to improve the St. Louis public schools.

"He's taken on some issue not necessarily political popular, but the right thing to do,'' Fleming said. He compared Slay's approach to tackling the schools to that of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Slay's push to change public schools

For decades, St. Louis mayors have decried the decline in what had been -- until the 1960s -- a nationally respected public school system.

However, the mayors have had no direct control over the public schools. And various mayoral attempts to get involved have, at times, been seen as meddling.

But Slay makes no apologies for his very visible, hands-on approach to the city schools.

"I think I have really made quality education a mayor's issue more so than anyone in recent history in city government,'' he said.

Slay notes, for example, that he meets regularly with St. Louis schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams, who's the eighth person to hold that job since 2003.

Slay says his activities reflect the widespread, longstanding belief that the fortunes of the city of St. Louis and its once-stellar public school system are intertwined.

But his strong education focus is a key reason retired city teacher Barbara Martin wants to see Slay replaced.

Martin is particularly upset with the mayor's role in encouraging the state takeover of the city schools, which began in 2007, and largely blames Slay for the district turmoil that has followed.

"As mayor of the city, that decision was not a good decision,'' Martin said.

St. Louis teacher Racette cites the poor performance of some city charter schools, and blames Slay for encouraging them.

Slay says he's for quality charter schools and wants to get rid of any that are sub-par. He's proposing a rigorous set of standards that each charter school must meet.

But his larger point, Slay said, is that residents must have quality educational alternatives. If they don't, they'll continue to move to the suburbs. The city schools' chief competition, he added, are the suburban public school districts.

As it stands, Slay said, a majority of the city's school-age children aren't in the regular public schools. They're attending private or parochial schools, charter schools, the public system's specialized magnet schools or suburban schools as part of the voluntary transfer program.

Everywhere he goes, Slay said, residents tell him, "Mayor, you need to get involved. Our schools are failing our children."

Slay's campaign communications chief, Richard Callow, acknowledges that he's ramped up his activity for this third-term bid, compared to his re-election bid in 2005.

"The wake-up call," said Callow, was the low city voter turnout in 2007 -- under 10 percent -- when Reed ousted then-incumbent aldermanic president Jim Shrewsbury.

Slay moved chief of staff Jeff Rainford over to the campaign, and he has spent a lot of money and effort targeting likely pro-Slay supporters, to underscore to them the importance of turning out on Tuesday.

As Slay sees it, it's not just his third term that's at stake.

St. Louis resident Nancy Rice, who strongly supports Slay, has a unique perspective on his re-election bid. For more than a decade, she served as Schoemehl's political director.

Rice contends that it's particularly important for continuity at City Hall, now that the nation and the region face so many economic challenges.

But from her own experience, Rice also has seen that voters can shift their allegiances quickly.

In 1989, Schoemehl handily won his bid for a third term. He then turned his sights to Jefferson City and ran for Missouri governor. In the 1992 Democratic primary, Schoemehl lost big. And he didn't even carry the city of St. Louis.

Francis G. Slay

Age: 53

Hometown: St. Louis

Family: Wife, Kim; son, Francis, 25, is in graduate school, and daughter, Katherine, 20, is in college.

Education: Graduated from St. Mary's High School in St. Louis. Bachelor's degree in political science from Quincy University in Quincy, Ill. Law degree from St. Louis University.

Political experience: Alderman from 23rd Ward, 1985-95; Aldermanic president, 1995-2001. Mayor, 2001-present.

Blast from his past: Slay was a champion soccer player as a teen and young adult. He attended Quincy on a full scholarship, granted, in part, because of his athletic gifts. He was his college soccer team's top scorer, helping it capture three national titles. He also played on amateur soccer teams that toured the United States and Europe, and toyed for a time with turning pro.

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