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Darlene Green, Mike Jones use their political clout to help mentor next generation of politicians

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 3, 2010 - St. Louis Comptroller Darlene Green has held her post longer than any other comptroller in the city's history.

And in St. Louis County, top county-government adviser Mike Jones had held numerous prominent posts -- private and public -- over a career spanning more than 30 years.

But both often are overshadowed by the region's highest-profile African-American political figures, U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, and Jones' boss, St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley.

Still, to many younger political activists, black and white, holding lower-level public office or aspiring to public service, Jones and Green each have reputations as respected mentors known more for their substance than their sizzle.

"I haven't needed to be loud to put you in your place," quipped the soft-spoken Green.

Both exemplify the political, business and civic leaders of color who snag fewer headlines but wield lots of behind-the-scenes influence.

Green and Jones each emphasize that their jobs, and their political reputations, have little to do with their race and more to do with their performance.

"People want accountability. They want that first," said Green, who has faced few controversies during the 15 years she has been in office.

Indeed, Jones and Green generally have avoided talking much about race or its role in regional politics.

Jones, for example, notes that he got his start with the help of a couple of white business executives "who believed in me" and served as his mentors decades ago.

But in separate recent interviews, Green and Jones each acknowledged that, like it or not, race has at times played a role over the years in the public's perception of them -- in part reflecting the region's racial tensions and triumphs over the decades.

And in turn, each also has interesting perspectives on the role of race in St. Louis politics, past and present.

"The human experience is a universal experience. We all have the same DNA," said Jones, known for his philosophical bent. "But my entry into that experience is formed by the black experience."

The Rev. Earl Nance Jr., a respected veteran African-American civic leader himself, knows both quite well.

Nance was on the St. Louis School Board when Green first became comptroller, and over the years he has watched her evolve from a person who seemed "somewhat timid" into a "a strong political leader beholden to no one."

As for Jones, he started out as the alderman for the city ward where Nance resides. The pastor says that Jones early on had a reputation as one "savvy, effective, efficient" politician. Decades later, said Nance with a chuckle, Jones "knows where the (political) bones are buried and what land mines not to step in."

Here's a closer look at each.

DARLENE GREEN was an accountant in the circuit clerk's office in the mid-1990s when she was tapped by her old boss who had become mayor -- Freeman Bosley Jr. -- to take over as comptroller in October 1995 following the conviction and resignation of Virvus Jones.

Until then, says Green, "I had never imagined being an elected official."

But during the subsequent 15 years, the graduate of Vashon High School and Washington University, has won four elections on her own -- most by comfortable margins -- and served with three different mayors.

All of those mayors have snared more headlines. But Green, like all St. Louis comptrollers, wields almost as much power.

As comptroller, Green is the city's chief fiscal officer overseeing its finances and assets.

She also serves with the mayor and the president of the Board of the Aldermen on the three-person Board of Estimate and Apportionment that is charged with making most of the city's major fiscal decisions. All three, for example, are involved in the financial debate over how the city can trim close to $50 million from its budget for the coming fiscal year.

During her tenure, she's received a number of awards, including being cited by St. Louis Magazine in 2008 as one of the "52 Most Powerful People in St. Louis."

Green, now 54, is proud of what she has achieved. But perhaps reflecting her non-political background, she focuses primarily on finances.

Green notes, for example, that the state auditor's 2008 review of her office was generally favorable, with the audit's biggest concern the need for newer city computers. Also that year, the city's credit rating was upgraded to A+, which Green said was a first in 35 years.

"That's a testament to our strong track record in protecting tax dollars," said Green. "I have developed a strong record of accountability."

Green says her staff deserves some of the credit for the city's stable finances, compared to many of its counterparts around the country.

"We have double-digit declines in income for the first time since I've been in office," Green said. Although budget cuts will need to be made, she continued, "we have been able to weather the storm, so to speak."

Green acknowledges that as a politician, she's not a headline-grabber. Her political goals, for example, are tied to her current job and indicate no quest for another one: "My vision is preserving and protecting the city's assets."

Green rarely steps into other candidates' campaigns. An exception, she notes, was her decision to attend the February 2007 presidential campaign kickoff of then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.

But for the most part, Green has downplayed race.

Besides Bosley, her past mentors have included some of the region's most prominent African-Americans in politics: retired U.S. Rep. William Clay Sr., his longtime district director Pearlie Evans and the late state Sen. Paula Carter.

But Green notes that the cadre of younger politicians with whom she is close are white and black. They include: St. Louis Alderman (and blogger) Antonio French, state Reps. Rachel Storch and Jamilah Nasheed, former state Rep. Yaphett El-Amin, former state Sen. Jeff Smith and state Treasurer Clint Zweifel.

"You can certainly say, I'm a bridge," said Green, between the city's polarized past and what she hopes is a diverse future.

Nasheed recalled that she got close to Green in 2004, when they were on the same side battling against proposed city charter's Amendments A, B, C and D to revamp city government. Among other things, the proposed changes -- which failed to win voter approval -- would have eliminated the comptroller post and made Green the city auditor.

During the course of that campaign, Nasheed said she gained respect for Green's style and has sought her counsel ever since.

"She's a woman of intelligence and principle. I just really like the way she handles politics,'' Nasheed said. "She's one of the pioneer politicians in St. Louis, and gives really sound, logical advice."

For her part, Green said she hopes that younger politicians "see the accountability, the attributes that have served me well."

What is noticed, of course, is Green's low-key public persona. "I've been able to uphold what I believe in without being loud about it," she said.

Her aim throughout her unexpected career, she said, is to project "strength of character and integrity." But as a religious person, Green said her success also reflects something else: "Definitely, the grace of God."

MIKE JONES started in politics more than 30 years ago as the 21st Ward alderman in St. Louis, a job that at the time, he says, seemed as powerful as "the senator of New York."

Since then his resume has fattened up quite a bit. He headed the St. Louis Housing Authority, became an executive at Anheuser-Busch, served three years as St. Louis' deputy mayor for development under then-Mayor Clarence Harmon, served as executive director of the St. Louis Regional Empowerment Zone and ran the Mathews-Dickey Boys Club for five years.

Five years ago, Dooley wooed the hard-driving Jones to St. Louis County's government center. Jones now is the county executive's senior policy adviser. Among other things, Jones heads the county's Lambert Redevelopment Authority, North Park and chairs the Midwest-China Hub Commission trying to persuade China to use Lambert airport as a hub for commercial air cargo.

Amid all his duties, Jones also has successfully battled throat cancer -- noting, by the way, that he never smoked, the illness' usual cause. His bout with cancer, says Jones, has helped him "take the job seriously without taking myself too seriously."

Now 60, Jones observed with a chuckle and a sigh: "I have become one of those old guys I used to talk about."

On the one hand, he says that the legacy of the region's African-American political community has been one where "the leadership stays around too long," and often has failed "to make room for younger legs and fresh ideas."

He recalls complaining about that dynamic when he was a young alderman. "When I was young, I thought it was terrible," Jones recalled.

But now that he's a political veteran, Jones adds that it's not good for the young -- of any race -- if things comes too easily: "People shouldn't voluntarily hand you power."

Recalling his convoluted political and civic past, Jones observed, "I think I'm a better politician over 30 years because I had to do it that way."

But he is worried about the region's political future, especially for African-Americans. For all the old problems with entrenched power, Jones complains that legislative term limits have "been terrible" and made it more difficult to groom new veteran leaders.

"Nobody stays long enough to learn anything," Jones said.

Part of the blame, he contended, goes back to the 1980s and "the emergence of the Reagan Revolution that denigrated public service and elevated the market place" as the place for bright young people to go. 

"If Mike Jones is 60, who's the 40-year-old doing what Mike Jones had done 20 years ago?" he asked.

Jones then offered his own lamentable answer: "You don't have one. 'He' went somewhere else."

But not all the blame rests with institutions. As Jones sees it, some fault lies with the region's African-American political leaders, including himself, and with American culture.

"There is a fallacy in modern thinking from a power standpoint, that 'personal salvation' is not tied to the group's success," said Jones. As a result, the success of the individual has come at a cost to the community.

A sports fan, Jones likened the predicament of the region's top African-American leaders to that of the Chicago Cubs: "We have a lot of Hall of Fame players, but we haven't won a World Series in 100 years."

His point, he said, is that as he views the region's black political structure, "We're weaker, we're less assertive than the political community that was introduced to me as a young man."

In the 1930s, Jones said, St. Louis' African-American community -- and powerful politicians like Jordan Chambers and David Grant -- successfully pressed for the creation and construction of Homer G. Phillips Hospital, an all-black institution that served as a training ground for African-American physicians, nurses and health-care executives.

Today, he said, "I can't imagine a situation where we as a community could organize and assert and create the same results. As a 60-year-old black man, that makes me sad and ashamed."

Part of the problem, said Jones, comes ironically from integration and better economic opportunities. "There would have been a time when the black leadership would have been a product of the working-class community."

Now, Jones continued, "Most upper-class black professionals don't live in the same neighborhoods as most black people."

Referring to prominent leaders of both races, Jones asked, "How many rode a bus to school? Or even went to public school?"

Major black athletes, he said, have generally "been useless" as advocates for social change. As a result, he continued, the region's black leadership is not seen as reflecting the black community because they don't live in the black community.

That said, Jones emphasized that his own career is due as much to mentoring from white civic leaders as those of color. Among those he cited was James O'Flynn, a banker who headed the Regional Chamber and Growth Association in the 1980s.

Now that he's older,Jones shies away from the "mentor'' label. He acknowledges that he has offered guidance or advice to young up-and-coming politicians or activists, black and white -- but emphasizes that he generally helps only those who seek him out.

That list includes state Reps. Don Calloway and Chris Carter, former 26th Ward committeeman Joe Palm, city Alderman Greg Carter, Board of Alderman President Lewis Reed and former state Sen. Jeff Smith.

"Mike gave me a sense of what to expect after I got elected, and told me how to wheel and deal, and how to get things done,'' said Chris Carter. "I don't know where I would be without him."

Jones says he made a decision long ago that he preferred to let other politicians, like Dooley or Harmon, be the political "captain" heading their ship of state, while he serves as a political "pilot or navigator."

But his approach to politics and public life, says Jones, came chiefly from his father, a barber who took the bus or streetcar to work.

Jones recalled, as a youth, asking his father why he charged $1.25 for a haircut, when most other barbers at the time were charging $1.50 His father replied, "People who can't afford $1.50 need a haircut, too."

Jones' point? "I fundamentally do this for the people who can't get into this room," he said, referring to the clout he wields now. "I consider myself lucky or blessed to have been able to make a living helping to make a difference."

And to all young would-be politicians who will listen, of any color, Jones also preaches another message: "Nothing is inevitable. It's all about the choices you make."

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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