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Government, Politics & Issues

City Democratic Party chief running for city treasurer, but hopes to keep political posts

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 12, 2011 - St. Louis Democratic Party chairman Brian Wahby is officially launching his campaign for city treasurer today, saying that his previous experience in the post will allow him to quickly "clean up the mess'' created by some current employees in the office and, in his view, ignored by veteran incumbent city Treasurer Larry Williams.

Wahby worked for Williams for almost 12 years, a fact that a Democratic rival -- city Alderman Fred Wessels, D-13th Ward -- has said makes Wahby "part of the problem, not the solution."

But Wahby maintained in an interview today that his knowledge of the workings of the treasurer's office means that he can best root out the waste and revamp its operations. "We've got a level of corruption in the treasurer's office that is intolerable,'' Wahby said. If elected, he said, his first task would be to get rid of employees who aren't doing their jobs.

"The first day I have the job will be the last day that Fred Robinson has a job,'' said Wahby, referring to a federal probe that has identified Robinson as a treasurer's office employee who never showed up for work -- but was paid regardless.

But Wahby insisted that his campaign will focus on the future, as he focuses on the "primary functions of the office" so that its operations best help St. Louis.

Wahby is the second officially announced candidate for the post, following Wessels. State Rep. Tishaura Jones, D-St. Louis -- and the daughter of former Comptroller Virvus Jones -- said last week that she is considering a bid for treasurer. So is Alderman Jeffrey Boyd, D-22nd Ward.

Williams, in office since 1981, also has said he plans to seek re-election. But some Democrats believe he may retire instead. In fact, there is some speculation as to whether Williams will step down before the end of his term, which continues through December 2012.

Assuming that no major Republicans enter the scene, the big battle for the contest is likely to be in the Democratic primary in August 2012.

While taking care not to directly slam his opponents, Wahby said the post "doesn't need somebody looking for a political job. It needs somebody who can do the job."

The St. Louis treasurer's office long has been the city's de facto banker, handling investments as well as running the financially lucrative parking-meter division, which brings in an estimated $14-$15 million a year. Incumbent Williams made his name early on when he oversaw the construction of several city parking garages that have, in turn, enriched his office -- and, supposedly, the city.

Wahby said the money needs to be more closely monitored, as well as the investments. "What we need is a progressive reformer, somebody with a track record of making things happen in this town," Wahby said. "I understand how that office operates, and its potential to do great things."

"That's what I bring," Wahby said. "What we need is progressive leadership and energy."

Wahby, 46, cited his education background, which includes a masters in business administration from Washington University.

And he doesn't shy away from his past, as an assistant in the treasurer's office throughout the 1990s. Wahby says he "was instrumental in building the Kiel Center Parking Facility downtown and the Schlafly Library and Argyle Parking Garage in the Central West End."

He left the treasurer's office in 1999, and now is president of Berrick Partnership, which Wahby says was "instrumental in building the $300 million Renaissance Grand and Suites Convention Center Hotel complex, the Merchandise Mart Apartments and the Apartments at Cupples Station."

His bio adds, "A major proponent of downtown renewal, Wahby worked on St. Louis' Downtown NOW! plan which produced over $4 billion of investment and reestablished downtown St. Louis as a residential neighborhood."

But even more significant, in his opinion, is Wahby's political leadership -- which includes taking a leading role in St. Louis' not-quite-successful effort to persuade the Democratic National Committee to hold next year's presidential convention in St. Louis.

"That kind of creative energy, I want to bring back to that office," said Wahby, referring to his latest quest.

Wahby also arguably wants to bring back the behind-the-scenes political clout that the St. Louis treasurer once wielded. Williams' predecessor as treasurer, Paul Berra, was a legendary and powerful figure during much of his tenure, largely because he was the city Democratic Party chairman. Although Berra generally stayed out of the headlines, he wielded significant political muscle.

"My ability to bring people together is striking," Wahby said.

Wahby has been chairman of the St. Louis Democratic Central Committee since 2004, and said he hopes to keep the job. Wahby also plans to retain his seat on the Democratic National Committee.

In fact, if he wins next August, Wahby said he plans to focus helping the statewide Democratic ticket in November 2012.

Wahby long has been close to St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, but so are all of his Democratic rivals -- including Williams.

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