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McClellan: Proud past and iffy future

McClellan: Proud past and iffy future

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Did the past and the future come together in midtown’s Washington Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church on Wednesday morning?

The past is always present at the church, which played a prominent role in the civil rights movement. Most famously, Martin Luther King Jr. held a rally there in the spring of 1963, just weeks before leading the March On Washington in which he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.

The future, if it was there Wednesday, was a lot murkier.

The Michael Bloomberg campaign was in town. Bloomberg represents the possible future in which uberwealthy individuals fund their own campaigns. Fifty six people, not counting Bloomberg staffers, showed up to hear, secondhand, what the New York billionaire has to offer the African American community.

The crowd, which was racially mixed, seemed interested, if not entirely enthusiastic. Is the best way forward going to be our billionaire against their billionaire? The crowd was willing to be convinced.

The program featured a blend of the spiritual and the political. One of the first speakers was Pastor Tommy Pierson, former state legislator and current mayor of Bellefontaine Neighbors.

We chatted before the program. I asked if the rising tide of the economy had lifted his city at all. “The president would say yes, but my wallet says no,” Pierson said. He was wearing his trademark cowboy hat. (We were in the basement of the church.) Pierson said he was more interested in listening than in speaking, and sure enough, he kept his remarks short.

He sounded more a pastor than a politician. It was easy to imagine him at a pulpit, speaking to, and for, the congregation.

“I don’t want to let what happened to me before cripple me now,” he said, and there were murmurs of assent from the assembled. “I want to know where we are going now,” he said, and he emphasized the last word.

Yes, that’s right, somebody said.

Without naming Bloomberg, but clearly talking about him, Pierson said, “We all got baggage. If you’re over 60, you got baggage. I got baggage.” Then he smiled. “I don’t have much,” he said.

Other local speakers included St.Louis Sheriff Vernon Betts — a pastor at Shalom Church City of Peace — and Pastor Robert McClish II of the host church.

But pastors aside, the meeting did not have the feeling of a revival. Revivals are about faith. Bloomberg comes with a dash of skepticism.

Speaking on behalf of the absent candidate was Hardie Davis, the mayor of Augusta, Georgia.

“Most people know Augusta as the home of the masters golf tournament,” he said. “We’re also the home of James Brown — and I’m feeling good!”

Davis is the founding pastor of Abundant Life Worship Center, a non-denominational church in Hephzibah, Georgia. He also holds a degree in electrical engineering from Georgia Tech. He mentioned that he spent a few weeks in St. Louis a few years ago doing something with Monsanto. He spoke with an easy self-assurance. He said he participated in Bloomberg’s “What Works Cities” program and attended the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative.

He referred to Bloomberg as “Mike,” and he spoke about “The Greenwood Initiative, Economic Justice for Black America.”

Like most programs put forward by candidates, it sounded good. More home ownership, more opportunities for entrepreneurs. It’s about helping people lift themselves up.

But as I said, this was not a revival, and the crowd listened quietly. By the way, it was a politically savvy crowd. I don’t want to list names because I’d leave so many out, but former St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley was there, and so was John Bowman, president of the St. Louis County chapter of the NAACP. I also saw a retired executive from Edward Jones.

So the fact that this audience was listening attentively seemed like bad news for Joe Biden, who has been leading in the Missouri polls. Four years ago, Hillary Clinton had the political establishment locked down long before the primary.

I was on grandfather duty, so I did not have a chance to talk with anybody after the program.

That night, I watched the Democratic debate. It was the first time Bloomberg appeared on stage with his rivals. They attacked with the ferocity and desperation of a rifle company about to be overrun. Everybody blasted away. Elizabeth Warren had the machine gun. Blam-blam-blam-blam.

But after walloping Bloomberg, they turned on each other.

Also, there is this — not everybody watches debates, but almost everybody watches television and Bloomberg seems prepared to spend a fortune on reaching people that way. So maybe it will end up our billionaire against their billionaire. Maybe that is the way the system is headed.

If so, the future brushed up against the past in a St. Louis church basement last Wednesday.

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