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St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay shoots for history

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay shoots for history

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ST. LOUIS • Seeking a record fourth term as city mayor, Francis Slay needs to look no further than out his office window to see a reminder of how difficult his task will be.

Slay’s City Hall office overlooks the corner of Market Street and Tucker Boulevard. The Tucker is Raymond Tucker, a St. Louis mayor who was elected to three terms spanning the 1950s and 1960s. He failed to win a fourth.

Now, Slay is seeking the same fourth term that vexed Tucker. No St. Louis mayor has been elected to a fourth four-year term. Tucker had been the only one to try.

“I’m not trying to break any records,” Slay said during an interview in his office this month.

For any mayor seeking re-election after multiple terms, all of those years offer positives and negatives. As Slay battles Aldermanic President Lewis Reed in the March Democratic primary, experts say he will face inevitable voter fatigue.

“It’s actually quite a challenge for most people,” said Ken Warren, a political scientist at St. Louis University. “It’s like a ‘sick of’ syndrome. You wear out your welcome, and it’s hard to overcome that.”

Tucker, a Washington University professor, blamed his 1965 Democratic primary loss to Alfonso Cervantes on the voters’ reluctance to elect a man four consecutive times, along with his lack of party support.

Slay has long operated a vigorous campaign operation and has worked hard to hone his image by communicating directly with residents. His website, MayorSlay.com, and his social media outreach, particularly on Twitter, have been noteworthy.

While Tucker had some close re-election battles, Slay has not. In 2005 and 2009, Slay won by big margins. When he first took office in 2001, he defeated former mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. by 10 percentage points.

The city had switched mayors each election cycle for three consecutive terms when Slay first took office in 2001.

“I’ve observed his serving as mayor with curiosity at how he could not tank like all of these other mayors,” Warren said. “What does he know that allows him to survive? People are comfortable with him.”

HISTORY OF REJECTION

Throughout the 19th century, St. Louis elected mayors to one-year terms. William Carr Lane, the city’s first mayor, was elected to six one-year terms. After an almost nine-year break from office, he returned to serve three more terms for a total of nine years in office.

Long tenure has often led mayors to upset various political factions within the city. St. Louis history is filled with politicians other than Tucker who were eventually rejected by voters. Former Mayor Bernard Dickmann was defeated by Republican Judge William D. Becker when he ran for a third term in 1941.

Former mayor Cervantes spoiled Tucker’s fourth-term quest. Cervantes himself went on to lose a bid for a third term.

Cervantes had championed the construction of a new airport in Illinois south of East St. Louis. He said the new location would boost downtown St. Louis, but the proposal was controversial in St. Louis County and Jefferson City and aided his defeat in 1973.

Cervantes blamed his loss on a Life Magazine article that linked him to organized crime. But he also blamed his longevity.

“The Democratic voters at the primaries decided that eight years of Cervantes would do nicely for a while,” Cervantes later wrote in his book, “Mr. Mayor.” “Too many ward leaders believed that Life’s mudslinging article had hurt me mortally.”

Now, Reed hopes history is in his favor. He is targeting Slay’s longevity by showcasing himself as a younger, fresher face. On the surface, age is not a huge difference. Reed is 49. Slay is 57. Reed’s campaign videos feature him in athletic shots biking to City Hall or running through St. Louis’ streets in the rain wearing a sleeveless shirt.

Reed is hardly a newcomer to city government. He was elected alderman of the city’s 6th Ward in 1999, and president of the Board of Aldermen in 2007. Reed declined to say if he has voted for Slay in the past three election cycles, but his image was used in Slay’s past campaign literature.

Reed alleges Slay has presided over a city that “trails in all of the good statistics and leads in all of the bad.”

“If there was a long string of successes and the city was improving in the crime rate and education, then I would think he would deserve another term,” Reed said. “But I don’t see that.”

Slay counters that he faced a city on the brink when he took office in 2001. He says his administration has stemmed the tide of significant population losses, reduced crime and revitalized neighborhoods from downtown’s Washington Avenue to Benton Park. And, he notes, he has done something no other mayor has done: return control of the city’s police department from the state to the city.

He also has promoted a progressive image for St. Louis, believing that will attract young, educated, creative people.

Last year, St. Louis was one of 11 national cities to get a perfect score for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality. Slay has been an outspoken proponent of gay rights, so much so that he has put his campaign headquarters in The Grove business district, a redeveloping area with a significant gay population.

What would Slay do with a fourth term? He said he would like to use his contacts, goodwill and tenure for a bold initiative:

“I would like to see the city re-enter the county,” Slay said.

In a split known as the “Great Divorce,” the city broke away from St. Louis County after a contentious election in 1876. St. Louis, which thought county government was burdensome, was soon surpassed by Chicago in population. Through the years, the city has sought to rejoin the county as a municipality, which would require majority voter approval in both places. The last time was in 1962, when both groups of voters rejected a New York-style borough plan.

Slay has discussed the issue for several years and has promoted city-county cooperation, but the reunification idea has found little traction. He acknowledges such a pursuit would be extremely difficult, but he says his long tenure has built up a positive relationship with the business community and other municipalities required to make such a prospect happen.

Through the years, Slay has remained popular among many constituencies, particularly south St. Louis neighbors, dog lovers, gays, business leaders and some Republicans. Slay has so far raised about $2.8 million for his re-election effort, netting $50,000 from Republican-leaning Rex Sinquefield and $50,000 from well-known GOP donor Sam Fox.

But Slay has had a rocky relationship with the city’s blacks, who make up 48 percent of the city’s population. Slay’s demotion of then-Fire Chief Sherman George, an African-American, caused significant uproar in 2007.

Slay has battled that problem with some political strategy. His quick endorsement of William Lacy Clay over Russ Carnahan in last August’s Missouri 1st Congressional District Democratic primary gained him favor with an influential black power base. Reed, who is black, endorsed no one.

OTHER LONG TENURES

Nationally, big cities have given mayors long tenures.

Slay has become a fixture at national mayor’s conferences, rubbing elbows with people such as Boston Mayor Tom Menino, who has been in office for 19 years. Menino, 70, has had recent health setbacks but has said he may seek a sixth term this fall.

Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire who spent millions to take over the mayor’s office after Rudy Giuliani, reshaped New York City in the years following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Bloomberg successfully lobbied to expand the city’s term-limit law to three consecutive four-year terms. Bloomberg is now in the final year of his third term and cannot seek re-election.

Slay, whose city has no such term limit, says he admires Bloomberg. He gave Bloomberg a “key to the city.”

“I heard he keeps it on his desk,” Slay said.

Slay said he often wonders if he would prefer Bloomberg’s checkbook or former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley’s charter, which gives the mayor significant power.

Slay’s current 12 years is about nine years shy of Daley, who served 21 years. Daley died in office.

Slay, at 57, promises his health is great, but says he has no intention of being mayor for life.

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Nicholas J.C. Pistor is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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