Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Personal, Practical and Progressive: Three reasons why Mayor Francis Slay doesn’t deserve your vote.

Commentary by Sylvester Brown, Jr.
Feb. 26, 2013


Graphic from "11 Years of Slay" Facebook page
There is a saner, less radical voice inside that’ battles my more rabble-rising side. I’ve joined no-holds-barred talk show host Lizz Brown’s radio program (WGNU AM 920). For about a month or so we’ve taken an in-depth and critical look at Mayor Francis Slay’s record since his election in 2001. 

As the publisher of Take Five Magazine and a columnist with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, I spent a good chunk of my time chronicling what I came to consider an administration rift with racial division, cronyism and outright incompetence. But I have moved on since then. Last year, with the help of the North Area Community Development Corporation, we kicked off the Sweet Potato Project, a program aimed at teaching at-risk youth money-making skills they can use now, in their own neighborhoods.  In August, I became the interim director of the Peace Economy Project, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing military spending. Although I no longer fill this position, I'm still a PEP board member. I’m also terribly busy with my “real job,” offering creative services to a host of clients.

So, with all this, why climb back into the Slay fray? Mainly it’s because of the actions and interactions I just mentioned. I work with diverse groups of passionate people-of all races, ages and income levels-who are challenging the status quo and trying to create a more just, progressive and inclusive region. I’m in it because we have a rare opportunity to right a great, regressive wrong and nudge this region toward a 21st Century progressive path that doesn’t cater to the already rich who are primarily bankrolling Slay’s reelection.

I’ve been writing about St. Louis politics for some 25 years now. I’m intimately familiar with the genesis of the powerful Slay Administration-a force forged in the fires of racial division with a shameful intent to keep power and resources locked in the manicured clutches of a mighty few.

The rich and well-connected were thrown into a tizzy back in 1993, when St. Louis elected its first African American Mayor, Freeman Bosley, Jr. Two high-profile white candidates axed themselves out of the contest. Bosley-with the support of the 20th Ward-the largest deliverer of black votes in the city-squeaked into office. For the first time in St. Louis history, two blacks-the new mayor and Comptroller Virvus Jones-held two of the 3-person seats on the influential board of Estimate and Apportionment (E&A). Emotions ratcheted up after another African American alderwoman announced she was running for president of the board of Aldermen-the third E&A seat.

Dominating downtown interest bankrolled the campaign of the other major candidate, the alderman from the 23rd Ward-Francis Slay. Under pressure to honor “diversity” from this good-ole-boy network and Post-Dispatch editorial writers, Bosley caved and endorsed Alderman Slay, which created major fissures between the mayor and many black politicians and voters.

Six years later, Slay was elected mayor. Without pause, in 2002, he covertly crafted a ward redistricting map that weakened the voting power of the 20th Ward. It was a not-so-subtle attempt to ensure that no more un-anointed candidates of color would be occupying Room 200 in the foreseeable future.

Take Five Magazine March 2002

Take Five Magazine 2002
 With the backing of Civic Progress businesses such as the May Co., Schnucks, Harbour Group (headed by top GOP donor Sam Fox), Enterprise Rent-A-Car (led by Republicans Jack and Andrew Taylor), and United Van Lines (headed by Republican Bob Baer), Slay set out to “reform” public education. Once elected, the school board candidates he financially backed gave millions to a New York turn-around firm with no experience in public education. Perfectly good schools were sold and students were crammed into already overcrowded classrooms. Neighborhood food servers (who paid city earnings taxes) were replaced with a French firm that serves food to the nation’s prisons.  The dropout rate more than tripled from 7.6 percent in 2003 to 27.5 percent in 2009, according to Peter Downs, author of Schoolhouse Shams: Myths and Misinformation in School Reform. At the beginning of Slay’s reform efforts, elementary school scores were improving at every level. After his involvement, the schools lost its state accreditation.

As public school costs have escalated, the tax base to support and improve them has decreased largely because more than 30,000 people have left St. Louis since Slay took office. The mayor is a huge advocate of more charter schools in St. Louis. The only problem with his approach is his inability to create them without decimating the public education system. I take the disenfranchisement of black voters and the disrespect of low-income public school students personally. I have no doubt that some of the six and seven year-olds in elementary school when Slay took office are now among the 30 percent of 16 and 17 year-old high school dropouts now wreaking havoc on our streets.

These affronts aside, Slay’s bullying, clandestine mode of operation and complete incompetence are other reasons why his tenure should abruptly end.

Neither of the two mayors preceding Slay received the same kind of blind-eye, cushy coverage he’s gotten from the city’s only daily newspaper. Under Slay’s watch, the police department refused to report crimes as serious as rape in order to keep crime figures lower than they really were. A politically-connected towing operation, involving city cops and former police chief, Joe Mokwa, drove and sold confiscated cars while short-changing the city of nearly $700,000 over two years. After the Post-Dispatch broke the scandal, the owner of the towing company was indicted. Instead of firing or insisting Mokwa be brought up on charges, Slay and the police board arranged for him to retire with benefits and made sure tax-payers paid for his legal fees. Slay claimed he knew nothing about the reporting of crime or the towing scandal. Either he's not telling the truth or he's an incompetent leader-both of which bode badly for a candidate who now boasts of his collaborations with the department.

Additionally, under the watchful eye of Slay appointees, there have been numerous escapes from the city’s two jails. It was recently reported that guards have been waging and betting on gladiator-style fights among inmates. Although Slay’s glitzy TV ads boast of his crime-fighting accomplishments, St. Louis has been chronicled all over the globe as one of, or “the most,” violent city in America throughout his three terms in office.

The local media has noted the millions in donations Slay has received from corporate heads and individuals who lean conservative. But they’ve yet to scrutinize the apparent privatization agenda he’s implemented in public school reform, public service and, recently, in his efforts to have the French utility service company, Veolia, take over the city’s water department.

St. Louis can no longer afford a mayor with apparent “pay-to-play” connections with rich developers, such as Paul McKee (NorthSide Regeneration) and the owners of the Baseball Cardinals (Baseball Village). His idea of “development” is seeded in the antiquated notion that “one big developer, with one big idea” backed by loads of tax incentives will somehow revitalize the city, and drive down unemployment rates that are chronic in some low-income neighborhoods. As the Post-Dispatch reported in 2010 (without holding Slay responsible by the way), the $1.7 billion in tax-increment financing doled out to developers in the last decade added “little net wealth”to our region.

The P-D series also noted our “declining population,” rapidly aging work force and the city’s inability to cultivate “the sort of innovators, entrepreneurs and bright minds who will build the economy of the future.
Slay’s style of old school, racially divisive, clandestine and exclusive politics will keep the city in backward motion. His administration is so focused on conservative agendas that it’s oblivious to a host of federal programs the Obama Administration has crafted to rebuild struggling metropolitan cities. Mayors of Newark, NJ; Cleveland, OH; Detroit, MI; Memphis, TN; New Orleans, LA., and other cities have used these initiatives to spark innovative community-based development in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Slay, on the other hand, is still stuck on short-sighted, big ticket proposals that offer fickle promises of trickle-down tax benefits and low-wage jobs.

His main opponent, President of the Board of Aldermen, Lewis Reed has yet to be compromised by millionaires with privatization agendas. His work as an alderman in Lafayette Square speaks to his leanings toward people-first development. His stance against Slay's attempt to turn over the water department to Veolia Inc., is a sign that he's not in favor of swapping city jobs for corporate donations. Lastly, Reed has announced a plan for development on the city's North side. Granted, it's limited in scope but he, unlike Slay, sees the potential in targeting tax incentives and dollars to long-ignored communities in our city.

* * * * *
I live a considerably downsized life since leaving the Post-Dispatch in 2009. Yet, it is a life of exciting interaction with grassroots agencies and individuals, activated young people and city residents who are involved, engaged and determined to revitalize disadvantaged neighborhoods and salvage the lives of “at-risk” populations. In short, we have a cadre of extraordinary, ordinary people ready to build a truly, hip, diverse, more progressive and more inclusive St. Louis. What’s needed in City Hall is a leader with the insight, influence, resources and willingness to capitalize on this magic moment.

Unfortunately, the old school politician seeking a fourth term in office is not that kind of visionary leader.