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Mount Buzzmore

Scandals, shootings and tax anger crack Westfall façade, but bags of money, no GOP opponent -- yet -- may keep him on his pedestal


Buzz Westfall's been in office so long that the standard clichés of political hackdom -- "fixture," "powerhouse," "reign," "dynasty" -- have taken on the same patina and permanence as his official title, St. Louis County executive.

With a long stint as a county prosecutor and a dozen years at his current post, Westfall has the service stripes of an astute politician, perhaps the best in the business of local government.

He is the long-living, long-serving type.

Monolithic. Monumental. Masterful.

But every dog-ass politician has his day, they say. And such wisdom always carries a double edge. It can be a day of continued glory. Or a day of final reckoning. Just ask Lenin. Or "Papa Doc" Duvalier. Ask them about the frozen moment when their statues were yanked to earth.

Although a war chest that exceeds $1 million and the absence of a credible challenger may be enough to prevent Republican revolutionaries from toppling the Westfall edifice this November and smashing it into dusty chunks of granite, the Great One can no longer run county government by remote control, by way of satellite beams from his secret vacation compound located somewhere near the Lake of the Ozarks.

Or the 19th hole at the Bogey Club.

Yessir -- Buzz may have to put down the 9-iron and the Ugly Stik and work for this one. Do a gut check. See whether the fire is still in the belly. Or just say: "Screw it; I've had a damn good run -- I'd rather go fishing."

There are two prime reasons Westfall won't be able to run a Cruise-o-Matic re-election campaign:

· A Republican-controlled County Council filled with partisans more than willing to shine a spotlight on scandals and screw-ups.

· A wave of disgruntlement washing over the rapidly shifting demographics of St. Louis County, which now has more African-Americans living inside its borders than does the city.

Viewed from the topwater level, more minority voters should be a decided plus for Westfall and any Democratic co-conspirator. African-Americans now account for 19 percent of the county's residents -- up 5 percentage points since 1990 -- and 17.2 percent of its eligible voters, says Ken Warren, a political-science professor at St. Louis University. They also form a key component of Westfall's North County redoubt of union members, minorities and other Democratic-leaning voters.

But a dip below the surface indicates that Westfall's claim on minority voters is far from iron-clad. Black political leaders are angered by redistricting, a redrawing of the political map that they say unfairly targets their statehouse districts. They and their constituents are also deeply troubled by the shooting of two black drug suspects by lawmen -- the infamous Jack in the Box affair and the killing by county police of a woman in Wellston.

"He might as well be a Republican, as far as black voters go," says Elbert Walton, a North County Democratic committeeman and husband of state Rep. Juanita Walton (D-Moline Acres). "He doesn't appeal to anyone, but he doesn't do anything to cause them anger or harm."

The county's black arrivistes are part of a near-suburb phenomenon occurring nationwide -- city dwellers moving out of the city and into the older bedroom communities that hug the border between city and county. In turn, white voters who helped make the county a Republican stronghold for 30 years are moving further out, into surrounding areas such as St. Charles and Franklin counties.

But the political habits of the county's new minority voters aren't automatic. And, like their white counterparts from decades ago, they have moved to the suburbs for better schools, less crime, a better job and a bigger home.

"Buzz does not have the normal lock on the black vote that a Democrat usually has," says one prominent black political player. "You get a progressive, business-oriented Republican, and he might make a lot of sense to a college-educated, corporate black man or woman."

This is a resounding echo of that old Republican wet dream, the political equivalent of a bloated conventioneer's dreams of a randy night with a porn star. But because it comes from a black political leader, there's very little fantasy fueling those words. Instead, there's a nasty little message pitch: Don't take us for granted, Jack.

Black political leaders, pissed off about redistricting and none too pleased with law-enforcement tactics that they claim unfairly target blacks and other minorities, are making their customary noise about backing Republican Jim Talent in his race against U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan.

Although it's unlikely that many blacks will actually vote for the Republican challenger, lack of enthusiasm for Westfall could weaken him on Election Night -- nine months from now. But this doesn't mean squat if the Republicans fail to pony up a stud-hoss challenger. Hasn't happened yet, although Missouri Republican Party executive director John Hancock promises to unveil one "very soon."

Warren doesn't buy the notion that Westfall is vulnerable. The Great One's tough-on-crime credentials and pro-development stance put him in good stead with Republicans, complementing his home-grown support among Democrats.

"This guy -- his name is so big, he's won by huge margins, he's won for years," he says.

Charlie Dooley (D-1st District), the county's sole black council member and a longtime Westfall ally, agrees. He notes that Westfall has poured county money into his district, building a health center, repairing highways and roads, establishing a job-training center in an old factory. He also cites the ad hoc citizens' committee Westfall called for in the wake of the Wellston shooting.

Former Westfall aide Lee Brotherton says: "I don't think Buzz has a thing to worry about. The Republicans would love to think Buzz Westfall is vulnerable. Ain't happenin'."

Westfall, in his own words: "I'm viewed as a conservative Democrat, which gives me the best of both worlds."

But thanks to Republican control of the County Council, one hemisphere of that world is a lot more problematic than it used to be. The GOP's renewed dominance was reaffirmed last week with the election of Skip Mange, formerly mayor of Town & Country, ensuring that Westfall will continue to face markedly sharper partisanship in his fiefdom.

"I'd be less than candid if I didn't say there's been more partisanship than there's been before," says Westfall.

Republican operatives promise to keep Westfall in their crosshairs.

"He's basically a pro-life, conservative, law-and-order former prosecutor who Republicans can vote for -- he's basically coasted for 12 years on that," says GOP consultant Paul Zemitzsch. "Whoever the GOP puts up, Buzz is going to have to work to win this election. And it's been a long time since he worked door to door."

But there's an illusory quality to the current Republican reign, one belying the notion that Mange's election indicates a powerful Republican resurgence that will be bad news for all Democrats. Warren points out that the county's GOP majority is more a creature of the boundaries drawn for each of the seven County Council districts than it is a bellwether of overall Republican strength.

"Those heavy Republican votes you used to see just aren't there any more," said Warren. "St. Louis County is no longer a Republican county, not at all."

That was good news for Al Gore last year -- he carried the county handily while losing the state. Should be good news for Carnahan. Unfortunately for Westfall, there's more than enough substance to raise Republican attacks above the mucky level of mere partisan bickering that voters claim to hate. The superficial laundry list is so obvious, even that blind pulpwood pig the Pulitzers keep as a pet can stumble across it.

None of the items on that list tars and feathers Westfall, but all occurred on his watch and make convenient brickbats for Republicans and their reformista "good government" rhetoric.

By now, you know them well: Kinkogate, the witch hunt for a county whistleblower; the blank-check rip-off by the county recorder of deeds; the indictment of council member and key fellow Democrat Bob Young IV for taking a bribe from a cab-company owner.

This last one was a shocker, shaking the very foundation of one of Westfall's Democratic pillars. With Young disgraced and ousted from the polite company of the County Council, Westfall loses the services of a key connection to the politically powerful Pipefitters Union, which once counted Westfall's daddy as a member.

All of the above may be dismissed by voters as typical political mudslinging. Far more problematic for Westfall is the rising outrage of homeowners over their skyrocketing tax bills, largely caused by escalating assessments.

Supercharging the fire of their anger with a stream of Jet A fuel is the revelation that former county assessor Maurice "Mo" Gogarty and his crew didn't actually inspect property at close range, as required by state law. Instead, they picked a new dollar amount while driving past the targeted home. Gogarty was quickly thrown to the screaming mob -- a classic scapegoat.

But once ignited, the flames of a tax revolt are hard to snuff out. They burn across lines of party, race and class, scorching through confusing policy issues and duplicitous and hollow rhetoric.

An issue like this "puts the hay down where the goats can get at it," as they say down in Alabama. And angry voters are motivated voters -- they'll organize, they'll show up at the polls, they'll be a force that can neutralize natural advantages in money, political machinery and voter demographics.

That's bad juju for any politician, even a living legend such as Buzz Westfall. But the smart money says he'll only teeter before righting himself. He won't topple.

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