Even among the trash-strewn lots and crumbling buildings lining his north-city ward, Alderman Freeman Bosley Sr.'s soiled and sun-bleached Mercury Sable stands out as an egregious eyesore.
"I just use it to ride in," quips Bosley, who maintains he has more important things on his mind these days than auto care. "If God wants it clean, he'll rain on it."
Tops on his agenda, says Bosley, is the redevelopment of the Third Ward's Hyde Park neighborhood, a once-thriving retail and residential area that in the past five decades has spiraled into disrepair. As he pilots his dirt-stained ride down the neighborhood's main drag, Salisbury Street, the 71-year-old alderman points to vacant lots and buildings where he envisions new gated communities, chain restaurants like Red Lobster and the International House of Pancakes, and an entertainment district with jazz, blues and country & western clubs.
Soon, bystanders take notice of Bosley's creeping jalopy and wave him over to say hello or discuss neighborhood goings-on. He's scarcely traveled 300 yards, and already he's held four impromptu meetings with constituents, most of whom he knows on a first-name basis. Hard to believe that, just six months earlier, Bosley almost lost his nearly thirty-year grip on the ward.
"I played Hardin cheap," concedes Bosley, referring to his political rival Jeffrey Hardin, who came within nineteen votes of toppling Bosley in the aldermanic primary last March. "I rested on my laurels. I didn't think anyone would vote for him."
Immediately following the primary, Hardin sued Bosley and the St. Louis Board of Election Commissioners over alleged voting improprieties. A judge rejected Hardin's argument, but the battle over Bosley's aldermanic seat appears far from over.
Last month a residents' group in the Third Ward began a recall petition against Bosley, making him the fifth alderman in the past two years to face a recall threat. With the exception of the ongoing recall effort against Alderman Tom Bauer in the 24th Ward, all of the recalls have taken place in the predominately African-American wards of north St. Louis, where aldermen say political infighting and fragile egos make for a constantly contentious climate.
Bosley claims the recall against him reeks of "petty politics," with Hardin supposedly working covertly to wrest the seat from the longtime alderman.
"He's totally behind this," insists Bosley, who in April won his fifth straight -- and seventh overall -- term as Third Ward alderman. "That's the only thing they have to try to get rid of me. He's still upset they lost the election."
Hardin, for his part, denies any involvement, saying the effort is in reaction to an eminent-domain project that has forced several Third Ward residents from their homes. Still, Hardin does not deny recently picketing Bosley's home and vows he will someday defeat his opponent.
"Inevitably, I will have Bosley's seat," Hardin vows. "That's a fact."
"It's open season on aldermen," says Alderman Jeffrey Boyd, who's facing a recall in the 22nd Ward. "If you have a personality conflict with them, recall them. My recall is all about sour grapes."
Leading the recall of Boyd are former 22nd Ward Aldermen Kenny Jones and Jay Ozier, who acknowledge they're out to settle the score dating back to 2003, when Boyd took the aldermanic seat from Ozier by a scant eight votes. They claim Boyd sullied their reputation during that election by campaigning on a platform of unapologetic "race-baiting."
"Boyd used our support of Slay to defeat Ozier," says Jones. "He sent out literature calling Slay 'Master Slay' and calling us 'house aldermen,' like we were his house niggers."
This past June the issue rose to a boil within the mayor's office, when Jones and Francis Slay engaged in a profanity-laced fracas over Jones' involvement in the recall. The argument ended with Jones losing his $73,000-per-year gig as Slay's executive director of the Civil Rights Enforcement Agency.
Reached at home, where he's searching for a new job and recovering from a nasty bout of hay fever, Jones wouldn't comment on the status of the recall but coyly guaranteed its success.
"Let's put it this way," the ex-alderman says. "Just as the sky is blue on a sunny June day, Jeffrey Boyd will be on the ballot."
Political observers say the successful recalls of former north-city alderwomen Melinda Long and Peggy Ryan have motivated those working to oust Boyd and Bosley. Long lost control of the 21st Ward in 2003 when Bennice Jones King, whom Long defeated in 2001, led a recall to regain her aldermanic seat.
Ryan was sent packing from her position as Fourth Ward alderwoman this June following a recall led by one-time political ally O.L. Shelton. Prior to those recalls, only one other alderman in the 91-year history of the city charter has lost office through recall -- Jimmie Matthews (27th Ward) in 1988.
Still reeling from her recall, Ryan says the system is being abused.
"The recall process was set up for malfeasance in office, not because you don't like someone personally," she says. "My recall had nothing to do with my work as an alderperson. It had only to do with a personal situation between me and O.L."
St. Louis is not alone in the recall game. Cities across the nation have seen a surge of "copy-cat" efforts following the well-publicized ouster of California Governor Gray Davis in 2003.
This past February, Kansas City Councilwoman Saundra McFadden-Weaver survived what was thought to be that city's first recall election in 80 years. Like the north St. Louis aldermen facing recall, McFadden-Weaver represents a predominately African-American district of Kansas City known for its unemployment and crime. Partially in a response to that recall, the city council of Kansas City is considering a change to its charter that would require people seeking a recall to state specific grounds for recalling the elected official.
Like St. Louis aldermen, Kansas City council members can be recalled without reason.
Privately, several St. Louis aldermen complain the city's recall process should be reviewed, if not revamped completely, but they're reluctant to address the topic for fear of appearing self-serving. They argue the specter of a recall compromises their ability to effectively serve their constituents. They also believe the city's decline in population -- from 856,000 in 1950 to 348,000 in 2000 -- has made it easier to mount a recall, which requires signatures from 20 percent of the ward's registered voters during the previous mayoral election. In Boyd's ward, that's 1,600 signatures. In Bosley's case, it's 1,400.
Saint Louis University political science professor Ken Warren says recall petitions throughout the nation generally require signatures from 12 to 45 percent of registered voters. But regardless of whether they succeed or fail, Warren argues, recalls never miss their mark.
"Most recalls are not successful, 'cause most are bullshit," says Warren. "They're trying to remove an official without waiting for an election as a way to tarnish that person in the media. It's a dirty way to sully someone's reputation."
The spate of recalls has not escaped the notice of Board of Aldermen President Jim Shrewsbury, who says the people's right to recall must be maintained but questions the motives of several recent petitions.
"Most of the recalls have simply been continuations of political campaigns or battles between various factions in the ward, and that's what you see with Bosley and Boyd," says Shrewsbury.
Others say it's simply a matter of race and class.
"Why are these recalls occurring predominately in north St. Louis? Because African Americans are more sophisticated in the application of the political process," maintains Jones. "Because of the historic repression they've endured, they've had to find ways to address their issues and concerns in a more sophisticated, calculated manner."
But for Boyd, who's spent much of his term fending off attacks from Jones and Ozier, it's the people -- not the system -- who are being manipulated.
"In my mind, you're able to take advantage of people in north St. Louis because they're more concerned about jobs and getting bills paid than they are with politics," says Boyd.
"When someone goes into a bad neighborhood and points to the vacant homes lining the streets and says, 'We need to get rid of these vacant homes and the alderman isn't doing anything about it,' you're going to be easily seduced. But the reality is as an alderman you can't do something on every block. You get a few hundred thousand dollars in block grants to work with, and your ward has $100 million in need. Now how are you going to please everyone?"
Echoes Bosley: "Why are these recalls going on in north city? 'Cause we're fighting over the scraps."
Bosley estimates north St. Louis has lost $37 million in private investment and federal aid since 2003, when shifts in the city's population moved the Twentieth Ward from north to south city. The political shift left a power vacuum in north city that's yet to be filled.
"There's always someone lurking under the table. That's just human nature," muses Bosley. "But the redistricting of the wards, that took away some of my best voters."
Still, when it comes to defending his home turf, the inveterate alderman doesn't shy away from a game of political hardball every now and then. In June the home of his political adversary, Jeffrey Hardin, was foreclosed upon by the bank. Bosley says he plans to purchase the house with neighborhood block-grant funds and resell it to a stable homeowner.
"I'm not doing it out of spite," Bosley insists. "It would simply be a mistake on my part as an alderman to let some speculator get ahold of it and turn it into Section 8 housing. I'm doing it for the betterment of the neighborhood."