Francis Slay's campaign hacks reluctantly agreed to allow a Riverfront Times writer to bird-dog the mayor, albeit briefly, during his final days on the campaign trail. Despite his tremendous financial advantage over his two Democratic opponents -- St. Louis school board member Bill Haas and First Ward Alderman Irene J. Smith -- the city's 45th mayor is taking nothing for granted in his quest for a second term. At press time Tuesday night, Slay appeared headed to a commanding victory in the Democratic primary and will face only symbolic opposition in the April 5 general election.
It's February 25, an icy-cold Friday, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Jake Wagman writes an article that likens the mayor to Ted Drewes frozen custard: "Familiar, easy to swallow and distinctly St. Louis."
The uneventful race has also been easy to swallow -- as bland and low-calorie, some might argue, as Slay himself. Despite lackluster competition, Slay, ten days shy of 50, isn't sitting still. He's working the pubs, handing out pins of the city flag, appearing at fundraisers and taking to the airwaves. "You have to take voters seriously," says Slay's campaign spokesman, Richard Callow, pursing his lips.
Perhaps the quirkiest aspect of Slay's eighth bid for an elected office in St. Louis (he's never lost) is the blog written by campaign worker Janie Papaccio, under the sobriquet Janie P. (www.mayorslay.com/cgi-bin/diary.cgi).
Papaccio initially proved a conscientious observer of Slay's activities on the hustings. Her first entry, from January 20, states: "A retired city employee says he has a good pension but wonders what [Slay] can do to give city employees a raise. [Slay's] response, 'We don't make decisions in a vacuum. I have a great team working with me. We have a tough budget year facing us. City employees will get a 2% increase.'"
As the campaign slogged forward, however, Papaccio seemed to tire of oft-repeated messages and turned to more offbeat topics, such as turkey sandwiches, her ongoing pet-related trauma -- and her fashion obsession. "Any chance the campaign budget could spring for the Ralph Lauren spring collection sailor outfit I saw this weekend?" reads part of a February 23 entry.
Our first sighting of Slay in full campaign mode comes Saturday, February 26. He's at a catered soirée inside the Lafayette Square mansion of Mary Ann and Chris Goodson. Chris, a developer, was recently appointed by Slay to the Board of Police Commissioners. Moments before the mayor arrives at 6 p.m., a handful of female volunteers assemble in the foyer. They marvel at Slay's fine manners and charming features. "I bet he's never had an affair," one whispers.
Trailed by spokesman Callow and deputy mayor of development Barbara Geisman, Slay strides in, kisses a volunteer on the cheek and accepts from a staffer a glass of ice water. Developers and insurance and real estate agents swarm him. "I'm wearing my elephant tie as a sign of Republicans supporting a Democrat," insurance agent Tom Martin playfully notes.
"Even if Slay was a Republican, I'd vote for him," remarks real estate agent Mary "One" Johnson. "It's about the individual. He brings us money!" The guests will return the favor before leaving, stuffing envelopes with checks totaling $15,000.
The evening proceeds swiftly, with Slay pressing the flesh up and down the foyer. An older gentleman grabs the mayor's arm and shouts in his ear, "You're great!" Slay offers a closed-lipped smile.
"This [campaign's] not too big of a deal for you, is it?" remarks another supporter.
"No," the mayor replies casually. "But to me, it's not just about winning. It's about getting people excited."
Slay's stance, however, alternates between altar boy (bowed head, clasped hands) and soccer star (feet 30 inches apart, arms crossed or hands jammed in pockets). His mantra: "Progress, partnerships, people." The mayor, cautious as a diamond cutter, does not tell jokes.
It's Sunday morning, February 27, and a bunny rabbit is standing outside Slay's Oleatha Avenue home. A man approaches with his Dalmatian. The dog relieves itself, and the bunny bolts.
Slay's dogs, Riley and Sophie, are nowhere to be seen, though they are centerpieces of the mayor's campaign literature and featured on his Web site. Callow says he made the dogs mouthpieces because Slay's now-deceased mutt, Chester, performed so well four years ago. In fact, during the 2001 race, Chester's profile received more hits than Slay's own biography.
Right on schedule, the mayor marches out of his unadorned, shingled brick abode at 10:15 a.m. and climbs into the front seat of a police car. "We bought this house seventeen years ago," Slay explains. Then an alderman, Slay sold his previous home to a haggler. "He said, 'Francis, I vote, and if you sell me this house for $5,000 less than you're asking, you've got my support from now on!' Deal!"
The driver chuckles.
While zipping through the 23rd Ward, where Slay grew up pulling athletic stunts to impress his ten siblings, the mayor recounts his days playing on a nationally ranked soccer squad. "Coach Vasquez would say to me, 'When you go out there, don't worry about the other guy. Tell yourself, he's gotta deal with me,'" Slay recalls, stabbing his finger at the windshield.
At 10:45 the car arrives at New Mount Missionary Baptist Church on the city's north side. Slay has come not to worship but to merely say a quick hello. He waits in the hallway as devotions are read.
"I'm surprised to see you here," gushes a churchgoer on her way into the sanctuary. Slay then moves into the Reverend Donald Hunter's spacious office, where he emphasizes that there will be no note-taking -- "out of respect." Callow engages Hunter in small talk while Slay circles the room, inspects its eclectic accoutrements and glances at his watch. He seems preoccupied.
At Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church half an hour later, worshippers greet Slay with murmurs and "yes'm"s. Slay at last reveals a toothy smile. The mayor recently named Pleasant Grove's pastor, Courtney Jones, to the St. Louis Airport Commission, and Jones thanks Slay for the job. Jones remembers a morning several years ago when picketers stood outside protesting the church's renovations. "Within an hour of my call to the mayor, they were gone," the pastor says. Slay, meanwhile, elicits a standing ovation after paraphrasing John F. Kennedy's line about serving one's country.
Several hours later Slay arrives for the day's final appointment, at the Central West End apartment of Toby and David Newburger. Up on the eighth floor, the art is modern and the napkins a bright Democratic blue. David, an attorney, is a member of the Tax Increment Financing Commission and a former chairman of the Advisory Committee on Disability Law Compliance for the U.S. Attorney, Eastern District of Missouri. Many of his guests -- leaders from the disability-rights community -- air concerns about certain city employees, which prompts Slay to repeatedly block bystanders with his backside. Tim Embree, a preppy Marine reservist and the campaign's number-two fundraiser, doesn't mind whoring for press: "Hey, I'll take you to the Cardinals' opener if you're nice to us."
The following morning, February 28, a dozen folks listen to Slay tout his record of increased downtown development. Hosting the fundraiser at the Coronado Place apartment building on Lindell Boulevard are developers Amy and Amrit Gill. Movie magnate Harman Moseley, who got home at midnight after an Academy Awards party, stands in the back of the room, complaining of the early hour and chomping on some bacon. "You have to be brave to wear this," he adds, pointing to his lime green-and-pink plaid shirt.
Slay is rattled by the day's news that Federated Department Stores Inc. has bought the St. Louis-based May Department Stores Company, a merger that could result in the loss of up to 4,000 jobs. The mayor turns his unhappiness on the media -- the Riverfront Times in particular. He says he doesn't read the RFT anymore, owing to his displeasure with the paper's coverage of the early years of his administration. "They had trashy articles," he says.
Slay waits his turn at the city-hall security checkpoint, then sprints up the grand stairway with the police detail in tow. Talking points must be reviewed. A press conference awaits. Various city employees and leaders have already gathered inside the mayor's lair. Reverend B.T. Rice stands next to framed portraits of First Pooches Riley and Sophie. "I didn't see my name on the endorsement list in the St. Louis American, and I thought, 'Oh, no, I wonder if the mayor's mad at me,'" he says when Slay approaches.
"Naw, that's....." Slay gropes for a response and pats Rice's elbow.
At noon Slay disappears for a private strategy lunch. "The mayor is meeting with someone who could be an important campaign ally," confides Callow. The mayor has already bagged the endorsements of 27 aldermen and a slew of city and state government officials. Who might the potential ally be? Nelly?
Callow has no comment.