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The Accidental Politician

After five years in office, enigmatic Darlene Green has become a force to be reckoned with in St. Louis


The mayor faced an important and unexpected decision as the career of one of St. Louis' most powerful elected officials came crashing down in the fall of 1995. Virvus Jones, the controversial and outspoken city comptroller, had pleaded guilty to two charges of federal tax fraud, and his resignation from office was imminent. Political insiders, many pulling for their own candidates, anxiously wondered who'd get the nod from Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr.

On Oct. 11, 1995, Bosley gave his answer. Instead of a high-profile, seasoned politician like Jones, the mayor chose his soft-spoken budget director, a person who had never run for public office or registered high on anybody's list of possibilities. All of a sudden, quiet, behind-the-scenes, uncontroversial Darlene Green held one St. Louis' most important political jobs.

The response from everybody, not just the politically connected, was a resounding "Darlene who?"

Days after the announcement, Green met U.S. Rep. Bill Clay, Missouri's senior member of Congress and long a player in hometown politics. Clay chuckles as he recalls the conversation with the new comptroller: "I said, "Who are you? Where did you come from?' Nobody had heard of her."

Green, then 39, was such a stranger to both public speaking and the spotlight that after a week on the campaign trail, trekking to ward meetings, churches and neighborhood gatherings, she lost her voice. She showed up at a scheduled radio show anyway, unable to croak out even a few words. "I was talking more than I ever had in my life," she says.

Name recognition is no longer the problem it once was for Green, who in 1996 became the first woman elected to the comptroller's post and who handily won re-election to a full term in 1997. For five years, Green has served as the city's chief fiscal officer, a role that includes serving on the powerful Board of Estimate and Apportionment, where she's the only member who isn't a candidate for mayor in 2001.

As comptroller, Green has built a reputation as an effective public official who gets praise for the city's consistent credit-rating upgrades and budget surpluses. She's politically prudent and has refused to take sides in the hot mayor's race that has incumbent Clarence Harmon fending off a well-financed challenge from Aldermanic President Francis Slay. That neutrality reflects her cautious approach, which kept her from controversy while opening her to gentle charges of sometimes being too invisible and, well, just plain too nice.

Because she clearly hasn't garnered the sort of attention or grabbed the headlines her predecessor did, some still ask, "Darlene who?" As one alderman puts it: "She is totally below the radar screen."

That's fine with Green. "My job is not about attention-getting," she says. "It's about getting the job done on behalf of the taxpayers. That's all the attention I need, and that's really the bottom line."

Darlene Green's imposing desk at City Hall is covered with carefully arranged stacks of official documents. Between the books arranged on the giant credenza behind her, she has displayed photographs of her meetings with celebrities: Here's Darlene Green with President Bill Clinton. Here she is with singer Patti LaBelle, lawyer Johnnie Cochran and Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee. The opportunity to rub shoulders with the powerful and famous reflects a life Green says she never envisioned for herself while growing up poor in the Pruitt-Igoe public-housing complex on the city's North Side, the eldest of six children in a single-parent home.

Back then, Green was a quiet, obedient child who aspired to a better life. She watched her mother struggle to raise a family while holding down two jobs -- working both as a housekeeper in Clayton and Ladue and as an aide at a nursing home -- and it left a lasting impression.

To this day, Green remains amazed at her mother's ability to keep their three-bedroom apartment white-glove tidy, what with everything else on her plate: "We would wake up in the morning, and if you can just imagine this for a moment, I'm waking up and she's telling me to get ready for school, and I'm washing my face, and by the time I turn around, all the beds are made. Everything is crisp; a hot meal is on the table. The whole house is immaculate, and there is not a dirty piece of laundry in the house. That's the way my mother was. It would drive us kids crazy, but that's the way she was, every day."

Although Pruitt-Igoe later achieved notoriety as a symbol of the nation's public-housing failures (the complex was dynamited in 1976), Green says she remembers a different place, where kids played jumprope and hide-and-seek in the shadows of the high-rises and the neighbors knew your name and made sure you were home before dark. Her world was limited to the blocks surrounding her home, the places she could walk to, and return from, in time to be in by dark: "Until I was 11 or 12, I didn't know anything past Grand Avenue. I knew there was the Fox Theatre, and nothing past that."

Her mother's heavy workload also meant that Green, as the eldest, learned responsibility at an early age. She watched her younger siblings while her mother was at work, a role Green says was hard because younger brothers and sisters are often loath to take orders from an older one. "I always knew that my mother didn't go to work for fun," she says, "that it was because she needed to have income to raise a family. I remember having to talk to my brothers and sisters about when we didn't have enough money, to make them understand: "Don't cry because we don't have this. Don't cry because Mama isn't here. I know you don't want me to be your mama, but let me take your head, lie on my shoulder. I'll try to make it better for you.' I remember those kinds of things."

As she relates the experience, Green's composure suddenly gives way to tears. She apologizes as she grabs a tissue. "I apologize -- I hadn't thought about this in so long," she says. "I never did this before."

Green was just a young child herself as she struggled with her leadership role. "I remember climbing on the shelf to get the sugar to make Kool-Aid, I was that little," she says. "But they were littler than me, so, you know, that's what I had to do, and it was OK -- because when you are in a family, at least for me, that was my responsibility. I always remember that, being that I was the older one, doing the right thing. It was what my mother expected, and that's how I was raised."

Barry Leibman, co-owner of Left Bank Books, remembers Green when she was a teenager attending Vashon High School. Back then, he taught at a program called Sophia House, a former residence at 23rd and Hebert streets that had been converted into school and study rooms for an after-school program started by the Jesuits at St. Louis University for boys from the city's North Side. Four nights a week, for three hours each night, Green would show up to study, do her homework, receive lessons on such things as language skills and vocabulary-building. Leibman says the program drew high achievers and had a successful rate of placing students in the most competitive universities, including Harvard. It also sought to instill in the teens a sense of community service. "We did not want the students to just get an education and get out of the community," Leibman says. "We wanted them to get an education and come back to help."

He recalls Green vividly: "She was very smart, very self-assured even at that age and very sweet, which, as a teenager, translates into an adult as a kind person, which she is. She kind of exhibited a lot of the really strong qualities that she exhibits as an adult."

One of the counselors at Sophia House was Virvus Jones. "It started out as an all-male prep that served kids who lived in the old Pruitt-Igoe project, and she was one of the first women to break the sex barrier. She had a quiet determination," Jones says. "We had some people who expressed their confidence level a lot louder than Darlene -- she was always kind of the quiet, soft-spoken person she is now, but very determined. She was very dedicated to getting and making a better life for herself."

Green says she treasured the time spent studying at Sophia House; because her siblings were now older, she could afford to sneak away the time for herself. "It was one of the first places girls could go," she says, "I'd go home, do my chores, and then it was, like, "Can I go, can I go?' And I went. One of my best girlfriends and I would go, and I would really study, believe it or not -- that was fun to us," she says.

When it came time to choose a college, Green, who'd toured schools on the East Coast and attended a summer program at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., applied to Washington University and Boston University. She was accepted at both schools. She was headed for Boston. But her cautious nature led to some last-minute worries. Although she had a scholarship package including tuition and room and board, Green didn't have the money to get to Boston, and even if she did, how would she ever afford to return home for visits? She wrote to Wash. U. officials, asking whether she could get financial aid to live on campus, and they said yes. She stayed in St. Louis.

"Sometimes I have second thoughts and wish I had left, because it is good to have experiences outside your hometown," she says. But she could live on campus, away from home, and Green says she figured she could manage better there. She majored in business administration with an eye toward working in the accounting field, and she had her first full-time job before she graduated, when an internship at Brown Shoe in Clayton turned into an offer of permanent full-time employment. She finished her studies at night and graduated in 1978.

Green worked at Brown Shoe for three years, then did a stint as an auditor for the Missouri Public Service Commission in Jefferson City and, for five years, worked as an assistant comptroller at Columbia College in Columbia, Mo. In the mid-'80s, as her five-year marriage was ending (she declines to talk about her ex-husband), she returned to St. Louis and took a job working for the May Co., handling accounting for its shopping-centers division. Back in St. Louis, she ran into Freeman Bosley Jr., whom she had known in high school, though not well. He had been friends with her cousin and her ex-husband. In 1986, Bosley, then the city clerk, offered her a job as financial manager in his office. She accepted. After Bosley was elected mayor, Green followed him to City Hall, taking the job of budget director in 1993.

If not for an unusual string of events, including a chance meeting at a wake, Green would not be comptroller today. Back in September 1995, Green got a call at home on a Sunday afternoon from Bosley's secretary. The mayor wanted to meet with Green the next morning. She had no idea why: "He had never done that before, so I was, like, "What did I do?' I contemplated the whole day what was wrong." That evening, she read about Virvus Jones' troubles in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and figured Bosley might need her to do some work related to that. She wasn't prepared for what happened at their meeting, when he began talking about making her the city's next comptroller.

Green says she was stunned, and as she listened politely, she quickly made up her mind to turn him down: "I sat back and relaxed, because I was, like, "No way!' I was listening to him, being courteous, but when we finished the conversation, I said, "No, thank you, I can't do this.'" She remembers the two of them exchanging puzzled grins as the meeting ended. "I figured he was thinking, "I just wasted my time.' And I was thinking, "Yes, you did.'"

That might have been the end of it. But the next day, as Green was attending a wake, she ran into Jackie Brock, an ordained minister and evangelist and wife of Cardinals star Lou Brock, whom Green had met before on social occasions. Brock motioned to her from across the room, then told Green she had been on her mind all day. A small television set in the funeral home was running a story on Jones' problems, and Brock told Green: "You're going to have his job." She reached out for Green's hands and asked Green to pray with her.

The encounter so shook Green that she figured she had made a terrible mistake in declining Bosley's offer. "I thought there was no way she could have known about this meeting I just had," she says. "It was on my mind, but there is no way she could have known." Green, a member of Antioch Baptist Church who considers herself a spiritual person, took the conversation as a sign. "If you are a spiritual person, you don't want to miss your opportunity," she says. "You want to be in the right place. That's how I was feeling." She called Bosley that night and told him she had changed her mind. But it was more than a month before he made his decision. Green says she had "goosebumps and rumblings in my stomach and was nervous for a good 30 days." In early October, it became official: Green would be the next comptroller.

At the time, speculation about who would get the nod centered on Circuit Clerk Mavis Thompson and Leslie F. Bond Jr., a lawyer and former head of the city election board. Bosley had made it clear that his choice would be an African-American, and Green's name surfaced as a possible compromise candidate.

Bosley says Green had done a good job for him in the clerk's office, particularly in her handling of negative audits from state Auditor Margaret Kelly, who questioned what had happened to more than $1 million in funds from civil cases between 1986 and 1989. By 1993, Kelly said most of the problems had been corrected. Bosley says Green also performed well as budget director, submitting well-planned, detailed budgets.

"In these types of situations, you try to get two things out of every decision," he says, "a good administrative decision and a good political decision. When I started thinking about potential candidates, the politics had to give way to the administrative."

"She had no politics," Bosley adds. "She was a political neophyte. But I knew no one could question my decision. She's quiet and reserved, but she's confident. And I don't care what happens or what anyone says, but she knows finance and she knows money. She moves quietly and methodically and gets the job done."

Moving into such a public role was initially a stretch for the private Green, who had long felt comfortable in behind-the-scenes roles. "It is the hardest thing I've ever done," she says. She viewed becoming a public official as a second job and sought out advice from other politicians. She methodically practiced her public speaking, read books, remembered old skills from a stint in a Toastmasters club, practiced in front of friends, learned that the cure for laryngitis involves cold liquids, not hot ones.

"People who know me say there was a definite evolution from the time I first began until now," Green says. "But I knew how to do hard work. There's nothing wrong with hard work, and having a mother like I had, how could I not work hard?"

During her first campaign, supporters initially worried that the public might view her as too nice or too timid.

Darlene Davis, an accountant with TLC Next Generation who worked as deputy treasurer on both of Green's campaigns, remembers those early campaign meetings, where some supporters pushed to "almost redefine her character" in an effort to address the niceness issue -- and urged her to hire an image consultant: "Everyone was saying you have to do this and do that. Everyone was bombarding her with stuff like that and saying she needed to hire an image consultant." Davis says Green politely refused. "She said, "I'm me; this is who I am and this is who I am going to be," Davis recalls. "Forget all of the fluff -- this is who she is. When voters see her and come to the conclusion that she is soft-spoken, it is because that is who she is, but she is extremely effective."

Davis says Green's strongest trait is her consistency: "Over all the years I've known her, regardless of what position she is in, she is consistent. She has that sort of quiet, unassuming personality, but when it comes down to work having to be done, tough decisions having to be made, you might think she would be a pushover, but she knows her stuff. When it is time to be aggressive, she is aggressive to the point that she gets her point across and gets results accomplished, but in the end you are still left saying she is a humble, unassuming-type person. She doesn't ruffle a whole lot of feathers, but she is effective."

But it hasn't all been smooth sailing for Green. Early in her term, there were a couple of highly publicized blunders. In 1996, for instance, the Post-Dispatch reported that three felons were among the hosts of a campaign fundraiser in Kansas City; Green said she was unaware of their records. And in 1997, the Post-Dispatch sued to obtain the cell-phone records of eight current or former members of Bosley's administration after Green refused to release the records. Those records, the Post-Dispatch reported, showed more than 11 hours' worth of calls from Green's two cell phones to her campaign staff. Green later reimbursed the city for the calls.

But since then, Green's tenure has, for the most part, been devoid of controversy or scandal. One alderman notes that with Bosley's mayoral defeat in 1997, the departure of her benefactor has freed Green to be an independent voice in city government.

She has taken on a prominent role in several key issues, including the future of the Kiel Opera House. Back in 1996, the Board of Aldermen directed Green to enforce the lease held by Kiel Partners -- a group of mostly Civic Progress companies that raised money to build the new Kiel Center -- and force the group to complete renovation of the Opera House. Green decided against suing Kiel Partners, which maintained that it had met its obligation by spending $2.5 million on the Opera House. She then appointed a task force to offer ideas on how Kiel could be restored; it recommended turning the building into a museum.

Ed Golterman, founder of Kiel for Performing Arts Inc., an organization with the goal of reopening Kiel as a performing-arts venue, complains that Green's task force included individuals affiliated with Grand Center Inc., which sees the Opera House as a potential threat to the Fox. "If you looked at the committee, it was pretty much stacked against reopening the Opera House as a theater," he says. But even Golterman, who has since left the Kiel group, won't pointedly fault Green: "I think her office consistently -- let's say the administration -- consistently has ignored the economic and cultural value of Kiel Opera House and has absolutely melted to the pressure of Civic Progress lawyers." He does say that Green's office has seemed overly picky when proposals have come forward: "They seem to require an absolute perfect deal with all the money on the table."

Green says she decided not to sue the Kiel Partners because the city counselor's office and lawyers with the St. Louis Development Corp. gave conflicting opinions on the city's legal position: "I didn't feel like I had strong legal backing, and I didn't want to waste taxpayers' money in court. I felt I could be more effective in bringing in community involvement to come up with a solution rather than going to court and spending money."

At one point, Green rejected a proposal from real-estate investor Sam Glasser, who had offered $1 million for the opera house. She says she would rather see the Opera House kept in a mothballed state until someone comes forward with enough money to ensure its restoration. Maintenance was required under the lease terms with Kiel Partners, and under the partnership's successors, Bill and Nancy Laurie, who last year purchased Kiel Center and the hockey Blues. Green believes that ultimately, Kiel Opera House could be reopened as a blues and jazz museum but also as a performance venue.

James Heidenry, treasurer of Kiel for Performing Arts, believes Green could have done more to see the opera house reopened. At the same time, he says, he is unwilling to criticize her: "I think what she's trying to do is be very conservative and careful with the assets of the city, and I applaud her for it."

Green's style in office has been a marked departure from that of her predecessor, who describes his own political style as more confrontational and contentious. Still, Virvus Jones gives Green a "pretty good grade.

"What I think the comptroller is supposed to do is to ensure that the city's accounts are being managed in accordance with the law, and I think she's done a pretty good job. The city's credit rating has consistently moved forward ... which has reduced the cost of the city to borrow money." Jones credits Green with striving to maintain her independence, citing her decision to resign from the board of ConnectCare in 1997 because she felt it conflicted with her watchdog role as the city's chief fiscal officer.

"I think sometimes people misinterpret her quietness and demeanor and may think she's too soft on issues, and that may have to do with following me as comptroller. She probably has less vinegar in her blood," Jones says. "People used to describe me as pretty cantankerous, contentious, but I had a different way of expressing my disagreement on issues than Darlene does." She has developed a reputation as someone "who doesn't get involved in public confrontations as much."

Green is also dealing with a different atmosphere than he did, Jones says, because he was the first African-American to serve as comptroller since John Bass lost his re-election bid in 1977 after serving a single term as comptroller. Jones was appointed to the position by former Mayor Vincent Schoemehl, and for a while, he was the only black on the Board of Estimation and Apportionment. Jones says that's not an issue today, with Harmon and Green both on the board. And he says his battles may have paved the way for Green in some respects. He says he strived to improve the visibility of the office on the advice of former Comptroller and Mayor John Poelker, who felt the comptroller's position "had lost stature in terms of being the fiscal watchdog of the city and had become a rubber stamp of the mayor's office."

"What I set out to do, per Poelker's advice and counsel, was to restore the confidence level," Jones says. "By the time Darlene got there, a lot of that fight had been fought, with her help, too, as budget director."

Although Green is not considered as outspoken as Jones once was, she is not silent, either. In 1998, the mayor proposed a $113 million bond-issue package and property-tax increase to pay for improvements to the police and fire departments. Green went on record as saying the proposal was "bloated and simply too big" and withdrew her support from the plan. The mayor responded by scaling back the proposal to $65 million.

Earlier this year, Green voiced her disapproval after Harmon attempted to award a potentially lucrative contract to handle a lawsuit by the city against the lead-paint industry to the John Frank law firm, a contributor to Harmon's re-election campaign, without first seeking the approval of the E&A board.

When the contract landed on her desk, Green called the mayor's office to let him know she would not be signing it. "My office found the process had been skirted," she says. "I sent it back, said, "Can't do it,' and they began the proper process."

The matter generated a great deal of controversy because Frank's firm was criticized by Francis Slay as being less qualified than a competing law firm, which was rejected for the job by five-member city selection committee comprising representatives of Slay, Harmon and Green, plus two members of the city counselor's office. The committee chose Frank's firm, which proposed handling the suit for a 25 percent contingency fee, even though the rival law firm proposed charging just 18 percent if the case went to trial and 15 percent if the suit was settled beforehand. The committee did reduce the fee to Frank's firm to 20 percent.

At an E&A meeting in February, political wrangling continued between Harmon and Slay as Slay repeatedly spoke out about a less qualified firm's being awarded the contract for a higher fee and proposed slashing the fee to 18/15 percent. Throughout the verbal sparring by Slay and Harmon, Green stayed silent. But when time came for a vote, she noted that she, too, had concerns that Frank's firm was less qualified but, in the interest of expediency and in the interest of speeding up the likelihood of relief for lead-poisoned children, would approve the contract but with the reduced fee.

She has made her opinion known on issues outside the E&A board as well. Green showed up last month as a crowd chanted outside the Schnucks store at Natural Bridge Avenue and Union Boulevard to protest the closing of two groceries in the city.

"I thought it was important to go and important for the neighborhood people to let Schnucks know they were disappointed in how the store closings were handled, and also I felt they possibly were holding the neighborhood hostage by not only moving but planning not to allow the leases to be used by anyone else," Green says.

You have to stretch to find Green's critics. One of the few people who has anything negative to say about Green is Z. Dwight Billingsly, a deputy comptroller under Jones who ran unsuccessfully against Green in 1997.

"She hasn't really done anything," says Billingsly, a radio-talk-show host who is the Republican nominee in the race to represent for the 1st Congressional District. "Most of the things she takes credit for were things we put in -- the city's credit-rating upgrades were the result of Virvus Jones and Freeman Bosley passing two sales taxes. I believe the comptroller should be very outspoken with downtown revitalization, and you haven't heard a word from her on that. And a taxpayer-financed stadium would be a project that would be absolutely stealing from the taxpayers, and I haven't heard the comptroller say one word about taking tax revenue away from the city and giving it to sports-team owners."

Not so, says Green. Although she hasn't staged a press conference on the steps of City Hall, Green says she let the stadium owners know early on she would not go for any plan that would involve diverting existing tax revenue generated by the stadium to building a new stadium. She will, however, consider earmarking any additional tax revenue for a new stadium if team owners can demonstrate that a new stadium would generate substantially more tax dollars.

Another of her former election opponents has a different take on Green. Ald. James Shrewsbury (D-16th), who ran unsuccessfully against Green in 1996, says she's done a "fairly good job.

"She's done two things I said I would do if elected comptroller. She's doing more business with St. Louis firms than her predecessors did, so there are more dollars staying here. The number of complaints that aldermen and other elected officials receive about nonpayment of bills have dropped. Under Virvus Jones, a lot of suppliers were not getting paid. That problem seems to have subsided. There's been very little in her performance that someone could criticize."

Ald. Lyda Krewson (D-28th), a certified public accountant who was considered by some to be a possible challenger to Green next year, says she has no interest in being comptroller and believes Green is doing fine. "It seems to me like she is always looking out to protect the assets of the citizens of St. Louis," Krewson says. "She's looked out for the credit rating and has protected it, and that is to her credit." By its nature, Krewson says, the comptroller's job is unlikely to generate much attention -- unless something goes wrong: "Not many of us sit around talking about how great our accountant is unless they screw it up, and no one talks about how great our tax return is until they goof it up."

Green agrees that much of what she does, if she does it well, isn't headline fodder. "I'm results-oriented. If there are issues that involve tax dollars, whether there is a savings, I go after that...." she says. "I'm the one who is going to be looking out for (taxpayers') interest when it comes to building a stadium or a hotel."

As an example, Green notes that in 1998, the city's letter of credit for the bonds on the convention-center project came up for renewal. Rather than renew the letter of credit, Green says, she wanted to check to see whether the city could instead qualify for insurance on those bonds. Because of its improved credit rating, the city did qualify for insurance, freeing up $15 million. Green agreed to allow part of that money, $5 million, to be used for remediation of the convention-center-hotel site.

Green says she has insisted that developers stick to an original agreement to return $5 million to the city when the deal closes later this month -- an amount she has earmarked for the ConnectCare program. And she has let Historic Restoration Inc. know that she will require a specific condition before the sale of the city-owned convention-center-hotel property, slated to close on Oct. 31. If the developer later sells the hotel to a new owner, she wants the city to see a $16 million slice of the profit. HRI is balking, but Green says she'll stick to her guns: "I've said this is a deal-breaker. I'm not going to give up."

Right now, Green's only ambition is to win reelection, and unlike the mayor, she's drawn no major opponent. Harmon says it seems unlikely that she will. "What would they say? What were they going to market themselves as? I think she's got a good record, and it's going to be hard for anyone to stake some claim to the contrary," Harmon says.

Aldermanic President Francis Slay says Green has "assembled a great staff, and that's to her credit. She and her staff have done a very good job on any financing matter.

"I wouldn't call her low-key," he adds. "She lets you know her opinion and she's not afraid to disagree, but at the same time she conducts herself in a professional manner and gets her point across without being unduly confrontational."

Some say Green ought to set her sights higher than just the comptroller's office. Her political benefactor, Freeman Bosley Jr., is one of them: "I see her as a great candidate for statewide office one day."

Another is James Richardson, whose picture occupies a prominent place -- not far from Bill Clinton's -- on Green's office credenza. Richardson was Green's high-school counselor at Vashon and a man Green credits with urging her on to college.

Though he's since retired to Massachusetts, Richardson keeps an eye on the St. Louis political scene through his subscription to the St. Louis American. His voice crackles with pride as he talks about Green, the quiet, serious student he counseled decades ago but has kept in touch with all this time. He remembers issuing a stern warning when she took office -- one she has heeded so far. "I said, "I want to tell you one thing,'" Richardson recalls. ""I don't want to read anything about you with graft and corruption.' I have been so proud to this point -- Darlene has saved the city of St. Louis a lot of money because she is very efficient and fiscal-minded, and she hasn't got caught up in all that political wrangling.

"Sometimes people, when they get a little noteworthy, they become arrogant. Darlene hasn't. She has maintained that down-to-earthness she has."

Richardson recently sent Green a letter, kidding her -- but not really -- about what he saw in her future:

"I told her, "I am going to read later about you becoming the first woman mayor of the city of St. Louis.'"

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