Photograph by Katherine Bish
There’s a fat cigar on the circuit clerk’s desk, but now that he’s been voted out of office, it’s no longer a fun prop. He’s wearing shorts and drinking diet root beer (he dropped a ton of weight a while back). During our talk, he makes several trips to the tiny adjacent bathroom, and each time, he jokes—half angry, half amused—about an old allegation that he spent a frivolous $10,000 on bathrooms. It was resurrected in his opponent’s recent campaign.
Why did you lose?
Because people chose to believe lies and not the truth. I don’t mean to sound bitter. You asked.
You knew your opponent would be stronger in the central corridor—why?
I’m a very conservative man. I’ve never hidden my conservative views.
You’re not always popular within your own party.
Mr. [Brian] Wahby [St. Louis Democratic party chairman] accuses me of being something other than a Democrat. If being a Democrat means I have to have a lobotomy and lose my soul, they can keep their “D.” Screw them.
You raise and spend surprisingly little money when you campaign.
In 2004, I ran for Congress, and between what I spent on my own and what I was able to conjure up from friends and supporters, I think we raised about $60,000. Mr. Carnahan raised and spent over $600,000.
Yeah, but Mr. Carnahan won. And in the recent election, you spent $15,000 and the victor, Jane Schweitzer, spent $50,000. Should you change your strategy?
First, I don’t beg well. I don’t cultivate “the big donors”—I don’t know ’em, and I don’t think they know me. Second, I think of myself as sort of like the everyday guy who happened to get elected. The first time I won this office, 12 years ago, I had virtually no Democratic party support and less than $10,000 spent. So I came into office a man of my own. But really a man of the people.
And you campaigned that way, for state rep in 2004.
Russ [Carnahan] would go around and tell people his father was the governor and his mother was a senator. I got so tired of hearing that, one night I got up and told people, “My father wasn’t a governor, he was a truck driver. My mother didn’t serve in the senate, she cleaned houses.”
I thought your dad was a butcher.
No, no, no, that is an urban legend. “Butcher Boy” is what they called me. When my dad got hurt, my mom cleaned house to support us.
What did you learn from your parents?
[He starts to answer, chokes up, raises one hand as a pause.] Let me explain. My uncle is really sick. He’s dying. What I [deep breath] what I learned was that family—family is what life is about. When you get down to it, that’s really all we have. The role of government is to help you help your family—or at least not get in the way.
We’ve come so far from that, your definition sounds almost strange.
Some people look at elections and politics as winners and losers, who’s rising and falling, who’s in cahoots. For them, politics is a sport. It isn’t a sport. It’s supposed to be a process by which families take care of families.
What was your mother like?
She was a room mother when I was in eighth grade, and she fed several hundred people mostaccioli and meatballs she made from scratch in our kitchen. I carried them down by wagon the entire day. And the winter before my oldest brother died—rheumatic fever had left a hole in his heart—he wanted to go out and have a snowball fight, and he couldn’t—my mom let us have a snowball fight in the house. [He smiles and leans back, thinking. Then he meets my eyes.] So that you understand that I’m not just some emotional fool, my mother’s last sibling is probably dying.
Tell me about your father.
Before I was born, he fell down an elevator shaft and landed on his back. He had crushed discs and no workers comp, so he walked himself out of the hospital. [He starts to chuckle.] My dad always drove beat-up old cars. Once the transmission went out, and the only way he could drive was in reverse. So he did: up Lafayette, down Grand, up Shaw to Vandeventer to Southwest. It was scary as hell, but we got home.
You’d been working at Soulard Market?
Yeah. My uncles were Soulard Market. They were the Inserra Brothers. When I was a kid, we’d get down to work at 6 in the morning and work till 10:30 at night. One night, my uncle pulled out the money to pay me and whipped off 10 dollar bills. He handed me the money, and I folded it up and put it in my pocket, and he said, “You didn’t count that.” I said, “Uncle Mariano, I trust you.” He said, “Always count your money.” When I pulled it out it was $5—he’d folded the bills.
You were circuit clerk for 12 years—tell me how you ran the office.
In the campaign, I made a number of statements that, if they were false, people would have come on me like vultures. No one refuted them. One, that I reduced the budget of this office by 31 percent. Two, that I transferred interest amounts to the city that equalled $3.1 million in cash and expenses. Three, that I gave back to the true owners 40 percent of the money that was here. When I walked in, their records were so poor, it was difficult for us to figure out whose money it was. Four, I turned down a 10-year appointment so they could vote me out.
You’re also famous for releasing a lot of judicial information.
I made people safer, by putting in computer systems unique to the state and perhaps to the country. Police officers on patrol in the city of St. Louis know within four hours of a judge signing off an arrest warrant. What is the delay in [surrounding] counties? Anywhere from a day or two. There is a material difference in giving criminal defendants a head start.
Is the information available only to city cops?
Nope. Here’s the kicker: We not only made people safer city-wide, but in surrounding counties—and in Brooklyn, N.Y., where the first fellow fell victim to our automation.
And you recently made orders of protection public by neighborhood?
Right now, you go onto the office website, and you can look up what’s called neighborhood orders of protection. I defy you to find that anyplace else in the country. Mr. [Kevin] Horrigan of the Post-Dispatch wasted my time and his. They already knew what they wanted to say on the editorial page. I had to cajole and convince him to go online as we were talking—he lives in the city—and he said something like “Oh, my God” when he found a picture of a felon who’s been banned from his block. [Favazza takes a triumphant swig of diet root beer.] Let me finish a point on the issue of probation, because I don’t want people who read this to assume I’m some pompous, egotistical jerk. There are two ladies who live in the Bevo neighborhood who deserve most of the credit for the neighborhood orders of protection being online. Why? Because they weren’t willing to accept being powerless. A fellow had committed burglaries in their neighborhood and savaged and killed one owner’s pet. He was given what they call a “shock sentence,” and once he was out on probation, he was banned from being within 10 miles of the neighborhood. These two ladies saw him on a front porch in the middle of Bevo and called the police. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a mechanism in place at the time to tell police about those restrictions. When the police came and nothing was done, the ladies were scared out of their shoes. They came down to the courthouse, and the deputy sheriff directed them to me—he figures I’ll talk to anybody. I didn’t require an ordinance or a court order or a reading of tea leaves to figure out what to do.
I put into place some software changes to identify those restrictions and communicate them to the police. I also took the initiative of getting photos from the police and marrying them to the records that are open, and then I paid 10 grand to two companies to put together this interactive website that puts at people’s fingertips information that has the potential to keep them safer. [Another gulp of root beer.] This office is more than just handling paper. My successor to be believes that is what it is. The people will be shortchanged.
You’d already put criminal and civil records online—after a battle with the judges.
In 2002, when I put the records on the Internet, I ran straight smack into an institutional reluctance to do that.
Now we have the Justice Information System, though, which makes those files accessible through Casenet. Was that an improvement on your system?
There are internal issues that make JIS cumbersome to use. That’s just a fact. So my desire to go a different way in 2005 wasn’t predicated on preserving some political fiefdom. But my opponent took that position and twisted it to say that I was trying to prevent the office from going on Casenet. B.S. We were on the Internet for years before Casenet.
You’ve been at odds with the judges since you took office—over computer systems, hiring and firing, whether yours is an appointed or an elected position.... Did all those battles hurt your reputation?
I’m said to not play well with others. That’s not true. I don’t play well with people I think aren’t honest. Or who I think are making decisions that aren’t in the best interests of the people I work for.
Why did you lose?
There was an expectation of a greater turnout in the African-American community, and it just didn’t materialize.
At what point did you realize you weren’t going to win re-election?
That’s history now; the page has been turned.
But at what point did you realize you weren’t going to win re-election?
I didn’t! OK? When the first set of results came in, I still thought we were going to pull off a win in the last vote count. What I wasn’t counting on was poor turnout in the African-American wards that came in last. In August 2008, there was a vote count of about 11,000 in those wards. It dropped to about 4,000 people voting this time.
What keeps you resilient?
I have not a thing to bow my head about, even though that’s what they put on their damned circulars. One of my favorite poems—and I’m not a literary person, OK? Really, I’m not. My kids framed this for me, though: [He reads, emphasizing the lines: “If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken / Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools, / Or watch the things you gave your life to broken…”] then you’ll be a man. It’s Rudyard Kipling.
You had a rough time getting into law school.
I majored in political science at SLU, and because I chased my wife instead of books, I didn’t get very good grades. I met her on the very first day, and I took her out on a date the second day, in a mangled Dodge Dart station wagon, to play miniature golf. When I applied to law school, SLU said, “Your GPA is too low,” and told me to go get a master’s to show I could do graduate work. So I did, in urban studies.
And then you re-applied?
Yeah, and the person behind the desk told me, “Whoever told you that was full of baloney; they don’t accept anything but undergraduate scores.” I became a social worker, found a niche dealing with the mentally ill. I guess they thought I had a certain affinity for that!
You were an assistant nursing-home administrator for a while.
And I managed a McDonald’s hamburger stand, and I bought a grocery store with my brother. I sold groceries to the boats that pushed barges. You’d get a call at 3 a.m. and have to be down there with $2,000 worth of stuff.
Then you went back to SLU again, and you had to meet with the law school’s Professor Kingsfield: Vince Immel.
He told me his job was to be the lion at the gate, keep out mediocre students like me so they didn’t become mediocre lawyers. I told him I’d make one goddamned good student and one goddamned good lawyer. Maybe 15 minutes later, the admissions director was telling me, “The admissions committee just met, and they decided to let you in.”
So how’d you do?
I have my rejection letter hanging over there on the wall—next to my diploma—and the diploma says I graduated with honors. There are very few diplomas in this building that say that.
What made you want to go into politics?
I’m a Frank Capra fan, OK? Well, despite our Mr. [Jeff] Smith’s bastardization, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington!
You won some big cases first, though.
I had a wrongful death case, won an $800,000 settlement. Usually lawyers go out and celebrate after that kind of judgment, but I went back to work that afternoon, and while I was there, the phone rang, and that call led to another $800,000 case.
What did you learn about the judicial system as circuit clerk?
[He cackles.] I’m going to measure what I’m going to say. The system that exists here, at least for now, carries with it some institutional disconnection. I don’t know of a time where a judge hasn’t been retained, so it’s essentially a lifetime position. That gives them a disconnect from the public that an elected position doesn’t have. I think that when you have someone who’s strongwilled—how is that? That would be me!—who sees their responsibility to be more expansive than just file-stamping a document… They didn’t hire me. They couldn’t fire me. And each of us were trying to do our job. That’s polite.
I’ve heard you’re going to run for mayor now.
When I was 18—most people don’t know this—somebody asked me what I wanted to be, and I told them one day I’d be mayor. I wasn’t kidding. If they think, those who wish that I would retire and demur from politics, that that vote count last Tuesday has in any way caused me to recede, they’re nuts. The voters of St. Louis will have a chance to decide again.