Photo by Paul Nordmann
Last April, the longest-serving mayor in the history of St. Louis abruptly called a press conference. Clad in a navy suit (blue tie, blue shirt, blue eyes), Francis G. Slay stood in the outer office he’d refused to spiff up (“What kind of message would that send?”) and made an announcement: "I will not be a candidate for mayor next year.”
Reporters shot each other stunned looks. St. Louis Public Radio’s Rachel Lippmann was so flummoxed, her tweet read:
Just 11 days earlier, Slay had told Lippmann’s station he was running again, citing his talented staff and the momentum they’d built. Only that morning, right before the press conference, had he told his staff that he wasn’t running. (He’d only told his family the night before.)
“WTF?” tweeted journalist Charles Jaco. “Insights, anyone, as to what changed in two weeks? Illness? Family crisis? Offshore accounts traced?”
The mayor—a fit 61-year-old who lunches on protein shakes and raw nuts—assured the press that all was well. His statement was brief, and he took no questions.
That afternoon, communications director Maggie Crane fielded the onslaught with a verbal shrug: “He changed his mind.”
But why now?
Granted, as St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger noted, it was a “pretty damn good week to go out on.” A week earlier, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency had announced that it would build its $1.75 billion campus on St. Louis’ near North Side. Six days later, residents overwhelmingly voted to extend the city’s earnings tax.
Maybe he was scared that, for the first time in 30 years, he’d lose? The previous election had been his tightest—he spent five times as much as his opponent, aldermanic board president Lewis Reed (who’s running again this year), to beat him by about 10 points.
Slay had to be exhausted after rolling that Sisyphean boulder up the hill for 15 years. Murders had spiked again, racial tension had gone from simmer to full boil... Maybe he was looking for a fresh challenge—a federal judgeship, or Claire McCaskill’s U.S. Senate seat if (as looked possible at the time) she was given a Clinton cabinet post.
His job might have gotten harder, too, after the departure of his 14-year chief of staff, Jeff Rainford, a man who rolls into controversy like a tank, impervious to the flak. Without his brash, assured voice, it was easier to hear the litany of criticism: Slay’s focus is too narrow; he’s aimed too low; he’s offered no compelling vision; he’s never left his comfort zone long enough to bring a divided city together.
With no answers forthcoming, questions shifted to the mayor’s legacy. Was prioritizing the central corridor a smart way to coax new development, or a dismissal of the rest of the city? How much effect has local control of police really had? Has Slay’s support of charter schools hurt the district? Was he “overhandled” by Rainford, or simply hamstrung by the constraints of a “weak mayor” system and a city-county divide set up more than a century ago? Where has he exerted real influence, and where has his long tenure left us?
It was 1985, and Slay was five years into a high-powered job as a commercial litigator at Guilfoil Petzall & Shoemake—a silk-stocking firm with powerful political connections—when his father and his former babysitter said they wanted a word.
It had to be about politics. Slay’s grandfather had served briefly as an alderman before quitting to focus on the restaurant business that fed his large family. Slay’s father, Francis R., had picked up where his father left off, serving as a state rep and recorder of deeds as well as shepherding the 23rd Ward for decades as Democratic committeeman. Sharon Quigley Carpenter, who held Francis R.’s old job as recorder of deeds, used to soothe a furious 3-year-old Francis Gerard Slay when he was consigned to the cry room at Epiphany of Our Lord Church, abandoned by his parents and jealous of his older brother, who got to go to Mass.
This time, Carpenter and Francis R. wanted young Francis to be part of the action. “We need somebody to be an alderman in the 23rd Ward,” his father announced. Cancer had taken the life of Alderwoman Nellene Joyce (mother of former Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce), and her seat had to be filled.
Slay swears that he protested. He also swears that he never wanted to go to law school—“What I really wanted was to play pro soccer.” Yet he majored in political science at Quincy College and earned top grades, and once he caved to his father’s urging, he loved his years at the Saint Louis University School of Law.
The same thing happened with politics. The father persisted until the son reneged, and by 1995 Francis G. was president of the Board of Aldermen.
He says he really didn’t want to be mayor, though. Again people begged him to run. He was smart and squeaky clean, and he’d grown up breathing city politics. His father held court at St. Raymond’s Maronite Cathedral, chatting with politicos and lawyers at the church ladies’ famous Wednesday lunches. “No one,” Slay has said, “worked a room better.” People brought their problems to Francis R., and he solved them.
Francis G. liked solving people’s problems, too, but he had a very different personality and he was navigating a very different political terrain. In situations in which his father had operated instinctively, he relied on his formal education. He’d inherited his mother’s thinner features and high forehead; her quiet, gentle demeanor. There was something reminiscent of comedian Bob Newhart about him: a mildness, a hint of dorkiness, an unexpected dry wit. All told, he was the consummate modern bureaucrat, practical about what was possible, too cool and careful to set anybody’s imagination on fire. He didn’t so much dream as manage other people’s dreams.
As mayor, he could do that on a large scale. And he’d be fulfilling the dreams of his father and his grandfather.
On Sunday, September 19, 1999, Francis G. Slay stood in the deep, narrow back yard of a redbrick bungalow on Scanlan Avenue and declared his candidacy for mayor. This was his childhood home, a setting in which he was fortified by his clan (he was the second of 11 kids) and political pedigree. He was armed with a big binder holding the Slay Action Plan that architect and policy expert Barb Geisman had helped him write. He’d listened tirelessly to citizens, done late nights of homework. He knew what needed fixing.
Beside him stood his wife, Kim, who’d been a junior at St. Elizabeth Academy when they met at a soccer game. He’d mustered his nerve and asked her out—to another soccer game. The Lebanese culture, Maronite spin on Catholicism, and political background gave Slay a little color, like a stage mom pinching a pale child’s cheeks. But he was quintessentially South St. Louis, respectful of his roots, unimpressed by flash or romance.
“When we turn our schools around, we will turn our neighborhoods around,” Slay told voters. As mayor, he wouldn’t control the schools, but he could at least set the priorities. He also wanted “more police on the beat in our neighborhoods to help prevent crime”—although at the time he had little say about policing. What he could do was clean up problem properties, hold slumlords accountable, scrub the St. Louis Housing Authority of scandal, and help create more options for homeless and low-income St. Louisans.
He was elected mayor in 2001, garnering 53 percent of the vote to defeat the incumbent Clarence Harmon and former Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr.
Photo by AP Images/Jeff Roberson
November 2014: Slay discusses police tactics and the shooting of Michael Brown in St. Louis County.
“He came into office with the attitude that he was going to make city government work,” says Geisman, whom he named executive director for development. Rainford, who first ran Slay’s campaign for aldermanic president and then his mayoral campaign, would be chief of staff. (The choice surprised pundits, who’d expected “communications director” in light of his background at KMOX-AM and KMOV-TV.) Publicist Richard Callow—who’d worked for Mayor Vince Schoemehl, raised funds for Clarence Harmon’s mayoral campaign, and then helped Slay replace Harmon—would keep a low profile, working on Slay’s website, rhetoric, and messaging.
Slay’s calm, linear, analytical style emerged early. “I never saw him lose his cool,” recalls Geisman. “He thought hard about every decision, but he never got emotional in public.” Still, he was “thin-skinned,” says a close observer. “He has trouble letting go of things, even relatively minor slights. Years later, he will bring them up.” (Slay says his skin’s plenty tough: “You’re never going to make everybody happy. That’s another thing my dad always said.”)
Asked to compare leadership styles, Schoemehl says, “I was ready, fire, aim, and correct your trajectory on the way to the target. Francis is more measured, more deliberate, in the way he approaches a problem.”
He’s famous for working really hard and for being out and about, shaking hands at fish fries and block parties, festivals and wakes. For a guy who loves reading dense history books, researching his family’s genealogy, and poring over contracts, he has a surprising thirst for face time. He’s seemed happiest—and most eloquent—at neighborhood meetings, “completely off script,” an observer says. “He was so good at that level, so genuine. A lot of times when you see him, he’s being handled and just parroting what the politicos tell him. These big, big silver bullet projects—they come to him, and he supports them, but that’s not where he lives.”
Where Slay lives emotionally is a lot like where he really lives: a two-story built new to look a little Victorian, a little Cape Cod, without the distinctiveness of either. Across the street are older one-story brick houses, more modest, like unmarried aunts keeping watch. From the back yard, you see a McMansion and multicolored rowhouses—just enough diversity, but all of it tidy and pleasant, a suburb in the heart of South City.
Still, longtime Comptroller Darlene Green nearly chokes when I describe Slay as mild: “Oh, he has oomph. The mayor comes from a family of strong, resourceful people, and he has that in him.” Corporate litigators are gladiators, his old boss, Tom Guilfoil, once told the Riverfront Times. “We don’t get down and wrestle on the floor; it’s a toughness of mind. You know how much to give and when not to give.”
Most of those negotiations never reached the public, though. Citizens just saw a calm and affable mayor. “He was a very steady hand,” says Ed Bushmeyer, who was Slay’s director of public safety, then assessor. “He might not have been as adventuresome as some mayors, but he was going to tackle the challenges he saw before him.”
Early on, he got mired in fights over downtown development and consumed by the Cardinals’ quest for a new stadium—both issues he inherited. But by 2005, the Redbirds were happy and former U.S. Senator John Danforth had the Arch grounds project underway. Washington Avenue’s lofts were filling, and property values were up 54 percent on average. Momentum was gathering for the tech influx Slay had promised. Washington University was driving its centerpiece, Cortex, but Slay had given its team the latitude necessary to succeed.
He’s worked well with the business community—he was a corporate litigator, after all. His photographic memory tracks details and recognizes faces. He’s made smart allies at all levels of government and generally avoided picking fights. He’s handled donors with far more care than he’s extended to, say, the city’s aldermen. Yet he had no problem ignoring his largest donor’s wishes, giving $100,000 of his campaign money—soon after a $100,000 donation from Rex Sinquefield—to fight for the earnings tax that Sinquefield fiercely opposed.
“Through the years that I have known Mayor Slay, he has never backed away from any tough decision,” Sinquefield says now, adding that “Mayor Slay will choose principle every time.”
“He’s scrupulously honest,” Bushmeyer says. “He’s made it absolutely clear he wanted me to do whatever was right. There were a few times when I had people putting pressure on me to do things I felt weren’t appropriate, and every time he’d back me up.”
Fred Wessels, longtime 13th Ward alderman and now a Democratic state rep, has been playing poker with the mayor and a handful of South Side aldermen for 30 years. “He’s good,” Wessels says. “He’s an enthusiastic player.” Any tells? “No tells. He holds his cards.” Slay played the same steady game in soccer; his coach had him take the penalty kicks because he was so reliable.
At times, Room 200 has been a circus; at other times, it’s been a crypt. These days, the mayor’s office feels like a trust company has taken over a shabby-genteel hotel, its staff unaffectedly pleasant, consummately professional, and deeply loyal to their boss. Crane loves how Slay brings in his own stationery and stamps, lest he need to write a personal letter, and pays for his own parking and parking meters. Sherry Wibbenmeyer, his assistant for 36 years, says, “He doesn’t think of himself first before anybody else.”
Young staffers kick a soccer ball around with the mayor when they’re brainstorming. He shoots wadded paper across the room, juggles apples or tangerines. In here, he’s agile and relaxed because everybody’s on the same page, pushing his agenda. The minute he steps into the dark, musty hallway, his power will be compromised and constrained.
When I show up, he sits on his sofa like he’s in a doctor’s waiting room—reporters aren’t part of his comfort zone. The minute I ask about his dogs, though, he loosens up: “We had a 4-pound Yorkie and a Lhasa Apso, and my wife brings home a 55-pound black pit bull, 6 years old. For the first year, I was very cautious. But this is the best dog we’ve ever had, sweet as she can be, and the little Yorkie cuddles up with her.”
All three dogs came from Stray Rescue. Years ago, at the behest of its founder, Randy Grim, Slay halted use of the gas chamber at the city pound. He also helped create an animal abuse task force that now bears his name.
We ease into issues of greater discord: schools, crime, race, development… The mayor retrieves a piece of paper from his suitcoat. “I put a little list together of things we’re most proud of,” he says, reading off a few: public school improvement, local control of the police department, downtown development, his helping lead the Regional Health Commission, new rec centers, early childhood and after-school and summer jobs programs, advocating for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund...
“What I’m most proud of,” he sums up, “are the things we’ve been able to do to help our most vulnerable people.” Often they’re not even aware that he’s been fighting for them. One of his first acts as mayor was to expand social service programs and help raise money for a housing trust fund, which has provided more than $89 million to subsidize affordable mixed-income housing.
He’s also expanded homelessness services. At times, downtown’s efforts to get people off the streets have looked purely cosmetic—and futile. For years, the mayor’s administration waged an exasperated, unsympathetic war with Larry Rice, pushing for safer, cleaner transitional housing. But now there’s the Biddle Housing Opportunities Center, an overnight shelter that’s a service center by day, working to hook people up with services and jobs. HUD’s point-in-time homelessness count hasn’t dropped as much as Slay wanted, but it has dropped, and only 98 of the 1,248 people counted last January were unsheltered; the rest were in transitional or emergency housing. Back in 2005, more than three times as many people had no shelter at all.
He fetches a fat binder: the city’s sustainability plan. “It’s the Slay Action Plan, Part Two,” he says, “because it’s not just about environment. We met with community leaders, neighborhoods…”
Do people even realize all that? I ask. The question acts as a dimmer switch, fading his enthusiasm. “One of the things that’s helped is social media,” he says, “although, you know, that’s one of the hardest things to do. A lot of people just don’t pay the attention you would like.”
He stays subdued as we discuss other triumphs: reforming the firefighters’ pension fund before it bankrupted the city, helping win a $30 million federal grant for the near North Side, and reducing the proportion of city kids with dangerous levels of lead in their bloodstream from 21 percent to 3 percent. He tried to raise the minimum wage to $11 by 2018, but a judge scotched the legislation hours before it would take effect. He opened the city to Syrian refugees even as state legislators fought to ban them, saying, “St. Louis will not slam its door in the faces of people fleeing a war-torn country.”
Slay chokes up as he recalls the evening, in summer 2014, when he watched Richard Eaton and John Durnell, the first same-sex couple in the city’s history to receive a marriage license, say their vows. Slay (whose gay brother married in New York, too impatient to wait, and whose lesbian sister would marry in his City Hall office the following year) was issuing a legal challenge by defying Missouri’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriages. “We were sending a message that everybody matters.”
The mayor’s openness toward LGBTQ St. Louisans is one of many ways in which he—irony of ironies—has made the city hipper. The man dilutes his decaf. He wears chinos instead of jeans. The most colorful thing about him is his fidelity to Pink Floyd. Yet millennials are moving back to St. Louis, and it’s partly because of him and his young, bright team. Slay created a Vanguard Cabinet to engage young professionals in St. Louis’ future. He turned a blind eye to the World Naked Bike Ride and welcomed Uber even without fingerprinting. He encouraged startups, bike lanes, food trucks, green initiatives. Young residents excited about the city were, he knew, its future.
When I ask what else he could have accomplished if he hadn’t been constrained by St. Louis’ weak-mayor system, it’s like flipping the right switch on a fuse box. “When you have a system like we have now, it takes a lot more work and energy to get things done,” Slay says, leaning forward. “If you want a major contract at the airport, you have a selection committee. Then they make a recommendation to the airport commission, and the airport commission makes a recommendation to the Board of E&A, and the board makes a recommendation to the aldermen, and then the aldermen give it to the mayor.”
Not many St. Louisans even know what “E&A” stands for. A century-old triumvirate of the mayor, the aldermanic president, and the comptroller, the Board of Estimate & Apportionment votes on the city budget and any real estate purchases or appropriations. And majority rules.
Slay’s still fuming about his thwarted attempt to hire Veolia North America to examine the city’s water department for inefficiencies. “Water is one of the most important services we provide to the people of St. Louis,” he exclaims, “and this is an organization that does great work all over the country. When you’re spending millions of dollars—look what happened in Flint, Michigan!” (It’s an unfortunate reference; Veolia is being sued by Michigan for professional negligence because it was one of the consultants hired after the switch to Flint River drinking water in April 2015. Veolia says the allegations are baseless.)
The mayor has more examples, including the famous failed bond issue “that would have helped replace fire trucks, police cars, snow plows… We had it on the ballot, and then all of a sudden it kind of went sideways over at the Board of Aldermen, and before you know it, the other two members [of E&A] were against it.
“The mayor is the accountable person—if something doesn’t get done, the mayor gets blamed,” he points out. “But in order to get things done, you have two people who have the same vote, and yet they don’t have the accountability!”
Slay assures me that he doesn’t mind accountability, nor does he mind working to get a 15-vote majority at the Board of Aldermen. Granted, that number will be cut in half in 2022, another change he championed. “You’re going to have aldermen that represent a broader area of constituents, usually double the population and area,” he says. “When everybody has their little fiefdoms, they get isolated. When it’s broader, they have a better picture of the issues.”
He’s done all he can to streamline city government and stitch up the inefficiencies of “a very arcane, unique, unusual form of government that makes things way more difficult and doesn’t really bring any benefit at all.” Real change, though, would require rewriting the city charter—a reform that’s been suggested by urban affairs experts for decades.
The other members of E&A won’t go quietly. Reed has already accused the mayor of seizing too much power. “I love the structure,” says Green, “because it is a balanced structure that protects taxpayer dollars.” She says Slay eventually realized that she wasn’t going to stop him outright. “He has told me he appreciates the discipline a comptroller brings to the city’s finances.”
“Darlene Green and I have a great relationship, we do,” agrees Slay, “but in the end, I’m mayor. Somebody’s gotta make a decision here.”
Taking a deep breath, I ask him about Rainford’s reputation as the unofficial mayor.
“You don’t know Jeff!” he retorts, suddenly animated. “You don’t know Jeff. Let me tell you. Jeff was, by the way, an outstanding chief of staff and a good friend. Even my dad originally told me, ‘I don’t like Jeff Rainford.’ Somebody else told me, ‘Everybody ought to have a Jeff Rainford.’
He was a very good spokesperson, having been in the media, and he could sometimes say the things and do the things that I shouldn’t be saying and doing.”
As Geisman puts it, “If you’re trying to get along with a majority of people, you don’t want to be flinging arrows”—and Rainford flung them without hesitation.
“In the end, Jeff knows, and I know, I’m the one that’s accountable,” Slay continues. “I’m the one that’s at the neighborhood meeting. By the way, you see him in front of the camera, but you don’t see him at the neighborhood meetings. I have attended hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of neighborhood meetings all over the city, and there’s nothing I like more than talking directly to the people of St. Louis. You never saw him at a neighborhood meeting.”
But was he running things instead?
Photo by Matt Marcinkowski
When I ask attorney Charles Valier, a former member of the St. Louis Metropolitan Zoological Park & Museum District board, about his interactions with the mayor, he says, “It was kind of strange dealing with him, because you were dealing with Rainford more than with him. If you were in a conversation with him, Rainford answered the questions. I never really knew what the mayor was thinking.”
When state Senator Jamilah Nasheed, who once led an effort to recall Slay, tells me about their reconciliation, I ask how that first conversation went. “Everyone always felt that Jeff Rainford was the mayor,” she says, “so the conversation was held with Jeff Rainford.”
Another source says, “Jeff Rainford often managed by intimidation. He related to the mayor differently than everybody else, so the mayor never saw the side of him that others saw. Jeff called the shots for a long time. If you could get the mayor alone to discuss things, a lot of times there were different outcomes.”
But when I pose the “unofficial mayor” question to Rainford, he laughs: “I no more could have been mayor of this city than I could be pope. Francis had both a vision and an incredible feel for people. He understood better than I, if I came up with some cockamamie idea, how people would feel about that.”
Slay’s brilliance as mayor, Rainford says, was that “he didn’t do everybody else’s job. He held us all accountable, and he made all the final decisions. In my observation, he was the best mayor we’ve ever had, and part of that was letting me do my job as chief of staff, but they were two very different jobs. My job was more of the chief operating officer; my job was to get stuff done. His job was accountability and to communicate to people what we were doing and have a feel for what the people needed and wanted. His job was to have the vision, and mine was to implement his policies.”
Earlier on my recorder there’s a comment from a source close to the action: “As Jeff told me one time, Slay’s not a vision guy.”
Asked what Rainford’s priorities were, insiders offer a two-word answer: “Tomorrow’s headline.” Here’s a quote from the Post: “‘The mayor is going to reclaim his power under the charter,’ Rainford announced. ‘There is somebody in charge, and that’s where the buck stops.’”
Might it have played better if Slay had said those words himself?
His media voice was Rainford’s, which could be why the public got the sense that Rainford was running the show. Slay loathes encounters with the press. Early on, he had a spitfight with the Post, calling it a chore to read and predicting its sale; columnist Sylvester Brown reacted by calling Slay’s administration “clandestine.” The Post’s new publisher, Kevin Mowbray, threw out an olive branch, but even though the Post has never done any major investigation targeting Slay, he’s regularly called the paper unfair.
One Post reporter says he approached the mayor after a speech at a parade, and the mayor spotted him and ran off, even slipping away from his police bodyguard. “He is still running from reporters,” the journalist adds dryly. “Reporters soon stopped trying to get a comment from the mayor. They went right to Rainford.”
Or they were fed juicy story ideas by the other power behind the scenes, Callow, who is brilliant at manipulating both traditional and social media.
We’re living in a time in which one tweet can alter diplomatic relations with a foreign power, but Slay’s tweets have mainly been weather warnings, appreciations of hard work, cheers for the city. His personal page takes pains to identify the tweets labeled #fgs as having been written by the mayor himself, but really? There are thousands. Most sound too bland to be artful, but there’s merriment sprinkled in: “Please do not hurt yourself voting in this week’s Mini-Poll”—on repetitive stress injury—he tweets, promoting the poll that Callow creates for him. There’s also a bit of swordplay with the media: “I see you, Daniel Hill” to the Riverfront Times writer who’d just christened him Mayorus Laidbackus. The tone matches Callow’s perfectly.
“Rainford was in charge of everything dealing with city government, and Callow was in charge of everything dealing with politics, and where those two intersected was when Jeff and Callow talked to each other on the phone,” I’m told. “Jeff provided the energy, and Callow spun it.”
It’s not that Slay isn’t smart, the source adds. “He’ll pick up on shit. He picks apart the nuances. Half his brain’s a litigator’s, half is a been-around-forever City Hall bureaucrat’s. But I’ve never seen it where he had a brilliant idea, articulated a vision, and charged people up to do it.”
Did Slay cede too much power, let himself be “overhandled”?
“Forgetting about the personalities of Richard and Jeff for a moment, it’s a very unfair criticism,” says Geisman, who’s also had the charge leveled against her. “Anybody who expects the mayor to just stand there and give orders and not have strong people on his team has a totally unrealistic view of what running a city is like.”
Mike Jones, deputy mayor under Harmon, says “it’s the nature of the job. The chief of staff doesn’t have to do all the social stuff; he gets to be prime minister.”
Slay’s prime minister stepped down in January 2015, saying he was 55 and had time for one more career. Rainford calls his 14 years as chief of staff—also the longest tenure in St. Louis history—“maddening. It’s not a job for sissies. But when I retire I will look back and say those were the best 14 years of my life.”
I ask the current chief of staff, Mary Ellen Ponder, whether he was a tough act to follow. “It was…interesting. He’s a good 20 years older than me, and certainly male, and when you work in a place for 14 years, it’s hard to transition out.” Slowly she built up her own network of advisors. “I am more of—I listen more,” she says. “I don’t mean that Jeff doesn’t listen, but he talks a lot.”
Rainford still gives counsel at City Hall, but “just as a friend,” he says. “They don’t pay me.” Callow’s also been “on board these last few years,” I’m told, “although he started laying the groundwork for Tishaura” (Jones, who’s campaigning to be Slay’s successor).
The talent pool at City Hall shrank, some say, because Rainford and Callow (and Geisman, who lives with Callow) wanted to control things themselves. “It’s the old way—a small cabal that does everything—and it’s not enough diversity of opinion,” one observer remarks. “I don’t think the mayor was Machiavellian at all, but I think he surrounded himself with people who were Machiavellian.”
On September 23, 2007, Slay held a press conference to announce that Centene’s new headquarters would anchor Ballpark Village. Beside him, Centene president Michael Neidorff gazed down at a tabletop model, a geometry of pale wood towers and a tiered stadium. To its north stood his two new high-rises. The model city was so clean and pure—no graffiti, no gunshots, nobody homeless or high slumped against the sides of those clean wood rectangles. You couldn’t even see the mud hole from which the new headquarters would rise. A fresh, promising future was easy to imagine.
Six months later, Centene pulled out, issuing a regretful statement that “Ballpark Village was unable to accommodate Centene’s plans for our world headquarters.” The developer, Baltimore-based Cordish Companies, said the project’s complexities had proved insurmountable, but that didn’t mollify Slay. “Cordish has had four months to complete the negotiations,” he blogged. “Like everyone else, I am growing impatient.”
Not until 2014 would a scaled-down Ballpark Village open. (In the meantime, Centene landed in Clayton, where it’s planning a $775 million expansion.)
Another massive project, the Bottle District, never took off. Chouteau’s Landing stalled in the shadow of the Arch grounds. There are bright spots downtown: Citygarden; Lumière Place, aglow on the riverfront; the MX, abuzz with apartments, movies, restaurants, and the National Blues Museum. With the help of city tax incentives, Union Station adds new bits of fun every year—light shows, a Ferris wheel, an aquarium.
Of course, the football stadium didn’t happen. Green criticized the risk,
St. Louis County refused to help, and the Rams pulled out—a betrayal that left Slay bitter but also dealt a blow to his development strategy. The NGA was only half of Project Connect; the idea was to build a new NFL stadium a few miles south, use the two colossuses to stabilize neighborhoods north of downtown and tie them to the central corridor, then run MetroLink north-south to increase access to jobs.
Slay did his best to keep that plan in motion, reaching for soccer when football died and backing a renovation of Scottrade Center (although the comptroller has warned about financial consequences). His strategy is to create anchors that will then connect the islands in between. But so far, there aren’t many boats landing on those islands. The city’s acclaimed sustainability plan lists Strategy One as “Reinforce the City’s Central Corridor,” and that strategy has worked beautifully from the Central West End to Midtown. The arrival of IKEA rivaled the 1904 World’s Fair in terms of celebratory hoopla; Cortex makes everybody happy, whether they understand what it does or not. New luxury condos are rising in the CWE, and City Foundry is the next cool thing.
“The central corridor is the spine of the city,” says Ponder. “Yes, we did revitalize downtown. I don’t think the mayor will ever apologize for that. When he took office, there were 150 vacant buildings downtown. Now there are fewer than 25.” (“In 16 years?” counters a planning expert, unimpressed. “How many downtowns haven’t had a new office tower go up since 1989?”)
Downtown does look markedly better than it did 16 years ago. “One needs to build from strength,” says developer Pete Rothschild, “which is exactly what’s happening as Midtown stretches to The Grove, Botanical Heights, and beyond and downtown’s strength is extended through Soulard/Benton Park and Lafayette Square.” The problem, he adds, is that “nothing seems to have happened north of Delmar”—and there’s no simple fix for that. “NGA will be huge, and Mc
Kee’s fiefdom could be successful riding the NGA coattails...”
But NGA doesn’t pay taxes, cynics note, and its staff tends to brown-bag, and people in the immediate neighborhood don’t have the tech degrees to work there. Early on, the city took “the white knight approach,” says an economic development expert, “putting all their eggs in [developer Paul] McKee’s basket when they could have encouraged more midsize developers to come into the North Side. They tend to empower one favorite and give them all the benefits, all the incentives. They did that with Pyramid Properties and then fell on their face. What if they had empowered five Pyramids who didn’t get as big but shared the risk? There’s a cult of personality: This person’s going to save the North Side. And it kind of demoralizes people in other parts of the city who are trying to get funding and get attention.”
Some say more grassroots projects might have lifted the city higher. “Mayor Slay sincerely wanted to help the neighborhoods,” says Todd Swanstrom, a public policy prof at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, “but felt he needed to do the big projects in the face of mounting fiscal stress. Ironically, I believe a neighborhood approach, done right, would have done more to expand the tax base.”
We needed a combination of strategies, many urbanists believe—anchors to build from but also a series of strategic points across the city that would be easier to connect. Slay might juggle tangerines in his office, but he’s lousy at juggling projects, says the economic development expert. “Why not say, ‘Let’s do three hard things at the same time’? There was always a sense that things had to wait in line. Shouldn’t we be backing all good ideas? The city wasn’t executing on all those things; other people were. You can’t say, ‘This thing has to wait its turn until this thing is done.’ The big projects are sexier and easier to focus on, and they do what they’re supposed to do, but they don’t have that economic multiplier effect everyone’s looking for. You have to have a lot going on so there’s a collective impact.”
Slay did “work to make sure that things happen all over the city,” Geisman insists, “although it wasn’t as visible as the larger stuff. You can’t make people go develop things just because you picked out a place that needs it. You have to build the market.” She talks about “setting aside a chunk of the block grant money for projects on the North Side that would be big enough to build critical mass.” Those projects were Arlington Grove and the North Sarah Apartments, both residential with a slice of commercial space.
“I think he tends to identify community development with low-income housing,” one urbanist says with a sigh.
Overall, Slay’s critics say, his legacy is solid but not transformative. The city’s population in the 2000 census, right before he took office, was 348,191. In 2015, it was 315,685. In the past few years, we’ve come out of a four-decade freefall and leveled off. We’ve lost major corporate headquarters, but we’re attracting smaller, cooler tech companies such as Square. We’ve revitalized downtown in many ways, but a lot of projects have stalled…
What would have been transformative? “I would have liked to see us actually chip away at crime and poverty,” says the comptroller.
Was that in the mayor’s power? “Mmm-hmmm,” she says, a world of opinion behind that slow murmur. “In that [city-county] partnership for economic development, we could have put a plan that over time curbed incentives to developers and increased the amount of revenue used to go after poverty and crime. It would have been a game-changer.”
From the tiered seats of the city police department’s Real Time Crime Center, it’s easy to look down and see, on one of the screens, the stolen car that’s just been flagged by one of the new license plate recorders. The coordinates go out to a patrol unit, and it glides into traffic, heading for the intersection. Just then another alarm goes off—a second stolen car’s been spotted by the new equipment, this one on Grand Avenue. Another car is dispatched. In 2016, police made 148 arrests because of these LPRs.
This is tech at its most efficient—which is good, because since the miracle of local control, the department’s been struggling with new inefficiencies. ShotSpotter equipment stopped tracking gunfire for months because of a bureaucratic snarl over contract renewal. And though Chief Sam Dotson is thrilled to be able to pick up the phone, tell the mayor what he needs, and get a swift response, he says he was “a little naïve in thinking we could bring the city up to the tech advances the police department has made. It actually has dragged us down in a couple of areas. We were a lot more computerized. The other day, I signed a form that had four pieces of carbon paper in it.”
But that’s inside baseball, Dotson adds. For the first time since the Civil War, St. Louis is “on par with just about every city in the country except Kansas City.”
The downside is that the mayor now owns the crime problem. But when it’s come to taking the blame, he always has.
The overall crime rate is 50 percent lower than it was 10 years ago, Dotson says, and violent crime is down, too. “There are lows in the city we haven’t seen since the ’60s, but nobody believes that because of the 24/7 news cycle.”
Compared to 2015, though, last year saw a 4.4 percent increase in violent crime. Rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults all rose. The city remained the murder capital of the country, holding steady at 188 homicides.
The city’s all-time high of 309 homicides came in 1970. The lowest in recent memory was in 2003, two years into Slay’s tenure, when it dropped to 73. In other words, the stats bounce right out of the mayor’s hands. Local control gives him power to, say, fire a police chief, but he still can’t wave a magic wand and produce money to hire more officers, and he has no power whatsoever over the surge in heroin use and higher-caliber illegal weapons.
Recent initiatives have included targeting resources to the 15 most dangerous neighborhoods and appointing a citizens’ crime commission, as well as a civilian oversight board. There’s an allocation for body cameras in the new tax increase Slay’s proposing to fund a north-south MetroLink line.
“He will jump through hoops to do anything like that—and won’t get behind more officers on the streets,” complains a local law enforcement expert. “He doesn’t want to deal with those police problems. If you have more officers making more arrests, you have more police shootings. Politically, he does not want to take any heat for a crackdown on crime.”
Others say that’s too harsh: Slay’s been asking for more officers on the street but has been blocked by the Board of Aldermen. Back in 2012, he was fine with a loss of 80 officers by attrition, because crime was down and the city was struggling to pay rising pension costs.
Now he’s trying to get them back.
The room was bright with yellow T-shirts emblazoned with “Please Don’t Slay Our Future.” Seniors from the St. Louis Public Schools were staging a sit-in at the mayor’s office in spring 2007—just before the state officially took over the district—and they’d brought a numbered list of demands.
“It’s good to have you here,” Slay began, “and I mean that sincerely.” He scanned demand No. 1, which concerned accreditation. “I do not have any control over that,” he said.
“So you don’t think your opinion influences the state at all?” a young woman with a ponytail asked. “You don’t think that you have any say-so in whatever goes on? You’re the mayor! “If we lose accreditation,” she continued, her tone sharpening, “you know and I know that colleges won’t accept the students.”
“I’m gonna answer that, but that’s No. 2,” Slay said. A teacher tried to intervene, telling him the students were anxious about scholarships.
“That’s covered by No. 2,” he said. “Let me answer No. 1.”
What the students really wanted to know was why he’d been in Jefferson City advocating for charter schools rather than fixing their schools.
“I believe that parents and kids should have choices,” he said. A student pointed out that the charter schools are untested, and Slay sparked up: “We can argue about how successful they are, but I’m not in a position to do that with you.”
“What do you do?” the student flashed back, as exasperated as he was.
When the teacher said that they wanted him to take a little time from his day, the way he does for charter schools, and call universities to see whether they were going to lose their scholarships, Slay tried to say that the state education department was already doing that, then gave in: “OK, if they want me to do this directly, we will have my staff contact universities to find out.” Stiffer by the minute, he began saying that he had to move things along, busy busy, they could meet again sometime if the students had more questions. He’d promised them half an hour but left in half that time, his face tense and miserable.
Four years earlier, Slay had backed a reform slate of board members who then closed schools and hired a private turnaround firm. That didn’t work. Less than 20 percent of students were in schools that met even half of the state’s academic standard; the district was badly mismanaged, with a $90 million deficit; and one of the original board members had laid a biblical curse on him. So Slay had petitioned the state to take over, replacing the elected board with a three-person special administrative board.
It felt to some like the mayor was conspiring with “a cabal of business interests” (companies he’d pulled in to try to help the district get back on his feet) to run the schools.
Others wished that he would run them.
Back in 2001, he’d vowed, “If the schools fail to keep their accreditation, I will take them over.” Harmon had been offered control of the city schools and turned it down. Yet when the commission studying the schools’ future asked Slay whether he wanted the city to take over, he didn’t exactly jump at the chance. “If you ask me to,” he told the commissioners, “I will do it.”
“That was something I didn’t push for,” he says now, “because I just didn’t see that as a reality. If that was a reasonable option, I would have picked it up in a heartbeat.”
It hadn’t seemed unreasonable to his chief of staff. “I pushed him pretty hard to say, ‘Hey, we don’t want this, but we gotta do it,’” Rainford recalls. “Maybe if he’d lobbied really hard for it…” Silencing his ever-buzzing phone, Rainford says, “I’m going to just be blunt with you. Francis is a pretty humble guy. He never thought, ‘I’m going to be the mayor for 16 years.’ It might have been that at that time, he was not sure if he was going to run again, and part of his fear was ‘It’s great if you have a really competent and honest mayor, but with the next mayor, would it be the right thing then?’”
Instead of taking the district schools, Slay joined the national charter movement. He even tried to get chartering authority for his office, and when that failed, he created a committee to put the mayoral imprimatur on charter applications that met rigorous criteria. “Parents had choices,” he says, “and that kept families in St. Louis.”
It also infuriated many educators, families, and groups such as the NAACP, which saw charter schools as an abandonment of the failing district schools and a theft of the top students and the money that traveled with them.
“The St. Louis Public Schools are about 80 percent black,” says 21st Ward Alderman Antonio French, who’s made an avocation of challenging Slay and is now running for mayor. “If you abandon those kids—he has been around long enough to see the repercussions of that. He helped spearhead hundreds of millions of dollars for what I would call wants, not needs—transforming the Soldiers Memorial, making sure every building in the central corridor looks good. Meanwhile, we are closing schools in neighborhoods, and the ones that are open have peeling paint and smell like urine.”
Slay doesn’t feel that he was abandoning the district schools; rather, he sees it as taking emergency action to improve the overall offerings. No other mayor had tackled city education so directly, and the problem had been building for decades. Between 1970 and 2000, the population of school-age children in the city dropped by 54 percent—and enrollment in the district dropped even faster.
The special administrative board lent stability to the district schools, Slay notes, “so they were able to attract a quality superintendent,” Kelvin Adams. In 2014, enrollment rose for the first time in 50 years. Now, the district is advertising for students. Although it’s still far from good enough, it recently outperformed nine of the charter schools on state measures. Earlier this year, district schools won back full accreditation.
District, charter, or magnet, “they’re all public schools,” Slay says, “and these are all our kids.”
At St. Louis’ annual commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. , blacks and whites gather at the Old Courthouse and stand shoulder to shoulder while civic leaders speak words of unity and hope. But in 2008, African-American activists wore Ku Klux Klan garb, and the “Slay Must Go” chant was louder than the mayor’s address. Afterward, he said he’d tried to thank the former fire chief, Sherman George, for attempting to quiet the crowd—but nobody heard that, either.
George was widely respected for his integrity, and it was his demotion that had triggered the protests. He’d clashed with Slay over a firefighters’ test, saying it wasn’t fair and refusing to promote the high scorers (who were all white) to captain. George held his ground even after a district court pronounced the test valid. He later sued over his demotion, but the court found no evidence of racial discrimination.
Rainford says George’s demotion “was something we tried to avoid for four years. We were put in a position where we couldn’t do anything else.”
George says the fight was only about the test. But when I ask what he thinks drove Slay’s decision, he says, “I think it was the union, the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 73.”
That union “supported Mayor Slay when he ran for office,” a source tells me, “and they wanted Chief George out from day one, and Jeff Rainford was more than willing to do their bidding. Back then, there was a lot of racial animosity. One of the union leaders was publicly saying, ‘If Slay’s elected, Sherman George is gone.’”
George acknowledges a long history of racial bias in the union, but he still blames Slay for making a racist decision: “I don’t say the word often. But because of Mayor Slay’s actions, he denied opportunities to African-Americans in the department. I think he depended on people who wanted something—‘I’ve got to satisfy a certain group of people.’ That’s political, but it’s also racist: We are denying one group an opportunity over another. He had an opportunity to make sure we could work together and be one, but it wasn’t politically expedient.”
Slay has adamantly denied any charges of racism.
He acknowledges the longstanding tensions, but also points out that St. Louis is “one of the five most integrated cities in America in terms of blacks and whites living on the same block.” He’s quoting a 2004 study and says our proportion of integrated blocks is probably even better now—“but nobody ever believes me.”
Nor do they believe him when he points out that the city’s highest concentration of poor African-American kids is in the Dutchtown South neighborhood. “This is a very misunderstood issue. It doesn’t mean we’re not segregated—we are one of the most segregated regions in America.” The number of integrated blocks in the middle of the city gets lost because so many maps are drawn in high-contrast black-and-white—
especially the electoral map.
“The chief architects of Slay’s campaign, Jeff Rainford and Richard Callow, operate on a 50-plus-1 strategy,” French remarks, meaning that they focus on the white wards and count on just enough African-American votes to clinch the win. “That might be a way to stay in office, but it’s not a way to bring the city forward.”
Slay has consistently urged an end to racial division. Last year, while accepting the Right Arm of St. Louis Award from the St. Louis Regional Chamber, he noted that the black-white income gap has widened by 40 percent since 1967 and that the wealth gap is what it was in South Africa in 1970. “The events of Ferguson must remind us to consider our systems and the outcomes they produce through the lens of racial equity,” he said.
French wants him to bring that message to the North Side. “If a white tourist gets shot downtown, the mayor will speak on that,” he says. “If 100 black kids get killed in North St. Louis, you cannot find one quote. When a child gets murdered a mile from my district, the local news calls me for the comment. I say, ‘Why don’t you call the mayor?’ and they say, ‘Well, he doesn’t comment.’ Well, why are you letting him get away with that? In Chicago, the media is chasing Rahm Emanuel down the hall!”
French remembers a big Post headline: “Mayor Slay Makes North St. Louis Visits.” “In a city as small as St. Louis, how can you operate as mayor and literally not go to half the city? My friends in Kansas City talk about their weekly meetings with the mayor, how they’re involved in policy discussions. That is not how this city operates. I’ve served in City Hall for eight years and have not had more than three conversations with Francis Slay.”
Alderman Jeffrey Boyd, who is also African-American and represents the neighboring Ward 22, has had the opposite experience; he’s long had the mayor’s support, and vice versa. “He helped me bring a $34 million housing development to my ward,” Boyd says. “Most people told me it would never happen. I represent one of the most challenged neighborhoods in the city.”
Does Slay ever show up? Because Ward 22 doesn’t usually vote for him…
“He’s always come to our annual town hall meeting, attended the ward Christmas party,” Boyd assures me. “Those who are connected in the community, they get a chance to meet the mayor, challenge the mayor. He’s never been afraid to come.”
Slay tells me about an African-American woman who said, “So you’re finally coming to my neighborhood. You’re just here to get our votes.”
“I’m in your neighborhood quite a lot,” he countered. She insisted that she would have seen him. “Do you belong to the neighborhood organization?” he asked. “I was at that organization twice in the last six months. I was at an early childhood center—were you there? I was at the groundbreaking; you weren’t there, either. I was at the church over here—”
She threw up her hands and grinned: “OK, OK, you’ve got me.”
Which version’s accurate? It’s hard to say; other African-American aldermen did not return calls asking for an interview about Slay’s legacy. In 2012, the St. Louis American wrote that Boyd was Slay’s poodle and characterized him as the one black politician willing to make glowing remarks about the mayor.
I call Nasheed, who is no one’s poodle—she led the charge to recall Slay after George was fired. But since then, she’s had help from Slay on a demolition program in The Ville, and he agreed to “ban the box” so young men who’d served time didn’t have to check a box disclosing that information on their job applications.
What would have helped Slay’s reputation in the city’s African-American community? “Accessibility and visibility,” Nasheed says instantly. “If I were mayor and we had a crime north of Delmar, I’d be there. If he would have come to more town hall meetings, shown his face, things could have been different.” She doesn’t think the mayor’s racist; she says it’s an issue of “culture and familiarity. But being the mayor, you have to move away from your shyness.” She pauses. “We can’t negate the fact that he’s gotten a lot done for this city. It’s just the tale of two cities, and he wasn’t able to merge them.”
Two cities, two mayors. Somebody in College Hill will say there are no jobs, there’s crime, St. Louis is a dying city, Francis who? Somebody in the Central West End will say we’re on the cusp of something very exciting, and Slay was a very good mayor indeed.
“People live in bubbles,” says French. “Those in the cheerleader bubble think their role is to sell the city, to claim it’s one of the most literate cities in America, with a startup community that rivals San Francisco’s. What I know is that almost 40 percent of St. Louis city’s population doesn’t have a high school degree.”
Earlier in his tenure, Slay caught flak for having too many whites in top positions, but now nine of the 20 top positions that report to him are held by African-Americans.
“African-Americans? In the beginning, he was very challenged there,” says Green. “Over time, he’s stepped up to the plate. I have heard Better Family Life and NAACP leaders make glowing comments about his leadership, and they did not have those comments when he came in as mayor.” Sometimes she’s given him a nudge, she admits: “‘Mayor, c’mon!’ But sometimes I am not talking to him directly; I am talking to his staff.”
The students talked to him very directly when he turned the district over to the state, I point out, and he froze.
“Yeah, he’s nervous like that,” Green says, her smile wry. “He’d rather not go there.”
“You can’t critique people asking them to do something that wasn’t in their makeup,” says Jones. “The way Francis was psychologically, emotionally put together, I don’t think he ever developed the cultural dexterity to manage a city like St. Louis, multiracial with a lot of class divides. Be honest, St. Louis doesn’t produce a lot of white people like that. You can’t blame Francis for being a product of his environment.”
So what is the legacy of our longest-serving mayor?
Francis Slay has been a steady hand at the helm, as safe and soothing as the queen of England. “He’s been an exceptionally effective politician in the nuts and bolts mechanics of politics,” says Jones. “Four terms is a testament to that. And it’s also a testament to the decline of the political class in St. Louis. He was that good, but the environment doesn’t produce enough first-tier challengers. He never got tested.”
Though Slay has been widely derided as overcautious, his biggest challenges have either dated back more than a century or drawn their energy from social forces spiraling nationwide: post-9/11 panic, two recessions, a fast-draining tax base, a corporate exodus, rising crime, failing schools, racial tensions.
French, his sharpest critic, says, “Francis Slay’s greatest accomplishment is convincing people that the mayor can’t do anything on these issues. He has got a lot of the establishment convinced that it’s actually structural problems, that he can’t do anything with crime and violence or to bring economic development to these blighted areas because of limitations on city government.”
Schoemehl, who’s done the job, says, “The one thing that the mayor can control is the bully pulpit. You look at the things he used his bully pulpit to promote: local control of the police, civil rights for all, mass transit, government restructuring.” He stops there, reluctant to criticize, but when pressed adds, “I wish he’d been able to make the schools an operating department of the city.”
It would have been a huge risk. For years, people have fumed that Slay was the one leader who could have afforded to take such risks, yet he failed to do so.
“I don’t know what it is they wanted him to do that he didn’t do!” exclaims Rainford. “He got local control of the police department, he’s taken on Larry Rice, he took on the firefighters.” Slay was seared over the smoking ban. He took strong stands on LGBTQ rights and the environment. But even when he skirted controversy by, say, leading the PrideFest parade during his first year in office, it didn’t stick in people’s heads as daring, because his demeanor was so bland.
Many of Slay’s greatest accomplishments are, alas, a little boring: defending the earnings tax, pension reform, a knack for earning the feds’ trust… Still, the simple fact that he’s held office for 16 years without a hint of impropriety is remarkable. He inherited a mess, concedes one of his critics, yet “he didn’t f—k anything up.”
To the contrary, he’s made a thick, lumpy bureaucracy work more smoothly. Slay’s genius isn’t charm; it’s order. He’s brought logic and clarity to chaos, fighting “to get government in its right structure.”
A functioning board of public service. A more rational system of awarding block grants. Local control of the police. A standard-setting body for charter schools. Streamlined city government and renewed emphasis on charter reform. A sustainability plan that cut across all departments.
Above all, Slay has pushed St. Louis closer to St. Louis County, tugging at the scar tissue of a 140-year-old split. The Municipal League is backing the city’s reentry into the county—an essential first step. “We need to do something about regional governance restructuring, and he made that happen,” says Schoemehl, who’s gone on record saying the antiquated structure needs to be fixed soon or we’ll be an economic backwater. “It’s been talked about on and off for years, but the fact that the Municipal League is undertaking the sponsorship of the city reentering the county is an essential first step.”
Because of Slay’s close partnership with former St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, we have the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, formed to encourage collaboration instead of competitition.
“St. Louis can’t do it by itself—it needs St. Louis County,” says Dooley. “And St. Louis County is not the hub of the region—the city has all the amenities. We both talked about the city and county coming together, and sometimes we were criticized for it. But regardless of what people said about Mayor Slay or Charlie Dooley, I think we spoke volumes about regional collaboration.”
Now, the city-county relationship is a question mark: Current County Executive Steve Stenger made it clear to the Post that his predecessor’s rapport with Slay is “not a dynamic I wish to partake in.” Stenger’s first public clash with Slay was the proposed north-south MetroLink line, which Slay is pushing hard. He sees it as more than just a symbolic slash across the dividing lines: It could increase access to jobs, one of the city’s most intractable problems.
Slay has always thought big picture. An article in the April 2005 U.S. Mayor Newspaper quoted him saying, “When you’re the mayor of a city that can go either way, you can’t be afraid of making bold moves, of taking risks.”
But most St. Louisans don’t see their mayor that way.
“Bosley could inspire people to climb up a hill,” one observer says, “but he’d pick the wrong hill. Harmon could inspire people to climb, but he couldn’t decide which hill. Slay couldn’t inspire anybody.”
His dad had told him that people need decisive leadership, but that’s proved tricky: Given the reliquary power structure, he had to rely on diplomacy and persuasion to get things done. Schoemehl slapped backs and twisted arms; Slay meets with small groups and makes analytical arguments. No schmoozing or hand-holding, no speechifying.
He’s great at listening and winning people’s trust over time, Ponder says, but “he’s not the best public speaker, and he knows that.” As a result, his message hasn’t always carried outside City Hall.
“He’s done nothing to brand the city, to tell who we are,” says urbanist Alex Ihnen, founder and editor of nextSTL.
A planning expert calls Slay “a laissez-faire mayor. I don’t even know what his agenda was. He’s done bits of everything, in a very low-key way. When you add it all up, are we stronger? We are still grouped as a declining city, not a comeback city.”
Jones calls Slay “a top-tier political contractor but not a political architect. He will manage or build whatever you put in front of him, but he’s not the kind of guy who would ever say, ‘I see what this space needs, and here’s the building I want to put there.’ To the extent these projects that got done, if you accumulate them, they constitute a vision.”
When I ask Geisman for a short list of projects Slay has personally driven, she says, “I don’t think mayors can just dream up ideas. I can’t think of anything that was, like, 100 percent the mayor’s idea and we went and did it, but there were things that were good partnerships.”
His caution in development also seemed to spring from that quintessentially St. Louis need to know and trust the entities ahead of time. That’s the comfort level he’s needed in race relations, too—it isn’t about skin color, it’s about trust, and the sense that somebody is on his side. In situations that feel unfamiliar or adversarial, he comes across as stiff and remote.
“I think some of his achievements have been overlooked just because of his style,” Wessels remarks. “There’s nothing wrong with his style. It’s fine. But by nature, he’s very low-key. He’s persistent; he’s businesslike.”
He’s colorless, his critics complain. But Rainford thinks Slay’s personality is his biggest asset: “He treats every single person with respect. And it isn’t fake. We’ve had flimflam artists who have a ton of charisma and don’t deliver the goods. He did not need to be mayor to fill some hole in his soul, or because his ego needed to be stroked. He was only mayor because he wanted to make the place better. I’d rather have a mayor who doesn’t light up a room but cares deeply about his city.”