Last week our publisher sat down with Mayor Francis Slay in his ornate office in the historic Room 200 in St. Louis City Hall. The mayor was completely candid and agreed to the interview with no restrictions as to what we could ask. On topics from the “Delmar divide”, to gun control, to city/county consolidation we think you will enjoy the mayor’s thoughts in our Missouri Times conversation. Below is part one. Part two will be online Wednesday when we discuss the “Delmar Divide” and if people are safe to visit north St. Louis.
The Missouri Times: Why politics?
Mayor Francis Slay: Politics is a business of people and I love people. I grew up in a very politically active and public service-oriented family. And, my father was in the restaurant business and my grandfather and father were in politics in the city government my grandfather was at the board of alderman, he was an immigrant. My dad served at the statehouse and served as Recorder of Deeds for the City, and for 45 years as a Democratic committeeman for the 23rd Ward. It’s basically in my blood and something I enjoy very, very much. I love government, and I love people.
TMT: We would be remiss if we didn’t ask you about your former law partner, Mr. Petzall. Tell us about him, what was your interaction with him and how did he help your career?
Slay: Gerhardt Petzall and I worked together for twenty years. I worked for him, and then I became a partner after a number of years. We got to be very close, we still stay in touch, Gerhardt was more on the business-end of the law firm, transactional-type stuff. I was in the litigation side. When we dealt with each other we typically dealing with firm business, and also he was in charge of billing, so we had to make sure we had to make our bills together and get all our timesheets in, not only for ourselves, but the people working under us. So he was always working there, he’s a great guy with a great personality, he’s got a tremendous amount of energy. He’s one of the smartest lawyers I’ve ever met, and really somebody I have a tremendous amount of respect for. Gerhardt now is probably about 81 years old and when I started working for him he was maybe about 49 and he would be out there playing on our firm softball team. He’s just a good guy and a good friend.
TMT: Tell us about your first race for Alderman.
Slay: There was no primary, the previous alderman died in office. There was an opening created and the democratic committee and the republican committee, I had a pretty mixed ward, both parties put up a candidate and I originally wasn’t sure I wanted to get into politics at the time because I was busy with my law practice. But I went ahead and did it. I was 30 back then, pretty young, it was my first foray into running for office but it was a great experience for me, I learned a lot from my dad about campaigning, particularly in that race. He taught me a few things, he taught me never take the people for granted and don’t ever over estimate your popularity. Because lots of people get in office and they think that just because they’re in office people must know them and know what they’re doing. [My father] said you always have to communicate with people you represent. He said you can’t just assume they know you and know what you’re doing for them, you know. What I learned when I went door-to-door for every door in the ward, for voters I learned. I learned that when you go door to door, there are a lot more people out there that you don’t know or don’t know you than you think, even if you’re popular, you know. That’s been good, it’s something I keep in the back of my mind. Voters need to know what’s going on and they need a reason to vote for you they need to be continually reaffirmed why you’re in the position and why you should be re-elected.
TMT: Tell us about the special election for alderman.
Slay: It’s the City Democratic Central Committee, they pick the candidate at the time. Generally it’s committee people from the ward, and some of them came in and recommended me and I came in and gave a quick speech and they affirmed it. I told the people there, I’m working for you. I look at this is as putting the confidence in me so that I can work at City Hall for the people’s benefit. And that’s something I never forgot. I was nervous, you know, at the time it was something new to me. Even though I was involved in politics and involved in campaigning, being the candidate is a whole different thing. The woman running against me worked very, very hard. She had lot of experience and she was a Republican committeewoman at the time. We had a sizeable republican population in my ward, in the 23rd ward, back then. I think governor Ashcroft wrote a letter on her behalf to all of our [voters]. You know he was very popular back then, he actually carried our ward when he ran for governor. He carried the 23rd and shortly after that, he wrote a letter supporting her. The point is my dad had served in that area a long time we had, well, we were well liked. He had a good reputation and was very well respected and he was a big factor in my getting elected to start with.
TMT: What went into running for that President of the Board of Alderman?
Slay: Well it started out, Tom Villa didn’t look like he’d be running for re-election so I had to decide what I was going to do politically, because I had a good law practice which I enjoyed doing and I had to decide whether I was going to continue in politics or pretty much set that aside and get into practicing law. What I saw happening was, I saw with Tom not running for Mayor. I started trying to move support around to replace him, in the event that he did not run. Ultimately, he announced fairly late in the game that he was not running, and I got in the race. I felt like, as a lawyer and a 10-year member of the Board of Alderman I felt I could do the job. I know how important the job is in the City of St. Louis. I felt like this was something I could do. I knew it was about building relationships and I’ve been able to establish some good ones over time. And I knew it was about paying attention to details and being on top of the issues, which is something I always felt I’m good at. So I ran. It was about a 7-person race and I got about 50 percent of the votes in that race. 49 or 50 percent of the vote, I think.
TMT: Anything about the office you particularly enjoyed?
Slay: I liked that, as President of the Board of Alderman, I could have a huge influence in legislation, you know? In the laws, the policies and the direction this city is being taken, I could have an influence there. I worked really hard to work at the time with the Mayor, with establishing an agenda, with moving it through the legislature. That was always fun for me, the legislative process was fun, I enjoyed the people at the Board. I’ve built some very strong friendships and relationships there and what I learned more than anything as President of the Board of Alderman was to strengthen and reaffirm what I already knew, that leadership really is about relationships and building credibility. I was able to do that there and did that for a full term, and then another half of a term. I was President for the Board of Alderman for 6 years. Then, at that time, I had to make the decision about whether or not I stayed in politics and run for Mayor, or whether to just leave it altogether and practice law.
TMT: Did you support [former Mayor Vincent] Schoemehl when he ran for Governor?
TMT: Have you ever thought about running for Governor?
Slay: Here’s what I’ll tell you, my focus is and always has been on this job that I’m doing right now. I haven’t forgone any other possibilities in the future, whatever they might be. But I can tell you this is the political position I really enjoy, and I think it plays well to my strengths and I’m committed to this job and to running for another term. I don’t rule anything out, but having said that this is a job I like and intend to continue doing as long as my health is good and the people feel like I have something to offer.
TMT: When the governor’s office is mentioned on the Democratic side, your name is frequently mentioned, do they come here, has it been brought to you personally, or do they know your heart is here?
Slay: People do bring it up to me, certainly, but my heart is set here. Look, I’ve got… and I mean this sincerely, this is the political position that I really, really enjoy. I’m honored to have it and I’m focused completely on this job. I’m not looking beyond this position in any way, I want to make that clear. The subject does come up a lot. People come and say “You’ve been Mayor so long, what are you gonna do next?” Or they ask “are you gonna move up?”
Well, moving up is all-relative. To me, this is an ideal political position in a lot of ways. You get to handle some of the toughest issues that are facing the cities and the people across America. You address directly things like education and healthcare and public safety and job creation. All those things, economic development, creating an environment people enjoy and want to be around. Dealing with some of the most vulnerable, assisting some of the most vulnerable citizens, whether it’s homeless veterans or seniors that are home bound or kids that have an unacceptable level of lead in their blood. These are things that we’ll deal with, we’re on the ground dealing directly with these things. Virtually everything that impacts lives the Mayors deal with. And we’re on the ground, we’re here, we’re home, we’re not off in Washington or Jefferson City, not that there’s anything wrong with that. The point is being a mayor, being on the ground, on the frontlines, shoulder-to-shoulder with the people that are fighting for the future of the city is, to me, an ideal political position. I love it and I love who I work with. I’m 100% focused on this job.
TMT: Looking back, are there some Mayors that have presided over this city that you’ve learned from?
Slay: Oh, yeah. A number of mayors I’ve had a tremendous amount of respect for and admiration. I’ve read about a number of them and I’ll bring some up. Going back as far as Mayor David Rowland Francis was a mayor of the City, he became governor, he was a huge visionary, and he was a tremendous leader. He ended up heading up the effort to bring the World’s Fair to Saint Louis. Then he was appointed by the President to be the ambassador to Russia and he served there during the Bolshevik Revolution so, he’s just an incredibly impressive guy. But on a modern side, some of the Mayors I had respect for, there are a few. Mayor [Alfonso] Cervantes, he was someone who was a salesman for the City. He had the city at heart, he was willing to take risks under the circumstances. You know when people were leaving the city he fought very hard to bring new people to the city, new energy. I was a fan of course of Mayor [James] Conway, who has been such a big help to me. His son is on the Board of Alderman now. He and my dad had a really good relationship. He is someone that still, to this day, comes in here an gives me advice on things that I deal with and he serves on the zoo Board on my behalf. And, of course, [Mayor] Vince Schoemehl. He’s a guy that has, when he was Mayor, he did a lot of things right and he was a wonderful leader and wasn’t afraid of a good fight. He’s willing to take a fight for the best for the cities future and he’s one of those people that do this day continues to serves the city. He’s the head of Grand Center, which is our arts district near Saint Louis University. He’s on the Bi-state Transit system Board, he ran and served for the Saint Louis Public School District. There’s nobody that cares about this city the way [Mayor] Vincent Shoemehl does. These are some people I’ve admired.
TMT: What goes through your mind when people put your success on par with other notable Mayors like Mayor Kiel and Mayor Tucker?
Slay: Well, you know, for me it is flattering. What I do know about this job is that you think “Yeah, but what have you done lately?” It is. Something my dad used to say, you have to continue, you can’t rest on your accomplishments and look forward and say the job is done. The job is never done. I’ve got hopefully a number of years ahead of me in this job and we’ve got a lot of work to get done. We can’t just sit back and say “Hey, look at all these wonderful things,” we have to continue. As I was saying at a meeting the other night, cities are changing. They aren’t stagnant. Technology and industry is changing. This city needs to change as well. We need to keep it up and compete globally more so than we ever have before. Talent is more important now for business than ever. It used to be location, but now it’s people, people, people. You want to attract business, you need to have talented people here to attract the jobs. It never stops. You’ll always have to deal with safety, public education and create more jobs. You need a more attractive environment to let people find and keep jobs to create a better world, which allows them to support their families. Then you always have to do is care for the less fortunate that might not have a place to lay their head at night, or someone who is in poverty and has an issue with turning on the heat. Yes, it is flattering to hear those kinds of things, but you’ve got to keep your feet on the ground. Keep thinking, what are we doing now to make the city a better place for more people.
Look for part two Wednesday at www.themissouritimes.com.