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In rare appearance, former mayor says city's future depends on tackling its troubled schools

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 27, 2009 - Although downtown St. Louis has improved, and some encouraging development proposals are in the news, former Mayor Clarence Harmon says the city's future is still stymied by its past.

"It doesn't work if you don't have good schools,'' Harmon said Tuesday night, during a rare public address since he left office eight years ago.

Harmon's audience was a couple dozen members of the Jefferson Township Democratic Club, holding its regular monthly meeting in Shrewsbury's community center. (Jefferson Township takes in parts of several southwest St. Louis County communities, including Shrewsbury and  Webster Groves.)

Harmon was St. Louis' mayor from 1997-2001, and will hold a place in history as the city's second African-American mayor.

He won by defeating the first black mayor, Freeman Bosley Jr., in a 1997 contest so thick with racial tensions that it attracted national attention, because both men were of the same race. Harmon earlier had been the city's police chief from 1991-95. He resigned because of differences with the city Police Board, which included Bosley, and then chose to challenge Bosley for the city's top job.

Harmon touched on that messy past Tuesday night, as as he explained why the politics that often roil the city of St. Louis affect the region as a whole.

If the city prospers, or stumbles, so does the region, he said. In fact, Harmon advocated that there needs to be "a refocus on the city as the regional entity. What is (the region of) St. Louis, if it's not the city?"

With that in mind, Harmon said that all of the troubles that have confronted the city over the past few decades, from population loss to economic difficulties, center around one over-arching problem that has yet to be solved.

"The city schools is the 800-pound gorilla in the room,'' Harmon said. "It's a big, big issue ... Suffice it to say, the city has to turn the school system around'' if it wants to grow and prosper.

The young adults flocking to the city's trendy downtown neighborhoods now, Harmon said, will mirror their predecessors and move away when they have children unless the city schools improve.

"That has to be the fruit of our collective labor,'' Harmon said.

Harmon blamed poor mid-level management for some of the city schools' troubles. He recounted an episode during his tenure when a major corporation donated a number of new computers to a city school in a poor neighborhood. Harmon recalled showing up a few months later, and finding that school officials had the computers locked up under the belief that they would be damaged if the students got to use them

Harmon acknowledged that the mayor has no statutory power over the city schools, but he noted that numerous mayors have sought to take action. Harmon said that he had taken some of the preliminary steps during his tenure that led to the later actions, under current Mayor Francis Slay, that prompted the state to take control.

Speaking in general, Harmon said he thought Slay -- who just won election to a third term in April -- has done "a credible job."

Slay had defeated Harmon and Bosley (who was seeking a comeback) in a spirited 3-way contest in 2001. Harmon ended up with only 5 percent of the citywide vote.

Still, Harmon said Tuesday that his re-election loss was "one of the better things that ever happened to me.''

Afterwards, Harmon began teaching at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, at the request of Simon, a former U.S. senator. Later, Harmon switched to teaching at St. Louis University.

His chief current job, Harmon said, is as a regional general manager for the Wackenhut Corporation, a multi-national security firm that has 35,000 employees in the United States and more than 500,000 worldwide. In the St. Louis area, the firm provides security at some hospitals and other sites. A key local client had been the Chrysler plant in Fenton, Harmon said.

Harmon emphasized that he believes in the importance of good law enforcement, and praised the St. Louis Police Department as one of the finest in the country. Properly trained, he said, "Police can be a positive element in an effective culture."

Now 69, Harmon said he has no desire to get back into politics again.

Afterwards, Jefferson Township Democratic Club president Ron Zager said he'd asked Harmon to address the group because he knew the former mayor well (the mayor's wife, Janet Harmon, is Zager's cousin), and thought Harmon had a great message that he hoped members would want to hear.

Zager admitted that he had hoped for a larger crowd. Attracting larger audiences is a key reason for the topics Zager has chosen for some of this summer's township meetings.

On July 28, members will hear speakers who are experts in "human trafficking and sexual slavery.'' On August 25, the township club will hear about "torture and rendition of U.S. detainees."

For what it's worth, one woman in Tuesday's audience stood up and asked that Harmon be invited back soon to address the Jefferson Township Democrats again.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.