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Schweitzer's emotions mixed as St. Louis' likely last elected circuit clerk

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 21, 2012 - For decades, the St. Louis circuit clerk was often the city’s most powerful politician.  Joe Roddy and his army of patronage workers were once the muscle who helped get mayors elected, while Freeman Bosley Jr. used the post’s clout to help get elected mayor himself.

All of which makes last week’s action by the Missouri General Assembly all the more stunning. With no floor opposition and no apparent public interest, legislators voted to end the St. Louis circuit clerk’s days as a citywide elected office and turn it into an appointive post. The city’s circuit judges will decide who holds the job.

The change is part of a massive bill dealing with the judiciary that Gov. Jay Nixon is expected to sign.

St. Louis Circuit Clerk Jane Schweitzer said today that she’s “in mourning” – although she hastened to add that she reluctantly agrees with the judges’ long-sought quest.

“It makes me kind of sad,” said Schweitzer, who likely will be known as St. Louis’ last elected circuit clerk. Under the bill, she would be allowed to complete her term, which ends January 2015.

The judges have wanted to curb the power of the circuit clerk’s office for at least 20 years, saying that it was unseemly that a job set up to serve the courts had become an elective post in which the officeholder often wielded far more clout than those on the bench.

Before Schweitzer, the last two circuit clerks – Mavis Thompson and Mariano Favazza – also had been involved in running battles with the judges over various administrative issues. Favazza had even sued them.

Favazza’s legal battles led to a court decision a few years ago that slashed much of the circuit clerk’s political power by shifting to the judges the power to hire and fire the staff, although the clerk remained their immediate supervisor. 

Since taking office, Schweitzer said she’s gotten along great with Presiding Circuit Judge Steven Ohmer. Although she’s the immediate supervisor of the 141 people in the clerk’s office, “he is absolutely in the loop. He makes the final call,” she said.

That wasn’t always the case.

During Roddy’s 14-year tenure in the job, his 200-plus workforce of patronage employees was the most sought-after political army in town. Most workers were allies (or relatives) of various aldermen or other Democratic officials.

On Election Day, most would be dispatched to help staff the polls and campaign for Roddy’s favored candidates.; Roddy’s early endorsement in 1980 of an outspoken young alderman, Vincent C. Schoemehl Jr., was acknowledged by Schoemehl as the essential start of a coalition that helped him unseat the incumbent mayor, James F. Conway, in 1981.

Soon after, Roddy was elected chairman of the St. Louis Democratic Central Committee. Even so, Roddy surprisingly lost a re-election bid in 1982 to another political upstart, Freeman Bosley Jr., who in turn swiftly demonstrated that he knew how to wield the office’s political power as well. 

Bosley later also took over the city’s Democratic reins as party chairman. In 1993, while circuit clerk, Bosley was elected the city’s first African-American mayor.

But once Bosley was out, appointing Thompson as his successor, the judges pushed back and soon went public with their dissatisfaction.

The fights got even hotter between the judicial branch and Favazza, a butcher-turned-lawyer who ousted Thompson in 1998. Schweitzer ousted him in 2010, in part, by highlighting her opposition to his battles with the judges. “I didn’t agree at all with the way he conducted himself,” said Schweitzer, also a lawyer.

Schweitzer, by the way, is familiar with St. Louis politics. Her father-in-law was longtime city Sheriff Gordon Schweitzer, who also was a citywide elected official with a hefty share of patronage employees.

Schweitzer noted that, during their campaign, Favazza often won loud applause at political gatherings when he highlighted the judges’ effort to transform the circuit clerk into an appointed post and contended they were trying to curb the public’s power.

After her victory, Schweitzer said she cited Favazza’s reception when she warned the judges that their legislative effort “was not a popular thing” and that they ought to make sure they had the support of at least some of the city’s legislators.

“This shouldn’t be something shoved down (the public’s) throat,” she said.

This session, state Sen. Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis, sponsored the appointed-clerk provision – a sign that the move also had the support of Mayor Francis Slay, who long has sought to phase out the elected citywide “county offices” like circuit clerk and sheriff.

Schweitzer testified before a legislative panel and said she told them that she didn’t have any strong objections to the change. 

Schweitzer said that, ideally, the circuit clerk post shouldn’t be a partisan position. She noted that the bulk of Missouri's circuit clerks are appointed, including those in St. Louis and Jackson counties.

Since last week’s legislative vote, she said, “I know there are some people who are uhappy about it. I say, ‘Where were they, when it was being discussed?’ “

“All in all,” Schweitzer said, “I think (the change) will serve the interests of the court system.”

But that doesn’t mean she’s celebrating.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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