© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Relentless' discipline is Slay's calling card in politics and life

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 4, 2013 - Not even a nail has been moved in Room 200 at St. Louis City Hall during the 12 years that Mayor Francis G. Slay has occupied it.

Anything new on a wall in the mayor’s office hangs on an existing nail. The carpet and most of the furnishings, while generally in good condition, go back at least 20 years.

In 2007, Slay says, a private group had arranged to redo the mayoral quarters – “they’d already picked out the new carpeting, the new furniture, the new drapes” -- at a cost of $250,000 in private money.

But Slay nixed the idea in early 2008 when the economy began to go south.

“Perception matters,” Slay says, as he gives a visitor a tour of the historic digs. “If people think that somehow I’m fixing up my office when we’ve got a bad economy, it doesn’t look good and it’s not right. So we didn’t do it.”

The mayor then emphasizes his broader point, that it’s job performance – not the trappings – that matter. “In reality, this is a fine office,” Slay said, as he proudly pointed out his few additions, including a $35,000 crystal ball and bat from Major League Baseball when the Cardinals won the World Series in 2006.

“This is the people’s office. It’s been here long before I was, and it will be here long after I leave. But to me, it’s adequate for our needs.”

What’s more important, he continued, is what happens outside its walls – and that's where Slay tries to spend much of his time.

“I am all over the city,” he says. “I’ve been to thousands of neighborhood meetings, hundreds of parades and festivals, memorials and funerals and senior apartment buildings.”

Slay said he makes a point of visiting every new corporate chief executive to “talk to them about the fact that we appreciate them being in the city.”

“I’m on the job. I show up. I don’t stop,” Slay said. “I do what I have to do, and I’m not shy about it.”

His approach meshes with a word used often by allies and critics to sum up Slay’s strengths and weaknesses -- and which has become his unofficial campaign mantra:


Quest for 4th four-year term

On March 5, Slay will face two Democrats – Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed and former Alderman Jimmie Matthews – in a primary that likely will determine whether he succeeds in his bid for become the longest-serving mayor in St. Louis history by winning an unprecedented fourth four-year term. Two of the city’s first mayors served more terms, but they were only one year in length.

Slay is promoting his administration’s record of attracting $6 billion in development during tough economic times, of forging regional alliances, and of its efforts to help children, notably with programs to eliminate lead paint in old St. Louis homes, which can lead to developmental problems in children.

He also cites the city’s decline in crime over the past six years, which has been twice the national drop.

One of the mayor’s major successes was arguably last November, when he achieved a goal that has eluded the city's mayors for decades: retaking control of the police department, which had been under state oversight since the Civil War.

Slay points to the national recognition that St. Louis has been receiving, of late, as a place to start a business – particularly for African-Americans, according to Ebony magazine. The city also has been lauded for attracting young, college-educated adults and its welcoming the lesbian and gay community.

"Having served three consecutive terms," Slay said, "I have really had the time, the experience and the credibility to do things that other mayors wanted to accomplish but couldn’t get to.”

Ken Warren, a political science professor at St. Louis University and an expert on city politics, says Slay appears to be in a strong position to make city history.

Aside from the obvious – the mayor has raised far more money than his rivals and is already airing TV spots – Warren says that Slay has managed to be a mayor who has become well-known, while generally avoiding well-known missteps.

“Slay has been a very clever man,” Warren said. He praised Slay tactically for using chief of staff Jeff Rainford, a former TV newsman, as “the javelin thrower” who fires most of the verbal shots at mayoral critics.

A similar campaign role is being filed by longtime consultant Richard Callow, who’s now Slay’s campaign manager. It’s generally Callow who lobs the jabs, not the mayor.

The result, said Warren, is that “Slay stays pretty much out of the headlines.”

There has been controversy over the 12 years – notably racial discord over Slay’s rifts with former Fire Chief Sherman George, the slow progress of the Ballpark Village development, and the mayor’s continued cost-saving efforts to revamp the city’s pension plans for firefighters and police.

But Warren noted the absence of any documented allegations of improprieties by the mayor or his staff or any off-the-cuff Slay quotes that become fodder for TV news.

Under some of Slay’s higher-profile predecessors, the professor observed, “there was a scandal a week.”

Slay said that he and his staff adhere to a strong ethical code that he believes has set the tone for his administration.

“We wanted to lead by example,” Slay said. “I’m the first mayor, I believe, who pays for his own parking. I don’t have a (city-owned) cell phone.“

“I’ve tried to lead by example under these tough economic times,” he continued. “I get that it’s easier for me. But if my secretary is going to pay for parking, I’m going to pay for parking.”

Veteran political family

Francis G. Slay is the third generation of his family at City Hall but the first to be mayor. His grandfather, Joseph R. Slay, was an immigrant and restaurant owner who served briefly in the 1940s as the 7th Ward alderman.

The mayor’s father, Francis R. Slay, also a restaurateur, was a Democratic fixture until his death in 2011. The elder Slay served two terms in the state House, then seven years as the city recorder of deeds. Arguably his most influential role was as the Democratic committeeman for the 23rd Ward, a post he held for 45 years.

The father of 11 surviving children, the elder Slay once offered up a pithy assessment of his offsprings' approach to life: “They work hard; they don’t take all these coffee breaks.”

The mayor is the second oldest of siblings who, male or female, all share a version of “Gerard” in their name, in honor of St. Gerard, the Catholic patron saint for pregnant women.

(Slay was particularly close to his mother, Anna May Sobocinski Slay, who also died in 2011. Even as an adult, and as mayor, he tried to visit her daily.)

Growing up, Francis Gerard Slay swiftly displayed a gift for soccer. After graduating from St. Mary’s High School, he went to Quincy College (now Quincy University), becoming the team’s star soccer player and leading it to three national titles.

Afterward, Slay considered turning pro. But he came home and went to law school instead. He roomed with an aunt to have more peace and quiet to study.

After law school, Slay married his teenage sweetheart, Kim Torrisi. Following a year as a clerk with the Missouri Court of Appeals, he joined the local law of Guilfoil, Petzall and Shoemake.

Slay continued to work for the firm after successfully running for alderman in 1985 and later winning election to Board of Aldermen president in 1995. (Many St. Louis aldermanic presidents have worked in private-sector jobs simultaneously.)

Slay’s tenure in the Board of Aldermen was marked by his focus on development.

It was widely perceived that Slay and then-Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. had cut a political deal in 1997 because Bosley – the city’s first African-American mayor – was already in the midst of controversy and was believed to fear a challenge from Slay.

Slay stayed put. Then-Police Chief Clarence Harmon – also African-American – challenged Bosley instead. Harmon won but soon was ensconced in his own political troubles.

In 2001, Slay announced against Harmon. So did Bosley. The three-way primary contest got verbally nasty, and the results were racially divisive. Slay carried all the predominantly white wards.

That backdrop helps explain why Slay has at times found himself in political disputes with racial overtones, notably his differences several years ago with George, the first African-American to hold the job of fire chief.

Slay maintained the discord stemmed from policy differences, while some of George's allies asserted otherwise.

Even so, since then Slay has forged political alliances with most of the region’s top African-American officials, including St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis.

Slay won re-election handily in 2005 and 2009, garnering most of the major regional endorsements, black and white.

Last summer, Slay endorsed Clay during the latter’s heated primary fight with a fellow Democratic congressman, Russ Carnahan. The two had been tossed into the same district during statewide congressional redistrict.

Clay, in turn, has endorsed Slay’s re-election. And the congressman says it’s because of policy, not just politics.

“We are partners, the mayor and I,” Clay said. “We have a record of teaming up together. I like the record of this mayor. I like what he has done.”

Clay sat near the front of the auditorium during last Tuesday’s mayoral forum and gave the mayor strong praise afterward.

Meanwhile, Slay‘s appeal to a difference audience – women voters – led to his campaign’s decision last week to feature U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., in a video where she strongly praises his record on hiring women for key posts.

Discipline hallmark of life and politics

With their two children now grown, Slay and his wife -- and their three dogs -- have moved from his home base in the 23rd Ward to the 12th Ward, near Carondelet Park.

Even with his long days of campaigning, Slay – a youthful 57 -- has a regular fitness routine. He gets up before 6 a.m. daily to find time to run or walk; he works out in a gym or, if all else fails, uses the treadmill in his basement.

He also is careful about his diet. The mayor’s daily regimen usually calls for three protein shakes a day, plus fruit and raw nuts that he keeps in his desk and his car. When he’s on the road, Slay snacks on protein bars and apples. He avoids sweets and fast food.

He’ll drop a protein shake – each of which has the protein “but not the calories” of eight eggs -- if he’s having a regular meal instead.

Slay often doesn’t eat when he’s at official events, so “I can talk to people and have a more meaningful and efficient stop-by or meeting.”

Slay has stuck to his exercise and diet approach for 15 years and says it’s helped keep him in shape and gives him more energy.

Slay drinks lots of water, often from the tap ever since St. Louis’ water won a competition singling it out as the best-tasting water in the country.

His penchant for water -- he usually drinks it from the same 24-ounce bottle he uses for his shakes – has come into play in a simmering controversy over his proposal to bring in Veolia Water North America as a consultant to examine practices at the city Water Department.

The proposal has yet to win the necessary approval of the city’s Board of Estimate and Apportionment, on which he sits, because of various allegations that his aim is to privatize or outsource the Water Department.

Slay says he would never support such a move and cites the City Charter that bars any such outsourcing. In any case, he has met with Water Department employees to tamp down any such rumors.

Slay has caught some flack, including from Reed, for such meetings. Critics allege it amounts to improper campaigning. Slay replies, “I’m the city’s CEO … If the mayor doesn’t talk to the employees, who will?”

Seeks more regional cooperation

If he wins re-election, Slay says one goal will be to press for more regional cooperation.

He echoes previous mayors that a regional approach is the best way to tackle homelessness; city officials have noted that many of the homeless in city shelters are from other parts of the region.

He also advocates allowing St. Louis to re-enter St. Louis County as a municipality, ending the separation that hails back to 1876. Such talk has been controversial for decades, but Slay believes that younger people are more amenable to the idea because they are more likely to see the region as a whole, instead of its individual parts.

Slay has become more pragmatic about the city's current challenges after reading a book written by a predecessor, former Mayor Alfonso Cervantes, who recounts the socially turbulent 1960s and the toll it took on St. Louis.

Looking over the past 12 years, Slay is most wistful over the economic dynamics that have affected the city. His predecessors during the 1990s, he says (although he declines to name them) allowed “mismanagement and corruption" to prevent the city from benefiting from that decade's economic boom.

Within months after he first took office in 2001, 9/11 happened – and with it the start of a roller-coaster economy that generally has hurt the city.

Still, Slay is optimistic that the next few years will be better, among the reasons he wants to stay on.

“We’ve made a tremendous amount of progress over the last 12 years,” he said. “I don’t think it’s time to start over again. It’s time to keep moving St. Louis forward. I’m working now with as much or more intensity as I ever have.”

Slay also believes that he is the right man with the right temperament to be St. Louis’s mayor – which, he adds, is the only political job that he wants.

“I like the job. I think I’m good at it,” Slay added. “And I still feel motivated as well as very optimistic about the future of the city of St. Louis.”

In other words, relentless.

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.