Vital VOICE Interview with Slay

Reporter Lucas Hudson interviews Mayor Francis Slay in this week’s issue of the Vital VOICE.

From Hudson’s intro:

The city’s sweltering racial thermometer portends an all-out political meltdown as Mayor Francis Slay was booed right out of the Old Courthouse by supporters of the city’s ousted first black fire chief, Sherman George, as he gave a speech Jan. 21 honoring Martin Luther King Jr. This humiliating show of resentment demonstrates that Slay’s legacy is in danger of being permanently branded with the scarlet R of racial unrest.

African-American displeasure with his administration did not start with the political game of chicken that resulted in the public demotion of George, but that event lit the match in an environment already filled with the fumes of African-American distrust, suspicion and anger at what some have described as Slay’s “racial politics.”

In a Jan. 11 interview with the Vital VOICE, Mayor Slay speaks to these issues, and also outlines African-American progress that has taken place under his administration, declaring that “There isn’t enough coverage of positive news.”

From the interview:

The Vital Voice: We both know that some of the city’s African-American leaders are up in arms over what many have described as your “racial politics.” With racial tension inflamed in the wake of Fire Chief Sherman George’s removal, The National Society of Black Engineers has threatened to move its 2011 conference scheduled to take place in St. Louis unless the situation changes. In addition, a citizen’s group primarily made up of African-Americans called the Citizens to Recall Mayor Slay has started an effort to recall you from office.

Consultant and blogger Antonio French’s site (www.PubDef.net) lists major gripes the black community has with your administration, which I have paraphrased. They include:

  • Disassembling the city’s largest black voting ward (the former 20th).
  • Removal of the city’s only ever black fire chief and the subsequent 4-to-1 promotion of whites over blacks.
  • The closing of more than a dozen schools (neighborhood anchors) in North St. Louis.
  • The disproportionate investing of hundreds of millions of tax dollars in downtown and white neighborhoods, while northern black neighborhoods continue to suffer.

Mayor Slay, if you don’t agree with African-American disillusionment regarding your administration, can you at least understand it?

Mayor Slay: I am very aware of some racial unrest in the City of St. Louis. I am very aware of some of the reaction to what happened in the Fire Department. I will also tell you that if Chief George had made the promotions, he would still be the chief. I talked to civic, political and clergy leaders throughout the community during the process before any decisions were made. I want you and the community to know that I did everything I could to try and get the promotions done without confrontation or controversy. I respect Sherman George as a man of principle, but ultimately, we disagreed how to handle that situation.

There isn’t anybody in St. Louis that agrees with every decision I have made, but there are some people that want to divide the city. However… I don’t think anybody can argue with the fact that St. Louis is much better today than it was seven years ago. We were losing jobs and people faster than virtually any other city in America. Now, our job base has stabilized, our population is on the increase, and we’re getting national and international recognition for our successes. Chief Mokwa and I just announced that crime in the city has dropped 16 percent from last year. Crime is now at a 35-year low. That is something that impacts everybody positively.

Have we solved all the issues? We have not. And some of those allegations like disassembling the largest black ward in the city…Well, the people are still there. If that was the largest black voting ward the city, it is still the largest black voting ward in the city, but it just has a different number on it.

Most people only hear the negatives, and there is no balanced view. For example, the affordable housing initiative that I helped pass is spending $5 million a year, with much of that money impacting people of color. When I took office in the year 2000, 31 percent of the kids tested were positive for lead, and now it is only six percent. The neighborhoods with high incidences of lead poisoning are in predominately African-American areas. I am not suggesting there are no more challenges and everything is fine, but there isn’t enough coverage of positive news.

VV: What specifically have you done, and what more can you do to defuse the current racial tension in the city?

MS: I have been working hard to call upon fair-minded people who are very interested, regardless of what they think of my decision or how it was done—to pull together, begin the healing process and move the city forward. I believe that is going to take some time, but I have been very encouraged by conversations with a number of black leaders. I believe I realize how deep this issue goes, and I am not taking this tension for granted. It is going to take a lot of work and leadership from me and my office.

Click here to read the entire Vital VOICE interview.

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