Francis G. Slay set himself apart in politics in a way that seems to be an anomaly by today’s boastful standards – and the outgoing mayor of St. Louis says he did it by being humble.
“This job is very humbling because of the responsibilities,” Slay says. “And you have to be very humble when you take it. This isn’t about power. It’s about responsibility, and I’m gonna need all the help I can get. So I don’t care if you are Republican or Democrat, poor or rich, or if you voted for me or not; if we can work together to improve the quality of life in the city, then we’ve got something to talk about.”
The first time I interviewed Slay was when he was elected president of the St. Louis Board of Alderman 22 years ago. The years have been kind to him, and at 63, he looks almost the same as when we first met.
I had a chance to interview him again during one of the last days of his term. He gave me a quick tour of his historic and revered corner office of St. Louis City Hall and showed me some of the items he has collected over the years. One of his favorite pieces is an original window from the top of the Gateway Arch that had recently been replaced: It was Window No. 1, as a matter of fact.
Slay has collected a lot of artifacts over the years, but the things he wanted to collect most were accomplishments. Humility aside, he has a long list: the new Busch Stadium, Ballpark Village, the birth of the Cortex research and tech district, the Gateway Arch grounds renovations, two new recreation centers, additional middle- and low-income housing stock, and the reaccreditation of city schools all happened on his watch. His biggest accomplishment, though, was the relocation of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) to an area where the infamous and long ago doomed Pruitt-Igoe housing project once stood. The deal kept approximately 3,500 jobs in the city, with plans to add 600 more. Although Slay says announcing the NGA deal was his most-satisfying moment as mayor, he’s just as proud of less-celebrated works.
“There’s been more rehabilitation of older buildings in the last 16 years than there has been for decades and decades,” Slay says. “We’re seeing redevelopment in neighborhoods in all parts of the city. We’ve made a big effort in places like Old North and the Loop and Grand Center and South Grand and Tower Grove and many others as a result of the steps we took to create an environment that makes it easier for people to invest in the city of St. Louis.”
On the difficult side, he says some of his most valuable lessons came from the unrest in Ferguson, when racial inequities became painfully apparent.
“There was a big disconnect between the people, police and government in general in a lot of communities,” he says. “We learned you can’t isolate people in low-income minorities in a way that they feel disconnected.”
Slay successfully pushed for the establishment of the Ferguson Commission, which uncovered overreaching governments that were funding themselves with unfair traffic courts. “We need to learn in St. Louis that something that happens in one part of the region impacts the entire region,” Slay says.
Although Slay says there were a lot of sleepless nights under the weight of the job, there were also a lot of incredible moments. “Like when I’m standing in the middle of Busch Stadium after the Cardinals win the World Series, and I’m handing David Freese and the team the keys to the city in front of a stadium full of rabid fans – that’s pretty cool.” He points out for the record that the Cardinals were in four World Series while he was mayor – one series during each of his terms.
For the first time in 16 years, Slay is not sitting at the mayor’s desk inside St. Louis City Hall. After serving longer than any mayor in the 252-year history of the city, he now sits, having gone back into private practice as an attorney, at the law firm Spencer Fane. One would think that after all these years of sleepless nights and hectic days, it would be easy to step aside, but Slay admits, “I’m gonna miss this job every single day for the rest of my life.” However, in spite of that, and in true form, Slay has humbly walked away.
Paul Brown is a longtime journalist on radio, on television and in print as a reporter, an anchor, a talk show host and a columnist. He’s also a media and public relations consultant with Paul Brown Media.