ST. LOUIS – Mayor Francis Slay (search) is heavily favored for a second term in his race against two underdog fellow Democrats — one once accused of publicly urinating during a meeting, the other having openly admitted he recently thought about suicide.
It's been six decades since a Democratic mayoral nominee lost in this overwhelmingly Democratic city, making the winner of Tuesday's three-way Democratic primary the likely City Hall occupant for the next four years. With no Republicans running, the only other candidate in the April 5 general election is the Green Party's Willie Marshall (search).
As Slay, the city council's Irene Smith (search) and the school board's Bill Haas charge to the finish, many say the race is Slay's to lose. In an editorial last month, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said Slay deserves another term and — "barring an accident or upset of cosmic proportions" — he will win the primary and the general election.
"If you're going to a horse race and these were the horses, it wouldn't be much of a race," says Ken Warren, a Saint Louis University political science professor. "This is not news to anyone: Slay is going to win in a blowout."
Slay shrugs off such talk, saying "the voters will determine all of that."
"I'm running an aggressive campaign because I want to tell the story of what we've been able to accomplish the past four years," he said.
Slay got a whopping 87.5 percent of the vote in defeating a Republican in 2001 after campaigning with the mantra, "We can be a great city again." Four years later, Slay insists that the urban renaissance is under way.
Slay, who turns 50 on March 18, says that under his watch, the city has stemmed its half-century of population loss, the average sale prices of local homes are up 54 percent, and St. Louis is on the map in biotech and life sciences.
Slay also is widely credited — and criticized — for backing a slate of school board candidates that hired a corporate management firm that helped rein in the district's finances.
Haas, 60, thinks things could be better, notably in the state's largest school district. He has served on the school board since 1997, though he was not part of the Slay-endorsed slate.
Haas, who has run for St. Louis mayor unsuccessfully in each election since 1993, says improving the schools is his priority, declaring "I'm strongest where the mayor is weakest."
"I've been saying that if you can improve the school district, all else will follow. If you can't, nothing else matters," Haas said.
Haas wants to slash the dropout rate by encouraging community and business leaders to "adopt" eighth-graders, with the promise of tutoring or — after graduation — jobs or college scholarships. He endorses after-school tutoring to boost sagging reading levels among third-graders, and he urges businesses to let parents take a half day off each month to visit their children in school.
As he campaigns, Haas is hearing questions about what happened in January, when local media outlets reported that his online diary included an airing of his demons, including confessions of suicidal thoughts fed by loneliness, depression and poor finances.
"Unless something breaks professionally in the next couple of months, I'm going to be out of money and then I'm going to put the animals to sleep and take my life," he wrote, calling the diary "a little bit of a cry for help" and "sort of a last note."
Last week, Haas said he had no regrets about the writings, now labeling them a snapshot of a darker time in his life. "I'll always be known as the only mayoral candidate in history of the world who talked about suicide in the middle of the race," he said.
Smith, a black former judge and prosecutor who did not respond to telephone and e-mail requests to be interviewed, has pledged to fight racial tension if elected.
Smith made national news in July 2001 when she was accused of publicly urinating in the chamber during a filibuster against a ward redistricting bill she opposed on grounds it would pare the number of black aldermen.
At the time, the board's presiding officer ruled that Smith would lose control of floor debate if she left to use a restroom. So she seemed to relieve herself there, concealed by supporters and any fabrics or items they could grab.
She was acquitted of a misdemeanor violation of the city code barring lewd conduct in December 2002.