The success or failure of Mayor Vince Schoemehl’s grand scheme to use me as bait to get Congressman Bill Clay’s endorsement was the cooperation of Comptroller Paul Berra.
Berra was elected comptroller in 1981. He began his political career as a state representative representing the predominately Italian Hill area of St. Louis. He was the cousin and protégé of the late Midge Berra, who was the political patriarch of the Italian political community from 1940 to the early sixties. Midge was also the collector of revenue and Democratic committeeman of the 24th Ward.
When Midge died, Paul succeeded him as the 24th Ward committeeman. He subsequently succeeded Jack Dwyer as city treasurer when he died. When Paul was elected comptroller, he was the chairman of the Democratic Central Committee. In the spring of 1988, Paul was completing his second term as comptroller. Up until 1987, it looked like Paul would be comptroller as long as he wanted to. He enjoyed a broad base of support in both the predominately black North Side and the predominately white South Side.
In 1987 two events put dents in Paul’s armor. The first came as the result of surgery that disabled him for several months. Then federal prosecutors began an investigation into alleged corruption in the city’s pension fund. An attorney named Don Anton, who chaired Paul’s campaign fundraising committee, and Jack Swanger, an assistant to Paul, were indicted and charged with bribery and corruption.
Paul skated through this scandal without being indicted, but very few people believed that he was unaware of what was going on. It was speculated that these two events would influence Paul’s thinking about seeking reelection and cause him to resign.
It was with this backdrop that Schoemehl had me calling Paul to talk to him about my candidacy. I called Paul that Friday afternoon, and his secretary scheduled a meeting for 9 a.m. Monday morning.
I spent the weekend trying to figure out a way to avoid being a pawn in Schoemehl’s political chess game. All of the scenarios I painted still left me behind the eight ball.
I also told my wife Laura about the plan Schoemehl had presented, and she was not pleased at all. I had promised her after I lost the aldermanic seat in 1985 that I would not run for office again. She reacted by accusing me of making up this story as a ruse for getting back into politics.
Needless to say, this was a long weekend.
This was only the second time I had met with Berra since he was reelected in 1985. Although we had never discussed it, I had always felt that one of the reasons I lost my aldermanic reelection to Jimmie Matthews was because of my endorsement of Schoemehl and Berra.
In 1985, both Freeman Bosley Sr. and Alphonso Jackson had filed to run for mayor against Schoemehl. This meant that two black candidates were running for mayor against a well-funded and well-organized Schoemehl machine. The late state Representative Fred Williams, a close ally of Schoemehl, was also running as what most people believed to be a stalking horse candidate.
Right before the close of filing, Bosley and Jackson made a deal whereby Jackson would redraw from the mayor’s race and run for comptroller.
At about the same time, I was in the midst of my campaign for reelection. I had two opponents, Jimmie Matthews and the former Democratic committeewoman who I had helped to defeat.
I was running for reelection in the aftermath of one of the most exciting and confusing years of my political career. I had started the year by filing for sheriff against the incumbent Gordon Schweitzer. This was also the year of Jesse Jackson’s first campaign for president. This was an ideal chance for me to steal a citywide office. I joined the Jackson campaign and became the St. Louis city/county coordinator for the Jackson for President Committee. I theorized that my campaign for sheriff could piggyback on the enthusiasm created by Jackson’s campaign. I even used the local Jackson headquarters as my headquarters.
Unfortunately, I discovered the hard way what almost every senior politician, including Congressman Bill Clay, told me: very few people really knew or cared who the sheriff was. I lost the Democratic primary election to Schweitzer by more than 15,000 votes.
It took me several years to really understand just how traumatized I was from losing. I had invested a lot of time and my own personal money into the campaign. I took out a second mortgage on my house and used credit cards to finance purchases. I had convinced myself that I was going to win and did not consider the alternative of losing.
I took out my frustration at losing by joining with a colleague, 20th Ward Alderman Steven Roberts, to cross party lines and endorse then Attorney General John Ashcroft (a Republican) for governor. I reasoned that the Democrats had taken the black vote for granted and the only way to change that was to try and replicate what black voters did in 1932 when they changed an almost 50-year history of supporting Republicans.
Unfortunately, the Republicans of the 1980s were not interested in embracing black interests. They saw our endorsements as symbolic and not an opportunity for changing the way black Democrats viewed them. The Democrats saw this as betrayal and proceeded to make an example out of my insolence. They retaliated by supporting Jimmie Matthews against me for alderman and by blocking Ashcroft’s appointment of me to the election board.
I walked into the comptroller’s office at exactly 9 a.m. Berra was sitting at his conference table in the rear of his office. After exchanging pleasantries, I told him why I wanted to meet with him. I told him that I had heard rumors that he might not be running again and that, if the rumors were true, I was interested in being a candidate for comptroller.
Paul thanked me for telling him of my interests, but he planned to stand for reelection. My initial reaction was surprise, because I had assumed that Schoemehl had already cut a deal with Berra.
Berra did leave the door open by saying again that he was appreciative of my coming to him and telling him of my interests to his face, as opposed to some other people who had been talking behind his back. He extended his hand and told me that if he did decide not to run, I would be one of the first to know.
As I exited Paul’s office, I was even more confused. Does Schoemehl have a deal with Paul or is he just using me to put pressure on Paul to get him to decide against running?
This article is excerpted from Virvus Jones’ forthcoming memoir, “The Swap.” This version of events reflects the author’s personal memories of events in which he was a direct participant.