It's one o'clock on a recent Thursday afternoon, which means the lunch crowd at the Hungry Buddha has died down to a dull roar, although plenty of tables remain full with the who's who of downtown, from developers and city planning officials to a local nightclub owner. At one table, the conversation gains a little volume, and soon the folks at the next table are peering around to see what could have someone so passionately engaged.
The topic is crime, or the reduction thereof, and the impassioned speaker is Mark Ribbing, Mayor Francis Slay's new (on the job three weeks as of our meeting) special assistant. It's not that he's given to be an especially loud guy, but the topic of crime is one that gets him going. That, and the future of St. Louis.
Q: Tell me about what brought you to St. Louis and where you were just prior to this.
A: I'm originally from St. Louis Parkway South, there's the answer to that question but I was living in New York prior to this, and working in the office of Mayor Giuliani. I had friends in St. Louis that I kept in touch with all the time when I was away, in New York and other places, and I sort of kept an eye on the situation here. A few close friends, friends from high school, kept urging me to take another look at St. Louis, and honestly, their continual push made me consider coming back. They managed to convince me that exciting things were happening here, that there was a role for me to play in the city.
Q: How do you go about getting a gig with Giuliani, and what was it like working for him, and in New York, over the last eight months?
A: I had a high school friend who had worked his way up in the Parks Department in New York, which is an incredibly important function in New York City. Anyway, he heard about an opening in the Giuliani administration, as a speechwriter for the mayor, and he let me know about it and helped me get the job. At the time, I looked at it as a chance to...not exactly play out the string, because this is a mayor who would never, in any circumstances, let himself just be a lame duck, but I guess I thought I could be there to help bring this chapter to a close. Of course, it turned into a much different place than anyone could have imagined because of what happened on September 11. It became a transitional experience in my own life. What happened in September made it into something that will stay with me forever.
Q: Did you write all of Giuliani's speeches? What's the life of a speechwriter like in politics?
A: No, no, not by any means. There was a staff of three of us, and we all were assigned different speeches to write. It usually came down to who was available when: availability is to speechwriting what location is to real estate. Of course, Mayor Giuliani is an extremely effective speaker who has no troubles at all standing in front of a group of people and saying what he wants to say. My understanding was that he would read whatever we'd written in the car on the way to where he was speaking, and he wouldn't necessarily memorize or read it so much as he'd just internalize the gist of it. Sometimes he might not use it at all, but it's still a pretty awesome feeling when you watch him speak somewhere, and he's standing on the steps of City Hall addressing a crowd, and the words you wrote are coming out of his mouth. I can specifically remember the first time that happened to me. In general, your job as a speechwriter is to learn as much as you can about the mayor's general positions, how they speak and how they like to communicate.
Q: What was your professional life before mayoral speechwriting?
A: I was a journalist and had worked most recently at the Baltimore Sun, but I grew increasingly frustrated with my role as a reporter. Speechwriting requires a lot of the same skills as journalism: you have to have a sort of ready awareness of the world around you, because you never know day-to-day what you're going to be called upon to know and need to write a speech about. It helps to have a sensitivity to deadlines, to be able to work fast. And it justifies what you could call "cultural literacy," all those tons of junk that you carry around in your mind.
Q: Your job now is to be the speechwriter for Mayor Slay?
A: Actually, probably less than half of my job is speechwriting for the mayor; I do write some speeches for him, but I'm more interested in doing policy work around crime and innovative ways to reduce crime. I don't write every speech the mayor does; he's obviously very comfortable coming up with what he wants to say to a public audience.
Q: What strikes you about St. Louis, coming back here now? What was it your friends said that made you think there was something here for you?
A: There's a palpable sense of energy, especially among young people, about cherishing the beauty of this city. There's a conviction that it's a place worth not just saving, but restoring to greatness and vibrancy. I remember, even as a child, my parents would bring our family into the city from the county, where I grew up, and we knew it was a special place. One early memory I have must've happened when I was maybe six we were driving west on Market Street, going home after being in the city for some event, and I looked up from the car and saw this...castle, this dark hulk of a building, and I said, "Mom, Dad, what is that?" and they stopped and took us inside to look. It was Union Station this was before it was renovated and it was just this huge, empty building with pigeons flying around in it. But it made such an impression on me.
Q: What's the day-to-day atmosphere of working in Mayor Slay's office like? What's the tone?
A: There is a real sense of urgency in the air, all the time, and a sense that we are making up for a lot of lost time. In the last decade, a lot of central cities started a comeback, and not just Sunbelt cities, but lots of places saw a turnaround in trends that had been headed down. St. Louis largely missed that party, so what you have now in City Hall is a small group of people who are trying to do so very much. This administration is focused on doing things and doing them quickly. We don't have the staff to detail a different person to every different function, so you get people who wear a lot of hats, like me. I'm not the youngest person in the office (he's 31), but I'm among the younger people.
Q: How do you handle it, in this job and in your previous political experience, if you have disagreements with the mayor's position on an issue?
A: It would depend on what the disagreement was. If I had a basic, fundamental difference of opinion about some truly important issue, I guess I would have to follow my conscience; although I can't imagine that I'd ever take a job working for someone with whom I had a basic, philosophical problem. For smaller things, or details of a particular issue, it comes down to a question of whether I allow the points of disagreement to loom larger than the points of agreement. I don't expect complete, up-and-down the line agreement with anyone on every single topic. I don't agree with my friends on everything; I don't expect that the woman I marry will agree totally with me on everything. You decide what's important.
Q: What do you think is important to this mayor?
A: Mayor Slay is extremely conscious of the importance of young adults to this city. I monitored the mayoral election here even when I didn't live here, and I was glad when Slay won; he seemed to "get it," and he seems impatient to build a St. Louis that hasn't yet experienced that shift in thinking what's possible in a city. During the campaign, Slay had the Slay Action Plan that he developed, which laid out a set of policy stances to guide his administration. That's still pretty much the basic plan, as I understand it.
Q: What's the focus of your office right now?
A: The momentum is very much behind getting the ballpark deal done. We're talking about $646 million right in the middle of downtown that can be a tangible sign of a new era for downtown. I know there are people who love the city, who live in the city, who are skeptical or downright hostile to this idea. I think it's an idea on which people who are all city partisans may disagree. But I really fear the consequences if we don't get this deal done. Like it or not, where your team plays hockey or football or baseball is the part of your city most seen by outsiders and identified with your city. That's where our focus is.
Q: Tell me about your work on crime policy.
A: Well, our policy is to bring it down! No, seriously, the experience of New York City over the past decade shows that crime and even the murder rate can be dealt with in a meaningful way, that it's not just something to throw up your hands and live with. We have to return the city to its original purpose: people didn't come out of caves and into cities to feel less safe, and to shrink their horizons, and to have less contact with their fellow human beings. They came into cities to have a civilization, and to find safety in numbers. We have to change the mindset of people; it should not be considered normal that people cannot be safe in their city. People are often so apologetic or even accepting about crime, like, "If you leave your house door open and someone steals your t.v., it's your own fault." No, it's not! You are not at fault here; it's the fault of the criminal who came inside your house and walked up your stairs and picked up your television and walked out with it. This tendency to accept it and blame the victim is the biggest challenge. But crime is not an intractable problem. Sometimes I think we give up on it so quickly, because we think it's so wrapped up in other societal problems of poverty and racism and addiction that we can't tackle any one part of it. But I think there's evidence to show that crime in fact contributes to all of those problems, so even just by pulling out the crime part of the equation and managing it, you can have an effect. Those other problems are real problems, too, but we can have an effect on lowering crime. Just ask New York: it's amazing how thoroughly the mindset of New Yorkers has changed. They got used to being safe again.
Q: What do you imagine for St. Louis?
A: You know, in the 1920s, St. Louis was a huge force behind the Charles Lindbergh flight across the Atlantic. There was a sense then that this was a city that made great things happen, and that the world was paying attention. We can have that again, and we can rebuild a city that fulfills the purpose of what a city is for: providing expanding horizons for its citizens. The things we do here can be excellent, by anyone's standard.