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May 2003 / church and state :: email this story to a friend

The Prime of Jim Shrewsbury
By Amanda E. Doyle

Jim Shrewsbury Following a grueling contest of four elections in six months (primaries, special elections and so on), James F. Shrewsbury is now, officially, the president of the City of St. Louis Board of Aldermen. At age 47, he's been on the board for 20 years, and started his informal political career even earlier, at the age of 12. He recently agreed to meet with The Commonspace for a discussion of his career, his plans for the office and the future of the city. We sat in his backyard in St. Louis Hills, and his super-eager retriever Sandy pressed herself against the back door wishing she were with us the entire time.

Let's talk a little bit about what it's been like for you being in the presidency so far, and how you've found the job.
I don't want to appear haughty, but I hope without seeming so I can say, look, I've been on the Board of Aldermen for 20 years, and now I'm 47, and I'm in my prime. I've just come through the reality of four elections in six months, and the people have said yes, they want me for at least four years. I feel very, very positive about the current board, and particularly the new aldermen. [There are five.] As far as my own background, I've lived on Devonshire, except for law school and six months on Neosho, since 1963. I understand the realities of running citywide and losing. I was a very good alderman for the 16th ward, but Donna Barringer [the new 16th ward alderman] is going to make me the second-best alderman the 16th ward has ever had. The board is now a combination of experienced, reasonable members and fresh, new blood; look at members like McMillan and Villa, each of whom have been on the board for six years, are in their early 30s and are already committee chairs. I think that speaks to the willingness of the board to accommodate new ideas.
TCS: Describe how a typical day or week breaks down for you, in terms of your time. I kind of think — and you can tell me if this is wrong — of the president of the board as analogous to the principal of a school; you're not doing direct service anymore, but rather are in charge of the administrative-level functions.

Up until I finally won the aldermanic presidency, I've been trying to balance four things: raising half a million dollars for my campaign, being acting president of the board of aldermen, being 16th ward alderman and all the while trying to maintain a private law practice. Now, that's reduced to just two of those things: being the president of the board of aldermen and working on my private law practice, in which I have what's called an "office" practice, doing estate planning, probate and so on. I'm in City Hall every Friday when we're in session, and most Thursdays. I try to spend most Mondays in my law office, and Tuesdays and Wednesdays are divided up, depending on where the bulk of my work is. As the board president, I'm still accessible and available to people, but I'm serving a different constituency now. By the time I hear from people, they're in one of three main categories: one, they've exhausted the possibilities with their own alderman, and in reality, it's usually an issue their alderman can't do anything about; two, they are people who're interested in more citywide issues; or three, it's special interests, which all politicians have to deal with.

There are certainly parts of the job of 16th ward alderman that I miss; I miss providing direct constituent services. But I was kind of tired of holding people's hands to deal with their perceived problems. As an alderman you spend a lot of time working on perceived problems with no solutions. I've been a longtime proponent of reducing the number of aldermen, because although you would lose some of that direct constituent contact, elected aldermen would gain the ability to take a more high-level approach to policy questions. Aldermen can easily be held hostage to a dozen vocal neighbors, and as an alderman, you have to be more cognizant of that than I do as board president. You get, for example, people demanding that you do something about kids playing basketball at hoops in the park. Well, what exactly is the problem here? Are they selling crack cocaine? No. Are they engaging in prostitution? No. Are they maybe making some noise or staying there late? Maybe, but let's address the actual problem we're dealing with and call it what it is.

TCS: What things about the city of St. Louis give you hope for the future?
JS: I'm not going to say that the city doesn't have its issues, its challenges, whatever you want to call them. There are a lot of good reasons to bail out now. But I can think of three things that really make me hopeful that it's still an exciting time to be in the city. Number one, we've got people living downtown. Five years ago I thought that was a goofy, crazy idea. I believe it now because you see the banks willing to invest their money in downtown housing, and they are in the business of putting their money where they think it's a good investment. When the upper-middle class, white business community thinks it's a good idea, you can bet they've looked at every angle of it and it's a good indicator if they're willing to put money there. If you wanted to get a mortgage and buy a house in Chesterfield, if they thought it was safe for the money, they'd tell you to do it, and if they didn't, they wouldn't give you the money. Second, the vast majority of neighborhood associations and their members have no hidden agenda and are very dedicated. When I was campaigning, I visited every single ward and neighborhood that had any kind of group that met, and I saw just a variety of all kinds of people who had in common that they truly care about their neighborhoods and about the city of St. Louis. You don't want a city made up of MBAs who work for banks; you need all kinds of people who are willing to work hard. Third, my wife and I are Catholic, and as Catholics, we go to mass once a week. Every month, we choose one week and go to a mass at a church in North City. The way the Catholic church is set up, you belong to the parish that is closest to where you live, so while I could go to a Protestant church in North City and meet some fine people, probably hardly any of them live in the neighborhood anymore; whereas when I go to a Catholic church, those are people who live within three blocks of that church and are invested in the health of that neighborhood. There's a whole North St. Louis that South St. Louis and the media don't realize exists, where there are activities and social and religious opportunities.
TCS: You began your political career at a very young age; how do you think you first became interested in politics?
JS: You know, I watched a lot of t.v.; I saw elections, assassinations, hearings. I grew up in a house full of women, and I was not very gifted at athletics, but I had a real passion for history and for reading. My grandfather was an exterminator, and he would take me with him on runs a lot of times. From that, I got to know the signs of every brand of beer that hung in taverns all over South St. Louis — Falstaff, Stag, Busch and so on — and I also knew everybody running for office because I saw the yard signs everywhere. Lots of people hang around politics, but I wasn't just little Jim Shrewsbury who would hang out all day — I was little Jim Shrewsbury who would come and stuff a hundred envelopes. And would bring along a friend to stuff another hundred! I was always attracted to politics, and because I started actually helping out so early, when I was in my early teens, I soon developed a marketable commodity. By the time I first ran for alderman, I beat a 14-year incumbent; I was the first Democrat the 16th ward ever elected.
TCS: Do you think young people today have the same opportunities as you did to get in on the ground level of politics?
JS: Yes and no. Unfortunately, I think when I started, people were more important than money; now that has totally changed. I don't think public financing is the answer, though, because then you'll have every unstable nut running. Politics is a profession, and you have to treat it as such. I had an advantage at that because I started so early and knew from a young age that I wanted to be in politics. A lot of good people lose, because they don't know a ward from a precinct, or because they don't know what a union bug is. But definitely now, money is the biggest asset and the biggest curse; I appreciated the time when the most you could accept from a person was a hundred dollars.
TCS: Describe a little bit the relationships you have with the mayor and the comptroller, the other two members of the city's Board of Apportionment.
JS: Okay, right now, unfortunately, there is some animosity between the comptroller and the mayor; some of that is institutional, some of it is political and some of it is, quite frankly, racial. Some of what's brought the animosity out is a lack of money, so that you've got seven people fighting for five pieces of pie. I have a good relationship with the mayor; I support him on almost all major issues. Darlene Green and I were political opponents, but it never got nasty — it was a cold war but it didn't move to the nuclear stage. We were simply political adversaries. There are just so many needs the city has right now: it's not a question of coffeehouses and rehabbing or baseball stadiums and new hotels. We need all of them. I'm trying to do my part: when I became aldermanic president, I gave the aldermanic president's car to Jennifer Joyce for her prosecutors to use to transport witnesses and victims of crime. When you're picking up people to testify, other people in the neighborhood see that, and if the car you're using should break down, they might take that opportunity to do something to you. I wanted to raise the aldermanic expense account, but I'm not going to do that. I challenge you to go visit the mayor's office and the comptroller's office and then tell me I don't deserve to have my office redecorated! I do...but I'm not going to right now. That's something that we don't have to spend money on at the moment. We're in some very tough economic times right now; I think there were three stupid moves that were made that put us here, or at least made it worse. First, removing the tax from stock options. That was just stupid; it cost millions of dollars from the general revenue account that could be used to build a new animal shelter or provide Pap smears for victims of rape. Secondly, building the new jail downtown, instead of up on Hall Street, where it would have been cheaper to build and we wouldn't have removed a big chunk of prime real estate that could have generated real estate taxes and earnings tax money. We don't have to have the finest marble in our jail; now we also have to pay to transport prisoners every time they need to show up there. Last, taking over the Carnahan Courthouse was stupid; it's a white elephant. In better times, none of these things would matter that much, but it's just like looking at all the stupid things you spend money on in your household: when two people are working and bringing home two salaries, you don't notice it, but if one person loses a job and a salary, suddenly you become acutely aware of every dollar that leaves the house. Part of my job is to try to steer the city through these hard economic times without losing any more ground and to avoid stupid decisions. I will seek to delay and defer what can be delayed and deferred
TCS: What do you think the image of the city and city government is among the rest of the region and the state?
JS: Oh, I'm sure they think it's inefficient and bad. These are mostly people who have left the city and want nothing to do with it. If you look at our government, it was set up by a bunch of German socialists who saw government as evil, diabolical; change, good or bad, was seen as an evil to be avoided. Regardless of what people outside the city think, our cities have to be healthy places, because the rest of the system doesn't work without them. Rural places need to be healthy and viable too, even though I'll never go there, but you can't have a healthy nation without healthy cities. Then there are people who don't understand how to do business with the city who complain about the Board of Adjustment, aldermanic courtesy or how the neighborhood association slows them down. Someone who doesn't know how to navigate the system might think the bureaucracy is out of control.
TCS: Do you want the mayor's job?

I have no driving ambition to be mayor at this point in my life. Look, I spent the last ten years trying to be elected comptroller to make the government more efficient. You cannot overestimate the institutional power of the comptroller, because the comptroller doesn't have to sign every contract that crosses her desk. As the aldermanic president, I am the most powerful person in city government as long as 14 of my colleagues agree with me. Being president of the board of aldermen is more fun than being comptroller: we will build a new animal regulatory center. We have passed important legislation about BB guns, about rape and domestic violence. That is the kind of thing you can do from the aldermanic president's office. We can put in place policies that, 15 to 20 years from now, might provide this city with a real advantage. Things like a gun lock bill, or a new animal regulatory center to get dogs off the street: it's not going to save society, but who knows what positive effect it will have on the city of St. Louis?

I was very attracted to the office of comptroller, but if I believe God has a plan for me, then He has put me in this place for a reason. I have a great staff that operates by consensus; it operates like a responsible marriage should. I will freely admit that my staff is smarter than I am. We are friends and coworkers; I don't consider them employees.

TCS: What specific plans or goals do you have for the remainder of your term?
JS: Anything you can do to attract people and money is good. I'm not very creative in that area, but I am willing to find out what those ideas are. However, if all you've got is an idea, I'll be polite, but...well, I think back to something Mike Jones once told me: "I've got all the time in the world for someone with an idea and a track record and financing." Going forward means big hotels, but it also means smaller programs that make a difference in the quality of life. Rome wasn't built in a day. It's going to take a lifetime — but we have a lifetime.

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