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Race a major factor in St. Louis mayor’s contest

February 25, 1997 GMT

ST. LOUIS (AP) _ In a city trying to keep businesses and maintain decaying streets and parks, race has become a key issue between the two major candidates for mayor _ and both of them are black.

Some backers of Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. accuse former Police Chief Clarence Harmon of not being black enough, in part because of his support in the white community.

Harmon, 57, whose wife is white, is an executive with the national headquarters of United Van Lines and counts many white executives among his friends.

Bosley’s father, Alderman Freeman Bosley Sr., has called Harmon a ``rented Negro,″ and Charles Mischeaux, head of the local NAACP, criticized Harmon for announcing his candidacy on the steps of the Old Courthouse.

``It’s a fact that black slaves were sold on the steps,″ Mischeaux said. ``Now we’re seeing a black man sell himself on those steps.″

While Harmon winces at those descriptions, he says he understands why he gets them.

``I was the first African-American lieutenant in the department and I became the first black area commander of a white section of the city,″ said Harmon, who spent 27 years on the force. ``Now they (the white community) are turning to me because they see the city in decline and they want my help.″

The Democrat who wins the March 4 primary is almost assured victory in the April 1 election. The city, almost evenly divided between blacks and whites, hasn’t had a Republican mayor in more than 50 years.

Like many large cities, St. Louis’ infrastructure is decaying, many downtown buildings are boarded up, and there are fears that some large businesses will leave. Ralston Purina, which employs 2,000 people, is looking for a new home.

Bosley, elected in 1992 as St. Louis’ first black mayor, denies the city is in trouble. Under his leadership, he points out, St. Louis has gained a pro football team, has helped TWA climb out of bankruptcy and has actually gained jobs as new companies moved to town.

Bosley, a powerful speaker who likes to tick off his accomplishments in the rapid-fire style of a preacher, also points to a declining crime rate. The claim irks Harmon, who says he resigned as police chief in 1995 because he couldn’t get support from the mayor or the police board.

``He’s running on my record,″ Harmon said. ``I was accomplishing things, often against his will, and now he is trying to take credit for it.″

Not so, says Bosley, who claims Harmon was insensitive to the needs of black officers and inept as chief. ``St. Louis is safer now that Harmon is gone,″ the 42-year-old mayor said.

There’s a third Democrat in the race: self-described ``irrepressible underdog″ Bill Haas, a graduate of Yale and Harvard. Haas, who is white, has used such election ploys as advertising in area newspapers for a wife willing to fund his crusade.

Marit Clark, a five-term Democratic alderman running as an independent, said she finds the whole race ``bizarre.″

The March 4 Republican primary features businessman Jay Dearing, carpenter Tom Braford and former police officer Jim Rapp.