Hendricks' Formula for Recovery: New Leadership
Well, the city is at its lowest end right now. I know that it will come back. We just have to change its leadership. Once we do that, we're going to have a city. And the reason I say that is the people haven't left, the people are still here, the East St. Louisans are still here, and they just want this city to get off its behind and dust itself off and come on with it."
The speaker is Oliver Hendricks, a deputy sheriff until 1969, an employee of the Illinois Department of Revenue ever since, chairman pro-tem of the East St. Louis Board of Aldermen. And he has a single idea to solve the problems of East St. Louis: change the city's leadership, get rid of Carl Officer.
The city primary is in February, the election in April. East St. Louis is the only municipality in the county whose candidates run on Democratic and Republican tickets. It isup to "the organization" - the Democratic Party in East St. Louis - to choose one person for mayor, one for treasurer and one for clerk, to clear the field of competing candidates, to defeat Officer, he said. Officer won over Clyde Jordan four years ago with the precinct committeemen supporting Jordan.
"This is a different ball game now," Hendricks said. "We have lost everything we could lose. We've lost the community block grant, the housing authority, the city hall, our land, you name it, we've lost it." (A circuit court judge awarded the city hall to a claimant who said the city had not met its obligations to him. See 'Update.")
Wally Spiers of the Belleville News-Democrat agrees. In a column Oct. 1 he wrote, after commenting on the loss of city hall, "The city is about as close to ruined as it can get. It cannot even hold onto its buildings." But he also predicted Carl Officer "will skate away from under this crisis as if it never existed ... Officer thrives in the chaos.
He has been sued, questioned in front of grand juries, hounded and praised. He has crossed state's attorneys, governors, political parties and lived to brag about it. He went to jail for contempt of court for not speeding along sewer repairs in the city. So far Officer has survived the fall of his grandiose riverfront plans and an investigation by the Internal Revenue Service. He survived an attempt by a hostile city council to take away his power to appoint department heads.
"Officer stands - above all - as a controversial figure, a stance he apparently likes. He shoots from the lip, then stands back while the fur flies. 'Bankers come in from Belleville and steal us blind,' he said at the beginning of his administration 1979. In 1989 he called Gov. James R. Thompson - the same governor he endorsed for re-election in 1982 - Pontius Pilate ... He survived - and, that is the point. Other politicians survive by being effective and doing a good job. He survives no matter what.
"If the people of East St. Louis do not like Officer, they can throw him out in 1991," Spears wrote. "Officer swept to his first mayoral victory in 1979 with 91 per cent of the vote. He won reelection in 1983 with slightly more than 80 per cent of the vote. He won re-election in 1987 with 60 per cent of the vote, and several opponents split the rest. Is there a downward trend there? Do not hold your breath. The man is a survivor."
Elmo Bush, first black to run for mayor, former council member, former school superintendent, and former campaign manager for Clyde Jordan when he ran against Carl Officer, said there's not a man in East St. Louis who could beat Carl Officer right now," and ironically, he blamed the News-Democrat for that. (See Elmo Bush interview).
But Hendricks said the time is now for Officer to be replaced. It has to happen, he said, or there willbe no city. The federal, state and county governments will dismantle it piece by piece, and there will be no East St. Louis.
Like a pitbull with his teeth sunk into a shank, Hendricks sees only one solution to all of the city's problems: Replace Carl Officer with new leadership. New leadership can develop the riverfront. New leadership can solve the crime problem. New leadership can solve the drug problem. With new leadership doing the right thing, schools improving, services provided, business and industry will come back, will take another look. There will be jobs. With new leadership, people will feel safe to come into East St. Louis to ride Metro Link. The rift with Carl is not the problem; the city needs new leadership that other governments and other people can trust, he said.
Hendricks does not believe in the "white conspiracy" theory.
I don't believe that. I don't believe that. No. You have to go back to the 60's for that kind of stuff. We just have to do our own thing." He said that when you foul up, you always have the tendency to blame someone else. "I'm not blaming them," he said of whites.
"We've been in charge here for 20 years; blacks have been in control of the city 20 years, Williams four, Mason four, Carl 12, so that's 20. This is our mess that we need to clean up. Yeh!"
The average citizen doesn't care about politics. They want good police protection, fire protection, their streets and alleys clean, like in any other city. But when they drive over the same streets dodging the same potholes year after year, they get fed up. The business of city government is delivering services, and "we haven't done that," he said. There are more tax protests than at anytime in history, Hendricks said. That says that the people are fed up, and he is sure they will vote for new leadership.
Yes, there are people strong enough to lead the city and strong enough to win the election against Officer, Hendricks believes. He won't say who they are, but he says he knows individuals who can do the job.
The city acts like the "richest poorest city in the nation," he said. "Carl says we can do this and we can do that, when we can't even pay the light bill. You have to live within your means. You have to run this like you would your household. If you haven't got enough money for pork chops, you have to eat bacon, and if you can't buy light bread, make corn bread. It may not be just what you want, but you are surviving. Then you can get yourself back on your feet and do the things that need doing. That's our problem. That's been our problem."
When there's new leadership, then is the time for a coming together of all the people in the federal, state and county governments concerned with East St. Louis and the new leadership to map a plan to turn East St. Louis around. Then it will happen, he said, but only with that new leadership.