East St. Louis mayor gambles and wins
Gordon Bush is a devout, church-going man who drops God’s name in normal conversation the way some people do in anger. But that doesn’t stop him from being a gambling man.
In 1990, Bush, then in the army and stationed in St. Louis, Mo., looked across the Mississippi River to the town of his birth. At that time, East St. Louis, Ill., was synonymous with bad government. The city was so broke that it couldn’t pay to have its garbage removed. Well over half its citizens were on some kind of public assistance. City leaders were jailed as often as the gang members who sold drugs openly on the street comers.
Bush hated what he saw. So he rolled the dice, and, in the biggest gamble of his life, left the army and ran for mayor of his hometown.
“Conditions were so bad,” Bush says, “that people were willing to do anything just to see if it would make a difference.”
In a brilliant demonstration of his naivete, Bush went to both the Republicans and the Democrats to ask for their support. It is partly a measure of the force of Bush’s evangelical personality and partly a function of having been down so long that both parties fell in step. With the double endorsement, Bush handily defeated 12-year incumbent Cart Officer with a platform that consisted mostly of a promise to try and change things. (He recently won his second four-year term, running unopposed.
It didn’t take long. One of Bush’s first acts as mayor was to call Gov. Jim Edgar and ask for state help. When Bush turned over his city’s finances to a state oversight panel, Edgar offered a $4 million loan that helped Bush catch up on his payroll, get his 9-1-1 system back and buy gasoline to put in idle police cars.
Then came the gambling boats, proof positive that, as Bush says, “God works in mysterious ways.” Citing the fact that, without any steady source of income, East. St. Louis had no chance of paying back its state loan, Bush cajoled the state into granting the town a prized riverboat casino license. The Casino Queen put $10 million into the East St. Louis coffers in its first year of operation, allowing the town to buy new police cars, new trucks for the public works department and an entire fleet of fire trucks, offer employees their first raises in years and reduce property taxes by 77 percent.
“There’s absolutely no question that we could not have done it without the gambling boat,” Bush says. “We would have filed for bankruptcy, and I would have been a one-term mayor.”
Slowly but surely, the town is being transformed. Ninety police officers are on the street now, up from 60 when Bush took office. They are working with state-of-the-art equipment. “Our police force was handicapped,” Bush says. “The average age was 46, and the equipment was so bad that they couldn’t respond half the time. The people had lost confidence in them. Now we’ve got citizens who trust the police department, and they’re cooperating.”
As a result, Bush says, crime has fallen dramatically. Homicides are down about 40 percent over the last five years. Drug dealers are no longer the omnipresent menace they once were. “Crack dealers would stand on the comers at 10 or 15 locations at high noon and stop your car,” Bush says. “The police couldn’t handle it. Now we’ve got some children who are saying, `No. Get outta my face.'”
More telling, the city’s budget, which had fallen as much as $85 million in the red, has now been balanced since 1992. Bush credits the state’s Financial Advisory Authority (FAA), which handles the budget and has restructured its debt, now down to about $22 million, with the turnaround,
But while the Queen and the FAA may get the bulk of the credit, East St. Louis’s transformation has much to do with Bush’s belief that one person could make a difference. “God has blessed and empowered me to bring this city around,” he says, with the zeal of a street comer preacher. “There are a lot of angels here, and He has a special plan for this city.”
Bush now talks about the future in this city that once did not have one. “We’re moving in three directions,” he says. “I want to continue the riverfront development and then move into the downtown area to help develop small businesses. A lot of our businesses here are owned by people from outside the community, very few of them African-Americans in a town that is 98 percent black. We want to develop entrepreneurship from within the community.”
Lastly, Bush says, “I am committed to building a multimillion dollar youth center for the young people here. We’ve got the best kids in the world but no place for them to go. For years, the kids have felt like none of the leaders in the community — political or corporate — cared about them, and from what was here for them, that appeared to be true. We need to fix that.”