Evans hopes Officer's support will put election over top

Ann Knef Oct. 11, 2006, 10:00am

Paul Evans works a crowd at the Flyers' football game with help from East St. Louis Mayor Carl Officer (right).

A Republican trolling for votes in a city where 96 percent of the predominantly black residents normally pick a straight Democratic ticket may seem like a lost cause.

But with the help of East St. Louis Mayor Carl Officer -- a popular independent Democrat on the outs with the county party apparatus -- circuit judge candidate Paul Evans is hoping to garner about 25 percent of the city's vote in the November general election.

Evans, an O'Fallon attorney, is looking for an upset victory over opponent St. Clair County Circuit Judge Lloyd Cueto, a Democrat.

In order to win the county wide election, political observers believe that Evans needs between 2,000 and 3,000 votes in East St. Louis.

No stranger to controversy, the fourth non-consecutive term mayor is accustomed to bucking tradition.

In 2004, his unabashed endorsement of Republican Steve Reeb for St. Clair County Board Chairman netted 2,120 votes--the most ever in East St. Louis for a Republican candidate.

Officer, who said he prefers to be a "big fish" in a small political pond, will seek another term as mayor in 2007. He acknowledged he may face retribution for endorsing Evans, but is not bothered.

"I support Paul because he has character and integrity," Officer said. That, he said, is something that is "learned at home by age 5."

Officer, who attracted unflattering national media attention during his first tenure as a young mayor, today holds a mature and optimistic vision for developing transportation, agriculture and tourism opportunities in East St. Louis. To a large extent, his goals depend on a cooperative county government -- an Evans win could help turn the tide in a county that for decades has been under Democratic Party rule.

Since taking Evans under his wing, Officer has shored up support from his city's church leaders and energized a loyal volunteer base.

During halftime at an East St. Louis Flyers' home football game on Friday, Officer boldly weaved through a crowd of tail gaters on the north side of the stadium -- Evans at his side -- picking up votes from the "die hards."

After the game, he rounded up a few more at a local bar where a few Democratic precinct committeemen happened to be.

Reminiscing at the M&M Lounge, Officer fondly recalled mentors Alan Dixon, Mel Price and Paul Simon. He scoffed at the kind of politics that keeps the city from prospering and voiced contempt for corruption.

He also said that he has no ax to grind with Evans' opponent, Circuit Judge Lloyd Cueto.

During Officer's earlier tenure as mayor, attorney Amiel Cueto, Lloyd Cueto's brother, for a time took ownership of East St. Louis City Hall because the city could not afford to pay a judgment awarded to the family of a prisoner beaten in jail.

Coalition builder

The person responsible for arranging the Officer-Evans alliance is Ray Coleman, a former Canteen Township Trustee and Clerk, and "survivor" of what he calls a political firing from a state job.

Coleman, who currently acts as Officer's political director, said he he'd like to see the "vicious cycle" of corruption end in the city where he was raised and feels compelled to "give something back."

He believes he has a responsibility to stand up to wrong-doing, such as voter intimidation. "I am not afraid of human beings," he said, "only God."

"There is an unwritten rule that corruption is allowed in East St. Louis to keep the Democratic machine in place," Coleman said. "If you want to make something out of yourself just become corrupt then they have you in a drawer."

"We are conservative people," he said. "We don't want the likes of Charlie Powell in office. We want better."

Powell, the former East St. Louis Democratic Party Chairman, was convicted of vote fraud by a federal jury last year.

Coleman said Officer's support for Evans is "huge."

"We want fair elections," he said. "We want independent jurists who judge cases on merits, not judges controlled by the machine."

A 20-year veteran of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Coleman ran against St. Clair County Democrat power broker Sam Flood for 12th Congressional State Central Committeeman in 2004. Flood later dropped out of the race and was replaced by Congressman Jerry Costello, who easily won.

Coleman was out of a job by January 2005, replaced by Sam Flood's son, Scott Flood.

After the general election in 2004, Coleman established a non partisan political action committee, Leadership 21, which supports a "fair and balanced government that's transparent and provides voter education."

Coleman rejects party labels, saying that both the Democrat and Republican parties in St. Clair County are out of touch with rank and file voters.

He said Leadership 21 is in its infancy, but is not a gimmick.

"There is a gap between campaigning and governing," Coleman said. "We want to watch (elected officials) to see they are governing the way they campaigned."

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