Name: Cervantes, Alfonso J.
Category: Politics and Government (Number 39)
Term as Mayor: 1965-1973
Born/Started: Aug. 27, 1920
Died/Ended: Jun. 23, 1983
Description: The 39th mayor of St. Louis, Alfonso Cervantes was also one of the most colorful and controversial mayors in the City’s history. During his two terms from 1965 to 1973, he helped the City make important progress in race relations, crime prevention, and finance. His administration, however, is best remembered for its one major failure: his ill-fated proposal to relocate Lambert Airport to Columbia, IL.
"The Salesman Mayor" was born in St. Louis in 1920 and attended Saint Louis University. During World War II, he served in the Merchant Marine. In 1949 he was elected 15th ward alderman and served there until 1959 when he was elected president of the board of aldermen. In 1963 he lost the presidency to Donald Gunn, but won the Democratic primary for mayor over long-time incumbent Mayor Tucker. In April of 1965 he was elected mayor over Republican Maurice R. Zumwalt and in 1969 he was re-elected over Republican Gerald G. Fischer.
One of Mayor Cervantes greatest challenges was the racial unrest in the country that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. While other cities suffered through race riots, Mayor Cervantes kept the peace, meetin frequently with African-American leaders and working to add African Americans to City government positions and commissions.
His efforts to reduce crime were equally effective. He spearheaded passage of crime-fighting legislation and established a Commission on Crime and Law Enforcement. Voters were convinced to pass a one per cent sales tax to provide more police and equipment. Car thefts were reduced by his "lock it and pocket the key" program. He successfully lobbied the Police Board to put policemen on horseback in the parks.
In the area of finance, he was successful in passing a $2,000,000 bond issue for completion of the Arch and grounds, a prerequisite for an additional $6,000,000 in federal aid. A $15,000,000 bond issue for street lighting and a juvenile center was passed in 1970. The $25,000,000 Convention Center bond issue was passed in 1972 after he found ways to pay off the bonds through business taxes and convention revenues.
Other initiatives during his two terms included establishment of a Night Housing Court, organization of a Business Development Commission to help keep businesses in the City and attract new ones, and establishment of The Area Office of Aging, the Beautification Commission, the Citizens Service Bureau, and the Land Reutilization Authority.
Mr. Cervantes failed in his attempt to get a new airport built in Illinois just south of East St. Louis. He believed the site would be a great benefit to the City and would avoid future expansion issues at Lambert’s existing site. The proposal stirred up so much controversy in St. Louis County and Jefferson City, however, that it helped lead to his defeat for a third term in 1973.
In 1974 Mayor Cervantes wrote a book, Mr. Mayor, to explain his efforts to sell St. Louis to itself. Defeated in his comeback attempt for the Democratic nomination for mayor in 1977, he returned to private life, running his businesses and teaching at Saint Louis University.
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