St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley has been “the issue’’ in each of his re-election campaigns during the past 10 years, with his opponent focusing on what they have seen as his flaws.
Each time, though, Dooley has won. That is why, when Dooley talks about the importance of experience, it has a dual meaning — referring to his political career and his job.
“Ten years of experience does make a difference,” says Dooley. “I’ve been to every city, every Chamber of Commerce, Kiwanis Club … A part of my job is government in front of the people. Not hiding from them. Not trying to mislead them.”
Experience also adds knowledge, he added. “Being a mayor or councilman, you don’t know what it means to be county executive until you are county executive. You don’t know what you don’t know until you sit in this seat.”
Even so, as he seeks another re-election, Dooley faces a new experience -- a threat from within his own Democratic ranks.
St. Louis County Councilman Steve Stenger is challenging him in the Aug. 5 primary, and some top area Democrats are split. U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay are among those backing Dooley, while county Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch and former U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan are leading the pro-Stenger camp.
Stenger has been critical, contending that the county’s biggest problem is “the current administration. Once again, we’ve seen scandal after scandal, we’ve seen instances of mismanagement after mismanagement, and I think that it’s shaken county taxpayers, and it’s shaken their confidence in county government.”
Slay, however, paints a different picture. The mayor taps into the “experience’’ theme as he cites years of working together with Dooley on various efforts, including consolidation of some city and county services. The mayor noted that regional issues cross city and county boundaries.
"Charlie is a champion of cooperation,” the mayor said. “Last year, Charlie and I merged the city and county economic councils together to form the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership. It is a great step forward that makes the region globally competitive and has resulted in bringing more than 5,000 jobs to our region in 2013 alone."
Dooley long has emphasized job creation, as well as the county’s drop in crime rate to a 42-year low, his expansion of health-care services – including a new Health Department building and free mammograms – and his leadership in improving transportation services.
But Dooley says his biggest asset is his personal style.
“I believe my strongest achievement is the connections with people,” he said in an interview. “People understand that if St. Louis County government is accessible, that the county executive is accessible. People come up to me all the time, asking me questions about different issues.”
“They ask for honest government and truthful government. And that’s what they have in Charlie Dooley,’’ he continued. “I believe in St. Louis County, I believe in the people of St. Louis County, and I believe in our future.”
Dooley, by the way, fits in with a tradition in St. Louis County – long-serving heads of county government. Three of Dooley’s four predecessors all held the office longer than he has.
A pastor’s son goes to war
Dooley, 66, was the oldest of seven children. His father was a Baptist minister who had to work at another job on the side to support his family.
“His value system has a lot to do with my value system,” Dooley said. “I believe every person is of value. Given the opportunity, people can be successful. Don’t judge people by their looks, judge them by their actions, not by what someone told you.”
Dooley attended Wellston High School, which at the time had an overwhelmingly white student body. “My graduate class totaled 88,’’ Dooley said. “Five were African-American and the rest were white.” (The Wellston school district was absorbed by the Normandy School District in 2010.)
That experience “gave me a different perspective on relationships with different people,” Dooley said. “You may look different, but the needs are the same.”
After high school, Dooley joined the Army. Although his typing skills helped him land a clerical post, Dooley soon found himself in Vietnam, where he says he did see combat.
Those three years in the military “helped shape how I feel about this country,” Dooley said. “It may sound a little corny, but when they play the national anthem, It does make me teary-eyed a little bit.”
A motorcycle helps set his course
Once back home, Dooley was single and living in an apartment. Soon he was looking for new quarters with enough room to store his motorcycle.
Dooley’s father suggested that his son use his GI benefits and buy a house with a garage. Dooley found one in Northwoods. He’s lived in that community ever since.
As Dooley recalls, he was playing cards with friends one day at his home when a woman going door-to-door stopped by and suggested that he pay attention to the community, particularly the public schools, where most of his property-tax dollars were ending up.
Dooley said his card-playing buddies “challenged me to get involved. I’ve been involved ever since. It’s been very rewarding for me and my family.”
He first got involved with a local youth baseball team and then became a coach. “From a coach, I was on the park board. From the park board, I became an alderman.”
In 1983, after five years as an alderman, he ran for mayor. The woman who had knocked on his door that day was Emma Weaver. She became Northwoods’ city administrator – the first African-American to hold that job in St. Louis County.
While pursuing his public-service interests, Dooley also got a full-time job at Boeing, where he worked for 30 years. He got married and had a daughter, Stephanie, who now narrates one of his first campaign ads.
In 1994, Dooley ran and won a seat on the St. Louis County Council. He kept that post during a failed bid in 2000 for Congress in which he challenged then-state Sen. William Lacy Clay, the son of the retiring congressman, U.S. Rep. William L. Clay Sr.
Dooley and the current congressman have since resolved their political differences and have endorsed each other several times.
In 2003, though, it was a deadly illness that changed the course of Dooley’s career. County Executive George R. “Buzz’’ Westfall, a fellow Democrat who already had been in office almost 13 years, died unexpectedly of an infection.
As the council’s senior Democrat, Dooley was selected as the interim replacement until the 2004 election. Dooley won, defeating one of his predecessors, Republican Gene McNary, who had attempted a comeback. McNary had been county executive for more than 14 years, from 1975 until late 1989, when he left to take a in the administration of then-President George H.W. Bush.
Dooley won re-election in 2006, when Westfall’s original term expired. In 2010, Dooley defeated Republican Bill Corrigan, a local lawyer.
Proud of his overall 10-year record
In each of those elections, Dooley’s Republican challengers questioned whether Dooley was up to the job. Dooley says his record speaks for itself.
“During these last 10 years, we’ve made some significant decisions that have shaped St. Louis County,’’ Dooley said. In particular, he cites the decision of county residents “to invest in ourselves’’ by approving measures to invest in its expansive parks system and to build a new family courts building.
Dooley also points to the construction of Interstate-64 (Highway 40), Highway 141 and the new casino in south St. Louis County.
And he highlights the county’s success in attracting Express Scripts and retaining the federal National Personnel Records Center, which had been targeted to move to another state.
County government also has successfully weathered recent tough financial times since the national economic downturn hit in late 2008, he said.
But there have been controversies, notably during the past four years. Dooley touched off an uproar when his administration proposed cutting park spending in 2011. The FBI then launched an investigation into the contract over the new crime lab, because a subcontract had been awarded to a member of the county’s Police Board.
And there was the discovery in late 2013 that the county Health Department’s director of executive administration, Edward Mueth, apparently had formed a bogus IT company that then obtained county contracts for several years worth millions of dollars to perform various high-tech services. Mueth shot himself after other department officials began asking questions.
Dooley denied a few months ago that his administration sought to close some parks and layoff some parks personnel, but most recently has acknowledged that such proposals were made. But the key point, he says now, is that “we didn’t close any.”
In the end, the council approved other changes in county spending and the county government’s income ended up being above initial projections.
As for Mueth, Dooley said, “He deceived us all.” The county executive is now critical of Stenger for opposing Dooley’s proposal to spend $95,000 on an independent audit of the Health Department to determine what happened and what safeguards need to be put in place. Stenger says the changes can be made without spending so much money.
Dooley denies playing any role in the crime-lab contract and is furious over Stenger's ad that implies a link.
“To say that Charlie Dooley did something illegally or knew about something that was illegal is a complete falsehood,” Dooley said.
“Whatever happens on my watch, I’m going to take full responsibility for it,” Dooley said. “But I’m also going to take responsibility for getting it fixed and moving forward.”
If re-elected, Dooley said he wants to go forward with a “strategic plan’’ that he says centers on addressing the key question: “How do we work together to make St. Louis County a great place to live, to work and to play? That’s going to be important.”
Looking back over his 10 years, he added, “We have an outstanding record. We’ve made the tough decisions that make a difference in people’s lives."
But on a personal level, Dooley observed that his career could only be possible in the United States. "We're the only country in the world where, regardless of your background, you can be successful,'' he said. "I think I’ve been blessed beyond my expectations. I think I have been given an opportunity to serve the public. It’s my desire to make a difference in people’s lives.”
A political profile of Steve Stenger, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for county executive, runs tomorrow. Thursday, we report on the Republican candidates for county executive.
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