Before he was a St. Louis County councilman, before he was an attorney and a certified public accountant, Steve Stenger was the lead singer in a rock and roll band that toured the area in the 1980s.
Now Stenger is traveling around St. Louis County again as a Democratic candidate for county executive in the Aug. 5 primary. And he believes that many county residents will sing along to his latest political tune: “It’s time for a change.”
Stenger, who is challenging incumbent County Executive Charlie Dooley, contends that Dooley's administration is increasingly rife with controversy and missteps.
“There’s something coming out every couple weeks that is another instance of mismanagement,” said Stenger. “These stories shake the confidence of our taxpayers and of our residents.”
Stenger’s first round of TV ads spotlight these controversies: FBI probes of a crime-lab contract awarded by the county's Police Board; a top official's apparent embezzlement of county money; and a federal investigation into the county's children's services fund. (Dooley has noted that he personally is not a target.)
The Dooley-Stenger battle is undoubtedly the region’s top contest on the Aug. 5 ballot. And unquestionably, Stenger’s candidacy has caused a split in the region’s Democratic ranks.
St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch has endorsed Stenger, as has the Greater St. Louis Labor Council. U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and county Assessor Jake Zimmerman are among those backing Dooley, who has been in office almost 11 years.
Labor Council chief Bob Soutier says that many unions switched to Stenger because of their disagreements with Dooley over some appointments. “It’s time for a new direction for St. Louis County,’’ Soutier said, echoing McCulloch’s message in Stenger’s first TV spots.
Former St. Louis County Council chair Barbara Fraser, a Democrat, also is backing Stenger. She cites her experience working with him on the council for two years.
“He’s very responsible, he does his homework,’’ Fraser said. “He’s not afraid to take a hard stand on something if it’s the right thing to do.”
For the most part, Dooley’s Democratic allies decline to criticize Stenger publicly. But Dooley is not so reticent. “My opponent has had nothing to say for the last six years," said Dooley, adding that the exception has been Stenger's penchant for "Monday morning quarterbacking.”
One of Dooley's ads — which began late last week — also questions Stenger’s credibility because Stenger has not released as much detail about his income taxes as Dooley has done.
Stenger says that Dooley is using the issue as "a red herring'' to distract voters and to avoid engaging in any formal debates.
South side native
Stenger, 42, grew up in south St. Louis along the River Des Peres near the county line.
His father was a lineman for Southwestern Bell, and later AT&T; his mother was a homemaker overseeing Stenger and his three younger siblings, who grew up in a small 1,000-square foot home with one bathroom.
Stenger went to Bishop DuBourg High School and the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where he majored in business administration with an emphasis on accounting. He took the certified public accountant exam right after graduation, and then headed for law school at St. Louis University, where he graduated with honors.
Even while in law school, Stenger still continued to sing regularly with his rock'n' roll band, while his father often served as a “roadie” helping out. “We played out almost every night,’’ Stenger said.
Stenger said his blue-collar upbringing influenced his approach to life and the role of government.
“It was the experience of growing up in a family where I had such hard-working parents,” he said. “A father who, literally, came home every night dirty from his work. He did everything from digging ditches to putting telephone poles in to stringing up lines … He was one of the hardest-working people I’ve ever seen.”
“When you have a family of four (children), and a working family, there’s not a whole lot of money to spare,” Stenger continued. “And that money is very hard to come by. Every one of those dollars, as we invest them on the County Council, I think long and hard about where that money’s going, because I know just how hard it was for a family like mine to make that money.”
Stenger is married and just celebrated the birth of his first child, a daughter. His wife, Allison Stenger, also is a lawyer.
A CPA who specializes in litigation
Stenger began his career as an accountant at Ernst & Young, dealing primarily in state and local taxation. “I learned a great deal about the inner workings of organizations, some of them governmental,” he said.
He became a lawyer in 1996 and started his own law firm in 1998. Stenger specializes in litigation, civil and criminal, and has represented those filing suit and those defending themselves.
On the side, he’s also taken on hundreds of pro bono cases from the federal public defenders’ office. “These are cases where poor individuals don’t have enough money to pay for an attorney,’’ Stenger explained. “Individuals who are the poorest among us, in many cases. They are walking into the court with the uniform from the jail, and that’s about all they have.”
“I learned a great deal about life over the course of all those years representing those individuals,” Stenger said. “Standing in the well in the courtroom, representing an individual who has absolutely nothing, with a federal government that has absolutely everything. Protecting that individual against that government and…ensuring that their constitutional rights are protected, and that they’re defended, teaches you quite a bit.”
Stenger was elected to the County Council in 2008, representing the county’s 6th District, which takes in much of south St. Louis County and is largely unincorporated. He defeated Republican incumbent John Campisi, who Stenger said was “not doing the job that perhaps he could have.”
During that campaign, Stenger zeroed in on basic county services. He said he wanted to make the district “a more aesthetically pleasing place” with better roads and more attractive road sides. “Something we continue to battle for in south county are sidewalks,” he explained. “The simple things, putting sidewalks in neighborhoods, places where families can walk. Beautification of the parks in the area.”
At odds with Dooley for years
Soon after arriving on the council, Stenger found himself enmeshed in the legal controversy – which continues -- over the county’s earlier decision to divide unincorporated St. Louis County into trash collection districts. That issue swiftly put Stenger and Dooley on opposing sides.
The two then tangled over the county parks in 2011, when Dooley’s administration proposed to cut parks spending in the wake of languishing revenue unless the council agreed to raise taxes. Stenger opposed the idea. In the end, no cuts were made. The region’s voters subsequently approved Proposition P, which earmarked more money for parks.
Stenger says now that Dooley’s aim was to increase the county’s bonding authority to cover the extra $30 million needed to pay for the new family-courts building. Voters had approved $100 million in bonds, but more money was needed. The council eventually approved the extra spending.
Stenger is particularly critical of the controversy involving the health department. Edward Mueth, the department’s director of executive administration, apparently formed a bogus IT company that then obtained county contracts for several years worth millions of dollars to perform various high-tech services. He killed himself last September when other department officials began raising questions.
“As county executive, I would have controls in place,” Stenger said, so that such a scheme could not have happened. He contended that Mueth’s bogus operation should have been detected earlier because of various “red flags,’’ such as the bogus firm’s use of a post office box and a cell phone number.
Stenger said he also was stunned to learn that Mueth’s “firm” had been paid over $3 million to provide the county with 60 laptops that Stenger said should have cost the county no more than $70,000.
The episode is among the reasons, if elected, Stenger says he will immediately order “a complete forensic audit: quite literally going through every account, quite literally going through every drawer and finding out where the (county) money is, where the money has gone to, and where the money’s going to.”
Stenger says that his skills as a CPA could help county government get back on track. “If you know where the money’s going, and you know where the money’s coming from, that’s where accountability begins.”
“That’s critical to having a fresh start,” Stenger added. “If we don’t learn from the past…instances of mismanagement, there’s a risk of repeating them, and I don’t think that’s a risk that St. Louis County can take.”
On Thursday, we report on the candidates for the Republican nomination for St. Louis County executive.
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