St. Louis County’s two major candidates for county executive – Republican Rick Stream and Democrat Steve Stenger – engaged Tuesday in their most vigorous debate to date, tangling over guns, other social issues, their records and their different visions of what government can and should do for the county’s 1 million residents.
Stream called their contest “the most important race in the state of Missouri’’ on the Nov. 4 ballot.
Stenger went on the attack early and often during the one-hour live broadcast from the Touhill Performing Arts Center's Lee Theater on St. Louis Public Radio’s “St. Louis on the Air.” Host Don Marsh served as moderator, and St. Louis Public Radio political reporters Jo Mannies and Jason Rosenbaum served as panelists for the debate which was co-sponsored by the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Both candidates spent a lot of time expressing concern over the region’s racial turmoil ignited by the Ferguson police shooting, while pledging to do more to create jobs, attract economic development and encourage harmony.
But arguably their biggest focus, from their campaigns’ objectives, had less to do with issues. In effect, both candidates spent much of the hour with the same purpose: defining Stream.
Stenger, for example, dropped the usual standard of using one’s opening statement in a debate to talk about oneself. Instead, Stenger spent most of his first two minutes highlighting Stream’s conservative views — notably his votes in the state House for a new law that allows open carrying of firearms and bars municipalities from banning the practice, as well as authorizing schools to arm teachers.
Stenger asserted that Stream has “negatively impacted already’’ the lives of many St. Louis County residents.
Stream replied by making no apologies for supporting the gun bill, which was vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon but reinstated during this fall’s veto session by the General Assembly. Stream also sought to assure his audience that the measure doesn’t require school districts to arm teachers.
Stream then swiftly pivoted to tie Stenger — a county councilman since 2009 — to what Stream called “an inept, unprofessional county government.”
Stenger, said Stream, “has done nothing’’ during his six years in office to improve county operations.
Putting the spotlight on Stream
That back-and-forth exemplified the duo’s exchanges throughout the debate. Stenger continued to attack Stream on various issues. Stream, in turn, sought to dismiss his rival’s assertions as “misleading and inaccurate,’’ and then moved on to discuss his own background more fully.
Although Stenger may have spent a few more seconds at the mike, the upshot of the duo’s sparring was that Stream — or, rather, his legislative record — got the most attention.
Afterward, the candidates and two political science professors in the audience explained why.
“Clearly the Democrats want to make this election partly about Stream’s record in the legislature because the legislature is so Republican and St. Louis County is so Democratic,’’ said David Kimball, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “Stream’s aim is to convince people that he’s ready to take charge and that he’s an acceptable county executive.”
Dave Robertson, also a political science professor at UMSL, observed, “Stream clearly wanted to make people more familiar with his credentials. And you could see that in his opening statement, which was an introduction to himself.”
Stenger, added Robertson, chose to talk less about himself because he felt it was more important “to put Stream on the defensive on a number of issues.”
Stenger confirmed as much afterward. “His record is a right-wing, tea party record,’’ Stenger said in an interview. “I think people needed to know those things.”
Stream said afterward that he hoped he had made clear “the contrast of me as the outsider coming in and making substantive changes.”
Some Republicans in the audience said that Stenger’s aggressive approach during the debate backed up their belief that Stream has made enough inroads with some traditional Democrats — especially African-Americans — to have a strong shot at becoming the first Republican to win the county’s top governmental post in 25 years.
Democrats, in turn, say they can obliterate Stream’s chances if enough moderate county voters — including African-Americans — can become aware of his conservative voting record.
African-Americans, a key Democratic bloc, are a major focus this election because of the political splits prompted by the Ferguson unrest. Some major area black elected officials have endorsed Stream because they are upset with Stenger's alliance with County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch, who is overseeing the local grand jury probe into the Ferguson police shooting.
However, McCulloch's name didn't come up during Tuesday's Stenger-Stream faceoff.
Meanwhile, a protest group called the Justice For Michael Brown Leadership Coalition announced Tuesday that neither candidate meets their standards for holding the county executive office.
"Given the fact that neither Steve Stenger, the Democrat candidate, nor Rick Stream, the Republican candidate, have shown any moral leadership in the Ferguson crisis that has caused tremendous tension in this region and throughout the country: the coalition will support the Write-In candidacy of Zaki Baruti," the group said. "Zaki Baruti has a long history of seeking fairness and equal treatment for all citizens in this state and throughout the country. "
Baruti filed the necessary paperwork a few days ago to be a write-in candidate, said St. Louis County Democratic Elections Director Rita Days. So far, he's the only one, Days said. Baruti, head of the Universal African People’s Organization, has been a longtime community organizer and has been active in Ferguson protests.
Abortion, education ignited spirited exchanges
Stenger repeatedly brought up Stream’s legislative votes against increasing the minimum wage and in favor of social-service cuts, as well as his longstanding opposition to abortion, even in cases of rape or incest.
Stream, in turn, countered by portraying himself as a compassionate conservative who has been consistent. “I’ve always been pro-life. A child who is unborn deserves to live,’’ he said.
He accused Stenger, a fellow Catholic, of changing his views on reproductive rights because he’s running countywide. “We don’t need people running our government who are inconsistent like that,’’ said Stream, likening Stenger to “flip-flopping like a fish on a sidewalk.”
Stream also repeatedly highlighted his legislative success in increasing state spending on public education. Although the county executive has no role in the public schools, Stream said he planned to use the job to act as "an advocate for children."
In any case, Stream's claims prompted Stenger to counter that the state's education spending was still lower than what would be needed to fully fund the state’s school-aid program, called the “foundation formula."
Stenger did attempt to highlight his greater knowledge of county government, by detailing specific county programs that he would change or overhaul. For example, Stenger cited $80 million that is unspent in the county’s Children’s Services Fund. Stenger pledged to direct some of that money to help children in poor areas, particularly in north St. Louis County.
Both men reaffirmed their common pledges to conduct top-down fiscal audits of St. Louis County government and to focus on attracting more businesses and jobs.
Stream emphasized his quest to cut county regulations and taxes, while Stenger said he’d lead county efforts to be more aggressive in attracting new businesses.
In many ways, political scientist Robertson said that the two candidates’ approaches epitomized the parties’ different philosophies when it comes to the role of government
“It was classic Democratic management versus classic Republican management,” Robertson said. “It was almost like seeing a 1960s debate.”
“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.