For the most part, the St. Louis County executive’s contest between Democrat Steve Stenger and Republican Rick Stream is sucking up most of the electoral oxygen on the county’s political scene.
But that doesn’t mean it’s the only contest with significant consequences. Incumbent Councilman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights, is seeking re-election against Republican committeewoman Jennifer Bird, the only county council race in a competitive district.
A member of Sprinkler Fitters Local 268, Dolan first appeared on the local political scene as a member of the Richmond Heights City Council. In 2010, he won a competitive Democratic primary and general election to win the 5th District seat, which encompasses portions of eastern and southern St. Louis County.
Even though the 5th District is not a safe Democratic district, Dolan hasn’t shied away from sponsoring controversial bills. He sponsored legislation adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the council’s non-discrimination laws and also handled an effort to implement "complete streets" in the county.
“I represent the constituents,” Dolan said. “And that’s their concerns. They bring them to me. I do what I can to bring them forward and work with the other council members. Like I said, I’m just doing what they hire me to do. It’s not what my agenda is; it’s their agenda. We try to follow through when we can.”
Dolan aligned with Stenger on the council and often criticized St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley’s initiatives – such as a proposal to build the south county connector through part of his district. But he says his main priority is responding to the concerns of his constituents, not carrying water for a particular faction or party.
“I think we’ve done a good job of responding to all the concerns of our constituents,” Dolan said. “Any time anybody’s ever called, we’ve returned their calls or e-mails or letters. We pride ourselves on our response when residents or groups have showed concerned on certain issues. We’ve responded to that and done what we could to help them out.”
A resident of Crestwood, Bird serves as the Republican committeewoman for Gravois Township. The former schoolteacher frequently speaks out at county council meetings against much of the Democratic majority’s agenda – such as the merger of St. Louis and St. Louis County’s economic development agency and Dolan's "complete streets" bill.
If she's elected, Bird would like to bar councilmembers from taking campaign contributions from developers. She also wants to make the council more accessible, including moving the meeting time to later on Tuesday evening or having regular town hall meetings.
“I got involved because I don’t like the direction that I see our county being taken,” Bird said. “I used to teach. And everything is about ‘oh no, we can’t have peer pressure and we have a zero tolerance for bullying.’ But then you get into the world and it’s ‘well, Louisville and Indianapolis have done it, so we should do it.’ When I grew up, it was ‘when your best friend is jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge are you going to follow them?’ No! You’re going to think critically for yourself and make your decisions.”
Both Louisville and Indianapolis went through mergers of their city and county governments, which Bird adamantly opposes. She has often appeared in opposition to Better Together, a group that’s studying the possibility of some sort of union between St. Louis and St. Louis County.
Instead of a merger, Bird said policymakers should be promoting the region’s low cost of living, great-tasting water and relative safety.
“No, what I hear is we need to be joined together. Let’s have the drowning victim drown the savior, right? And be stronger because we’re better together,” Bird said. “Well, that makes us a larger city so we can rank larger and now we qualify for more federal money.”
“When you waste and waste and waste and waste and do exactly zero to clean up that waste or solve the problem, why would I want to give you more money? And more power incidentally,” she added. “I wouldn’t.”
While the race isn’t eliciting the combative fireworks of the Stenger-Stream matchup, the stakes are reasonably high for county Republicans. Without winning the 5th District, the GOP has no chance of taking over the county council’s majority. And since both Stream and Stenger are promising big changes to county government, they may need the winner of the 5th District race to help get those changes through the council.
So far, Dolan has a big financial advantage. As of October, he has about $44,000 in the bank compared to about $1,400 for Bird.
Even though Dolan and Bird differ on some key issues, they’ve gone out of their way not to attack each other personally. Bird said Dolan is a “nice” and “decent” man, while Dolan praised his opponent for taking an interest in county government.
“I’m glad I have an opponent. I’m glad to see somebody who gets involved and takes the initiative to want to do something,” he said. “It’s kind of refreshing to see somebody actually be concerned about the county.”
Other council districts
The 5th District seat is one of four districts up for grabs this November.
In the heavily Republican 7th District, GOP nominee Mark Harder is running against Democrat Steven Biggs. Harder, a Ballwin Republican, won a hard-fought GOP primary in August in the race to replace retiring Councilman Greg Quinn, R-Ballwin.
Councilwomen Hazel Erby, D-University City, and Colleen Wasinger, R-Town and Country, do not have opponents in the general election. Erby’s 1st District is heavily Democratic, while Wasinger’s 3rd District tilts decisively toward the GOP.