(Updated 12 p.m. Thursday, July 17)
The nasty contest for St. Louis County executive got even nastier today when incumbent Democrat Charlie Dooley launched a new TV ad that attacks rival Steve Stenger for a client he represented 14 years ago as a court-ordered attorney in a prostitution case.
“Steve Stenger represented a prostitution kingpin who sold women into slavery, some as young as 13,” the ad declares. “Stenger blamed the victims, saying it was ‘a lifestyle they chose.’ Why would we choose Stenger?”
Dooley's spokeswoman Linda Goldstein said the ad illustrates that Stenger “doesn’t support women.”
“I’m very worried that if Steve Stenger got elected, he would have this attitude toward women,’’ said Goldstein at a news conference at Dooley’s campaign headquarters. Dooley did not attend because of a scheduling conflict, his staff said.
Stenger replied that the ad is “character assassination’’ and misrepresents his role in the court case. Stenger said the ad also takes his comments in court “out of context.”
“I think this ad rises to the level of defamation,’’ Stenger said, adding that it cannot be compared with his own ads that attack Dooley’s administration and record.
“I believe Mr. Dooley feels he’s losing this election and he’s taking a wild swing with this ad,” said Stenger at a news conference in his law office.
Stenger also took note of Dooley’s absence at his own campaign news conference. “Mr. Dooley did not have the courage to go forward to speak for himself about his despicable ad,” Stenger said.
Like the Dooley camp, Stenger appeared to be aiming his comments at women voters. He was joined by former U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan, who lives in Clayton. She chastised the Dooley campaign for launching such an attack and defended Stenger’s record on women’s issues.
On Thursday, Stenger also countered with a new response ad in which he explains the circumstances of his involvement as a defense lawyer in the prostitution case. Stenger also fires off a new jab at Dooley, who is accused of curbing county services for domestic-violence victims.
Stenger and Dooley have both been endorsed by the St. Louis political arm of Planned Parenthood, and Dooley’s spokeswoman made clear their side is disturbed by the dual support.
“We were astonished,’’ Goldstein said.
Goldstein said that Dooley had a stronger record opposing sex trafficking. Stenger disagreed, citing his own actions against such activities.
In any case, Goldstein said that Dooley’s ad was, in part, to counter Stenger’s attack ads – especially one that features women who accuse the Dooley administration of turning them away from domestic-violence services.
“Stenger is grandstanding, he is pandering to the female vote,’’ Goldstein said. (One of Dooley's earliest ads, which featured the voice of his daughter, appears to be directed particularly to women because of its emphasis on health care and access to mammograms.)
Stenger's campaign said Dooley's attack ad also appeared aimed at women, who are expected to cast a majority of the votes in the Aug. 5 Democratic primary.
The 2000 prostitution case
Regarding the prostitution court case, Stenger said he was among a number of area lawyers assigned by the court to represent the defendants because they couldn’t afford their own lawyers.
“I was ordered by a court to represent an individual named Monroe Evans. He was an individual that participated in an international pimping ring,” Stenger said. “The individual that I represented was an individual who was very unsavory. A person that I would no way condone any of his activities, in any way shape or form.”
Jake Zimmerman, a former state legislator who now is St. Louis County’s elected assessor, was another lawyer assigned to the defense, said Stenger. Zimmerman has endorsed Dooley.
Goldstein said that Zimmerman's participation was different because he had not been publicly quoted making the comments that Stenger made on behalf of his client.
Zimmerman replied in a statement, "I played a minor role in writing an appellate brief for one of the defendants, well after trial. Like Steve, my law firm was appointed by the court and had no choice about whether to take the case." But Zimmerman said that he disagreed with some of Stenger's apparent comments during the trial.