In some strange, alternate universe, St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman would be running for a third term on the St. Louis County Council.
Back in the mid-2000s, the Olivette Democrat seemed to be on a collision course with Barbara Fraser, a fellow Democrat, for the 5th District council seat. But the two agreed on a deal: Fraser would run for county council while Zimmerman would run for Fraser's spot in the Missouri House.
Both ended up winning in 2006. But Zimmerman ultimately gravitated back to Clayton in 2011, winning a special election for an assessor’s office that had recently become an elected position.
“Mercifully, we only live in this universe and the here and now,” said Zimmerman, with a laugh. “It’s always fun to play political ‘what might have beens.’”
Zimmerman’s “here and now” is running for his first full term as assessor. It’s likely to be a more subdued campaign than 2011, especially in the context of a contentious Democratic primary between incumbent St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton. (And also because, as of Friday afternoon, he hasn’t drawn a Republican opponent.)
But while running for assessor may be as sexy as, say, running for recorder of deeds or county treasurer, Zimmerman said he has plenty to talk about.
Zimmerman says he’s run an assessor’s office “where you get your phone call answered, where people are treated the same whether the property’s (worth) $50,000 or $5 million and where nobody gets a special break no matter how big or well-connected they are.”
“I’m proud of that record and I’m looking forward to taking that to the voters,” he said.
Specifically, Zimmerman pointed out how he has done more than just remind people to pay their property taxes. That includes:
- Advocating against casinos in St. Louis County getting lower property tax bills, a move that wasn't universally popular within the state's business community.
- Finding “fake farmers” scattering “winter wheat seeds on the strip mall parking lots” to get a tax break
- Discovering people who have been “hiding their airplanes” and thus not paying county property taxes.
“And then we found a whole host of seemingly clever ways that people think they can game the system and get one by,” Zimmerman said. “I’ve learned after three years in the job what people want out of an elected official in an executive office like this. You want someone who says, ‘look, I get that you pay your fair share. Everybody else ought to have to do so also and nobody gets a special deal.’”
Kiss and make up
While Zimmerman emphasized he's planning for a “vigorous” campaign, he added the Democratic primary for county executive likely ensures “a little more heat and little bit more attention in county politics this year than in some years past.”
Even with months to go until August, Zimmerman’s prediction is proving correct. Dooley and Stenger have been at odds for years, but their sparring has become more pronounced in recent weeks.
Stenger, for instance, was part of a coalition that recently made it difficult for Dooley to fill slots on the St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners. He also called on St. Louis County COO Garry Earls to resign, a prospect Dooley swiftly rejected.
Dooley fired back during an appearance last week on KMOX, re-launching not-so-subtle questions about Stenger’s residency. (In response to Dooley's comments, Stenger gave a KMOX reporter a tour of his south St. Louis County home. Worth noting: Former Councilman John Campisi used that issue against Stenger in 2008. It obviously wasn’t effective since Stenger won decisively.)
In any case, Zimmerman has endorsed Dooley, adding that Dooley's “done a fine job as St. Louis County executive.” Zimmerman noted that he’s joined other regional political figures – such as St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis – in supporting Dooley’s re-election.
Still, Zimmerman said that the warring sides will eventually have to unify for the general election.
“Anybody who says ‘oooh, you don’t need to worry. It’s a Democratic county’ forgets the very recent history of St. Louis County,” said Zimmerman, referring to how Republican Bill Corrigan nearly beat Dooley in 2010. “And certainly forgets the history of some of our countywide elections as recently as four years ago, which were very closely fought."
Zimmerman may be right. For one thing, former state Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, said she was being courted to run for county executive. Cunningham -- who recently won a surprisingly high-profile race for the Monarch Fire Protection District -- is a proven fundraiser and developed a reputation as a strong campaigner.
If she doesn't run, Ellisville Councilman Matt Pirrello says he'll try to raise $1 million for Republican bid for county executive. If he follows through, he could have a big financial advantage if Stenger or Dooley spend most of their money in the primary.
(Pirrello, though, will have to get past Green Park Alderman Tony Pousosa, who has the support of some prominent St. Louis County conservatives. And whether his role in the controversial impeachment of Ellisville Mayor Adam Paul hinders his campaign emains to be seen.)
Those types of scenarios may be why Zimmerman says Dooley and Stenger loyalists should not take the general election for granted.
"I have every expectation of hard-fought races going into November," Zimmerman said. "I think there will have to be some kissing and making up among Democratic candidates when the dust settles in August. And my hope is I’ll be a part of that and be a part of being a unified team to the voters in November."
Up and out
Zimmerman is part of a select -- but growing -- number of Democrats who have left the Missouri House to pursue other offices.
State Treasurer Clint Zweifel, Secretary of State Jason Kander, St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones and St. Louis Alderman Chris Carter all departed from the House early and won their respective positions. Others – such as former state Reps. Margaret Donnelly, D-Richmond Heights, Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, and Judy Baker, D-Columbia – also left to run for other offices but were unsuccessful.
On the one hand, the success of people like Zimmerman, Zweifel or Kander show that House Democrats can successfully transition into higher offices. But it could also be something of a “brain drain,” which may not help Democratic efforts to gain ground in the Missouri House.
Zimmerman takes a different view. Because Fraser was term-limited, he said, it opened up an opportunity for him in the Missouri house. And he added, “There’s something to be said in getting young talent and new faces in politics at any level.
“I like to think I was an OK legislator, but my departure paved the way for really great state House members like Tracy McCreery and Sue Meredith,” said Zimmerman, adding that he hopes a “new and talented” bench will help Democrats win back House seats. “And so, it’s hard for me to say with a straight face that a guy like Jake Zimmerman is so fantastic that his leaving Jefferson City is a great harm to the Democratic Party. I think that’s nonsense.”
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.