The race to represent the 5th District on the St. Louis County Council comes amid a backdrop of extreme discord between Council members and the county executive.
County Executive Steve Stenger came into office in January 2015, with most of the Council on his side. As time went on, six out of the seven members -- many of them fellow Democrats -- ended up against him. The upshot is that Councilman Pat Dolan has become Stenger’s lone ally.
Dolan, D-Richmond Heights, is hoping to retain that designation after the Aug. 7 primary election. He’s facing a strong challenge from Lisa Clancy, a Maplewood Democrat who wants to supply a “fresh voice” on the Council.
Clancy has been critical of Stenger’s leadership on a multitude of issues, while Dolan believes Stenger accomplished much during his first term.
In addition to Clancy, Dolan is also facing a Democratic challenge from Michael Burton — an Affton resident who is concerned about how the now-closed Tower Tee golf complex site may be developed. Because no Republican filed for the seat, the winner of the primary will take office.
“For the 5th District”
Dolan, president of Sprinkler Fitters Local 268, first won election to the County Council in 2010. Before winning a competitive primary and general election that year, he served on the Richmond Heights City Council.
He’s handled some high-profile bills, including a measure aimed at preventing discrimination against the LGBT community and another to make county roads more friendly toward pedestrians and bicycles. Those bills were passed when Dolan was part of a majority coalition on the Council that was aligned with Stenger.
“Most of the things I’ve done, if not all of them, have been for the 5th District. And hopefully, we’ll continue to,” Dolan said. “I take my job very seriously. There’s a lot more than one issue when you get into this position — hope I can express that.”
But things changed dramatically in St. Louis County politics after Rochelle Walton Gray ousted Councilman Mike O’Mara in the Democratic primary two years ago. That meant that Stenger no longer had a functioning majority on the Council. With Republican Ernie Trakas’ win in the 6th District in November 2016 -- and three Council members effectively turning on Stenger -- Dolan became the only county executive ally left.
That meant that Dolan has often been the only ‘no’ vote on a number of issues, including a slew of charter amendments placed on the Aug. 7 ballot. He’s also said that he’s been left out of the loop when the coalition that controls the Council makes major policy moves.
For his part, Dolan said “all along I’ve been trying to represent the 5th and staying out of the other side stuff.” He said some of Stenger’s adversaries on the Council “are very intentionally holding up all kinds of projects and legislation to make the current county executive not get credit for getting something done or make him look bad.”
“Maybe if he continues on, they’ll realize that’s not working,” Dolan said, referring to Stenger possibly defeating Mark Mantovani in the Democratic primary. “When you look at it, the majority of the things we’re still getting done. We’re still getting roads and zoning changes done. County business is still running. All those departments are still open.”
“Bold and courageous leadership”
Clancy is the president of the Hadley Township Democrats, which takes in five municipalities in St. Louis County’s central corridor. She has a graduate degree in social work and has worked for about a decade with nonprofit groups.
She decided to run against Dolan because she believes “we need bold and courageous leadership to help lead us forward and to reach better outcomes for our community.”
“Ultimately, I decided to get into this race because I think we need leaders that will be accountable to the community — and work tirelessly to bring change to this region,” Clancy said. “And ultimately, this race is not about me. It’s about what’s good for St. Louis. It’s about what’s good for St. Louis County. And it’s about what’s good for the residents of District 5.”
And Clancy notes that if she’s elected, she’ll be the youngest member of the council — which she said provides a needed perspective.
“I think I represent a new voice at the table, a fresh voice, a new constituency,” Clancy said. “I’m 33 years old. I will be the youngest person on County Council probably by about 15 to 20 years, which I think is significant and important, considering the challenges facing our region.”
Clancy cited several priorities if she were elected, including protecting county parks, following through on recommendations of the Ferguson Commission and embracing regional collaboration.
“I am concerned that we are too often competing with each other rather than competing with other metro areas in the country for economic development and growth,” Clancy said. “There’s several lenses to look at how we can be more collaborative. One is certainly across city and county lines, but also across municipal lines in terms of their relationship with St. Louis County.”
She also supports a number of ballot initiatives that Dolan voted against, including giving the Council its own attorney and imposing campaign donation limits. (The campaign donation measure is facing a legal challenge. Stenger says the measure gives self-funding candidates an advantage — and also criticized another provision giving the council power to make fund transfers between departments.)
“I think this is about making sure government works for the people,” Clancy said. “And I think the people in District 5 and the region are concerned about corruption and cronyism now in St. Louis County government. And they want leaders who will stand up to that.”
Burton enters the fray
The third Democrat in the race, Burton, is no stranger to the St. Louis County Council. Burton has been showing up to meetings for months now to oppose the Tower Tee property being rezoned into a residential area.
He said he was inspired to run against Dolan after listening to his 2017 appearence on St. Louis Public Radio's Politically Speaking podcast.
"I listened to him for an hour on St. Louis Public Radio," Burton said. "And that's when I got on my computer and saw he was up for re-election."
But Burton stressed that his campaign is about more than Tower Tee. He wants to use his position on the county council to curb incentive like tax increment financing. And he's a strong supporter of the campaign donation limit amendment that's currently tied up in court.
"I want to create real growth in St. Louis County, not this lateral growth of moving one business down the street somewhere and saying 'we created these jobs and created growth,'" Burton said.
He said he's dismayed that Dolan has been the lone 'no' vote on a number of issues — and is alligned with Stenger.
"I have seen countless 6 to 1 votes on countless issues," Burton said. "And if there was someone else in that seat in the 5th, there would be Republicans and Democrats working together to get things done."
Council fight looms
The conflict between Stenger and the Council is looming large in this race. Clancy received the backing of Councilwoman Hazel Erby, a Democrat who has been opposing Stenger on the council since he took office in 2015. Dolan has received the support of many labor unions that are also backing Stenger.
Dolan has raised the most money, but Clancy has enough in the bank to pay for campaign fare, such as mailers and signs. Burton recently began a campaign committee to raise money.
Like most races for the County Council, all three campaigns are trying to reach voters directly by going door-to-door.
“There’s a lot at stake,” Clancy said. “We have a choice on Aug. 7. We can continue the status quo — or we can invest in some new leaders with a strong vision on how to move our region forward.”
For his part, Dolan doesn’t begrudge either Clancy or Burton running against him. But he stressed that he’s hoping to continue to be on the Council for the next four years.
“I don’t think anyone should ever complain about somebody running for office, because that’s what the process is — and I did,” Dolan said.
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum