After enduring almost two hours of attacks from his rivals, St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley had had enough.
“There is nobody on this platform that has more experience, and knowledge about St. Louis County,” Dooley told the audience at the close of Wednesday night’s candidate forum hosted by the area’s League of Women Voters.
Of his opponents, he added tersely, “They don’t even know what they don’t know. They haven’t got a clue.”
Dooley literally got the last word at the two-hour event, held at Florissant Valley Community College. About 200 people attended.
It’s the only forum held before the Aug. 5 primary elections that included fellow Democrat Steve Stenger, as well as the two Republicans, state Rep. Rick Stream and Green Park Alderman Tony Pousosa. Also participating was Constitution Party candidate Joe Passanise.
The forum also marked the only time during the campaign when Stenger and Dooley – embroiled in a bitter battle – are expected to sit next to each other on the same stage. The two didn't appear to ever make eye contact.
Dooley the prime target
Many of the lines of attack were familiar. Dooley was criticized repeatedly over several FBI probes into various county operations, a costly lawsuit concerning the county’s changes in trash collection and the apparent embezzlement of $3.5 million in county money by a top Health Department official who committed suicide.
County Councilman Stenger hammered away at his longstanding claim that the Dooley administration was incompetent, somewhat corrupt and had contributed to the county’s stagnant population and economic growth.
“We have suffered from the lack of engaged leadership for 10 years, and the facts don’t lie,” Stenger said. Aside from losing almost 40,000 jobs over the past 10 years, he said, “We lag 89th in job growth among the top 100 cities in the nation, and this is while our county executive brags about being Number One in jobs.”
Stream, who has the backing of many top Republicans, repeated that theme. When he was growing up in Kirkwood, Stream said, “We had plenty of Fortune 500 companies here and lots of jobs. County government was well-managed, professional, competent and honest. This is not the case now, and it has to change.”
Pousosa, who is competing against Stream in the Aug. 5 GOP primary, was the one candidate who generally ignored Dooley, attacking Stream and Stenger instead. (Pousosa had lost to Stenger in 2012.)
Pousosa said that he was the candidate most committed to cutting county taxes and regulations, and slammed Stream for his apparent support of the proposed transportation sales-tax hike also on the Aug. 5 ballot.
Passanise, meanwhile, joined Stream and Stenger in largely echoing their aforementioned jabs at Dooley.
Dooley said that his 10-year tenure has put St. Louis County on the right track for the next 10 years, particularly when it came to attracting and retaining businesses and jobs.
Dooley emphasized that he had never been a target of the FBI investigations, and accused his rivals – notably Stenger – of improperly implying otherwise. "You hear all different things during an election,'' Dooley observed. "And 90 percent are falsehoods."
City-county merger talk generates sparks
One of the testiest exchanges centered on the question of any sort of merger between the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County. All of the candidates emphasized that city and county voters would have to approve such a change. Stream, Pousosa and Passanise opposed the idea outright, while Stenger said he was wary.
Stenger then accused Dooley of recently making supportive comments about a city-county merger at a St. Louis University symposium. Dooley denied doing so.
Dooley, in turn, asserted that his opponents were misrepresenting how well St. Louis County was doing, while making unrealistic promises. For example, Dooley jabbed at Republican calls for a cut in county property taxes by observing, “Everybody wants low taxes, but everybody wants services.”
Dooley later garnered some applause when he observed, “I’m the only one at this table that truly understand what it takes to be a leader. And sometimes it’s not pleasant.”