St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger came to prominence by being a critic.
From his perch as a county councilman, Stenger aimed unrelenting salvos at then-St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley. That served as the backbone of a campaign that ultimately ousted Dooley in a Democratic primary — and narrowly outflanked state Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, in the general election.
But after taking his oath of office as St. Louis County’s eighth county executive, Stenger now possesses a great deal of power to reshape county government. And he has a higher profile that will elicit more attention and more criticism.
In short, Stenger is no longer fighting the man. He is the man. And he’s perfectly fine with that.
“I learned a lot through my six years of being on the council,” Stenger said last week. “And I learned a lot through that analytical process that was part of being a councilman. And much of my critiques came about as the result of that analytical process. And that analytical process will actually continue while I’m county executive.”
As he brings in new people to constitute his administration, Stenger will have the structural tools and a friendly legislative majority to move his agenda. But he enters office at a tumultuous time in the county’s history, as it tries to address the causes underlying the protests and violence in Ferguson.
And Stenger is still facing skepticism from some of the county’s black political leaders who didn’t care for how aggressively he attacked Dooley or how closely he allied with St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch.
“I’m hoping and praying we’re able to get past some of things that have happened,” said Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City. “However, people can say that they want to work or they’re willing to work. But their actions speak louder than words.”
Powerful By Design
Like other insurgent candidates for a chief executive’s office, Stenger ran on a message of “change.” This isn’t exactly a new idea; everybody from Gov. Jay Nixon to President Barack Obama pledged to be different from his predecessors.
But Stenger has some advantages in pursuing his agenda. The county executive plays a dominant role in crafting the county’s budget — something that Nixon and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay don’t possess. He can sign and veto bills and appoint people to key regional boards such as the Zoo-Museum District or the St. Louis Economic Partnership.
He also has the power to appoint key positions within county government — and he’s already replaced many of Dooley’s key staffers with his own. That includes tapping former Democratic Councilman Jeff Wagener as his policy director and former Republican Councilman Greg Quinn as revenue director.
But Stenger is planning to do more than just shuffle personnel. He plans an audit of county departments that he said could lead to great efficiencies and a friendlier climate for businesses interacting with the county.
“It’s really important for us as we move forward to use that audit to build confidence in St. Louis County government,” Stenger said, “because we really need to streamline procedures to make St. Louis County a more business-friendly place. A place where you can come in, you’re greeted with a smile and your project that you have — or that a businessperson might have — sees county government, sees the apparatus that we have [and is] encouraged by it, not discouraged by it.”
Stenger wants to refocus the county’s transportation department, including looking for ways to expand mass transit. And he wants the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership to be more aggressive in getting businesses to locate in the region.
“I actually intend to go to different locales, target industries, target specific companies that we want to bring to St. Louis that match our workforce and develop a workforce for those companies where we don’t have that match,” he said.
Not surprisingly, given recent events, Stenger wants to direct attention — and resources — to north St. Louis County, the epicenter of the some of the worst unrest in the county’s history.
He wants the Children’s Services Fund to help struggling communities in north county. And he said he wants to create a new department, the Office of Community Engagement, to direct money to areas with high concentrations of poverty.
“It really pulls individuals from different departments and focuses St. Louis County resources where they’re needed most,” Stenger said. “And particularly in the case of Ferguson where we’ve seen unrest, we’ve seen damage to buildings, we’ve seen damage to the community — this office can be used as a focal point.”
Legislative Sweet Spot
Stenger has a lot of ambitious ideas. But other chief executives with change in mind, like Obama or Nixon, lost momentum after encountering a hostile legislature.
Much of the St. Louis County Council appears receptive, if not outright friendly, to working with Stenger. He forged a bipartisan coalition to block some of Dooley’s initiatives, and members of that bloc could still back Stenger as he rolls out his agenda.
“He’s surrounding himself with people that are competent, that can handle the jobs that need to be done, a diverse group of people,” said Councilman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights. “I firmly believe he’ll move in the right direction and is already moving in the right direction.”
Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, is the newest member of the council. Even though Stenger isn’t part of his political party, Harder said the two share important priorities.
“We ran on some of the same issues,” Harder said. “I ran my campaign dealing with a full audit of the county from top to bottom. I believe that Executive Stenger did as well. I can work together with him on that issue. We’re both, I think, fairly financially conservative and we’re going to be working on issues in that regard.”
“We’re going to try to work out the issues with waste in county government and making sure that we’re getting the bang for the tax dollars that people have entrusted in us,” he added.
St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman, who supported Dooley in last year’s Democratic primary, said he’s willing to work with Stenger on some issues — including battling foreclosures in north county. He’s pleased with some of Stenger's early appointments, especially Quinn as revenue director.
“Councilman Quinn might not have been the best buddy of everyone on the county council. But who cares?” Zimmerman said. “He’s competent. He’s smart. He knows county government. And I strongly suspect that’s going to make him a pleasure to work with.”
But Zimmerman cautioned that legislative support might not mean that Stenger will automatically be able to effectuate change. Stenger, he said, may run into roadblock from within.
“All the legislative friends in the world are worth only so much when what you need to do is manage a large enterprise filled with career government employees who have their own ideas about the way things ought to be run,” said Zimmerman, who was recently re-elected. “And if those folks aren’t on your side, then all the friendly legislators in the world don’t mean much.”
Even though he may have the power and legislative majority to govern, Stenger is coming into office facing some deep skepticism — especially from some of the county’s black political leaders.
Hazel Erby, for instance, was part of a group of black elected officials known as the Fannie Lou Hamer Coalition, which endorsed Stream. She said she was put off by how aggressively Stenger fought Dooley and by his alliance with McCulloch.
“It didn’t seem like he ran on his record — that he ran on Bob McCulloch’s record,” Erby said. “And so therefore, people have a hard time. Everybody’s going to link them together, because that’s what he did. He did that in the campaign. And then after the events of Aug. 9, he didn’t distance himself. He never spoke up and said what his feelings were about what happened. He never took a stand.”
Erby said some of Stenger’s early moves, including closing his inauguration ceremony to the public, aren’t encouraging. (Stenger cited “multiple threats” for making the decision.)
Erby said she was also troubled by the composition of the audience, which was largely white.
“It didn’t look good. I don’t like to judge anybody by those kinds of things,” Erby said. “But it didn’t look good. When you saw the picture of the people in audience, it didn’t represent St. Louis County. It didn’t seem diverse.”
The hesitancy from some north St. Louis County officials goes beyond Stenger's bitter campaign with Dooley.
Greendale Mayor Monica Huddleston said some African-American officials were disappointed that Stenger didn’t support Erby’s efforts to establish goals for minorities and women to procure county contracts.
“When you do things like that, I can’t help but be skeptical about what your intentions are toward African-Americans in St. Louis County,” Huddleston said. “Because why would you take that position? If you were about being fair and open and honest about helping African-Americans get what they deserve too — just being a part of St. Louis County and the contracts that are awarded here.”
Stenger has expressed interest in paring down some small municipalities — an idea that didn’t sit well with Huddleston or Bel-Nor Board of Trustees Chairman Kevin Buchek.
Buchek said that the small municipalities have advantages over unincorporated St. Louis County, such as code enforcement and closer-to-home governance.
“We’re getting that attack not just from the county. We’re getting it from the state as well,” said Buchek, who is white. “We’re getting the state legislature pre-filing bills trying to disband the municipalities. So, I think the better way would be to have conversations with the local elected leaders and see what we want.”
Buchek isn't ready to dismiss Stenger quite yet. He said he's hopeful that the council can pass a minority contracting bill that would help some of the county's African-Americans, for instance.
And there may be chances for rapprochement. In his view, Buchek said the animosity from some north county officials stems from the fact that Stenger upended Dooley, who was popular in parts of north county.
He said by attacking Dooley, Stenger also “is attacking us.”
“That’s where a lot of animosity came from and a lot of skepticism came from,” Buchek said. “But I am hopeful we can work together. I am hopeful that Stenger’s administration will come to north county, talk to the local leaders about what we want and what we need. And then, he’ll actually make good promises he made during the campaign.”
Zimmerman is also hopeful. Even though he said Stenger has some bridge building to do, he’s not interested in engaging endless political warfare when there’s so much work to be done after the Ferguson unrest.
When asked about whether he would challenge Stenger in 2018 if Stenger falters, Zimmerman said, “We’ve had enough divisive primaries in the county for a while and if I can be a part of not having those, that would be my preference.”
“Speaking not just as a Democratic officeholder but speaking as someone who cares about St. Louis County and about this region, we have got to work together,” Zimmerman said. “And we’ve got to create a rising tide that lifts all boats. If we descend into factionalism, if we become a series of small teams fighting against each other for a diminishing share of a pie, that’s a recipe for failure.”
Stenger emphasized that he’s willing to talk with Erby and other members of the Fannie Lou Hamer Coalition. He said it's part of an “open door” style of leadership that he wants to showcase as county executive.
“I’ll make myself very available for dialogue. We need to move forward,” Stenger said. “We need to move past the election.”
Inform our coverage
This report contains information gathered with the help of our Public Insight Network. To learn more about the network and how you can become a source, please click here.