With his county still coming to grips with the tumultuous aftermath of Michael Brown’s death, Steve Stenger was officially sworn in Thursday as St. Louis County executive.
Flanked by his wife Allison and holding his daughter Madeline, the Affton Democrat became the eighth county executive in St. Louis County’s history. He said during his two-page inaugural address that business as usual in the county was over.
“As I assume the responsibility of St. Louis County executive, there is much work to be done,” Stenger said. “Our citizens have become concerned with the direction we are headed and the very way we deal with the issues we face. They expect better. They deserve better. Their call for change has been heard.”
Stenger rose to prominence over the past couple of years as a leading critic of former St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley. After he easily upended Dooley in the Democratic primary, Stenger skated to a razor-thin victory over Republican Rick Stream in the general.
The elections results were close perhaps because Brown’s death changed the county’s political dynamics. Some African-American political leaders were upset over Stenger’s alliance with St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch and so backed Stream.
Stenger has promised to open a new office – the Office of Community Empowerment – to focus resources on struggling north St. Louis County communities. He’s also promised to work with anybody, including black political leaders who opposed him, to heal the county’s divides.
“We can no longer rest on our economic successes of the 20th century,” Stenger said. “We can no longer rest on our past notions of equality and fairness. In short, the time has come for change. We must move our county forward and upward with common purpose, leaving no one behind.”
The St. Louis County executive’s office is arguably the most powerful in the region, as the officeholder has wide latitude in appointing heads of departments members of powerful regional boards as well as crafting a budget. Stenger will get to appoint a majority of the board that governs the city-county St. Louis Economic Development Partnership – which could provide a jolt to his desire to be more aggressive in getting businesses to locate in St. Louis County.
He’ll also have a governing majority on the St. Louis County Council, a body needed to help major structural changes to county government. Not only does his party have a majority on the council, but he could receive help from Republican members like Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin.
“I think Steve Stenger will be very effective in the next couple of months and years,” said Harder, who said that he shares Stenger’s desire to audit the county. “With a new staff and new appointees, he’ll be able to move his agenda further than maybe past administrations. I will work with him on anything that’s good government and protects the freedoms of the people.”
Stenger is filling key posts within his administration. Besides tapping former Republican councilman Greg Quinn to be revenue director and Mike Chapman to be director of operations, Stenger picked former Democratic Councilman Jeff Wagener to be his policy director and former television journalist Cordell Whitlock to be his communications director.
And on Friday, he announced that Gary Bess -- who was director of St. Louis' parks department for 18 years -- would become director of St. Louis County's parks department.
Shadow of Ferguson
Still, Stenger’s inauguration wasn’t completely out of the shadow of the Ferguson unrest.
For one thing, the ceremony had to be moved from the county council chambers to the courthouse because of what Stenger characterized as “multiple threats.” He said the setup “ensured that the individuals that would be attending would be safe and that everybody over there is going to be safe.”
“We could have canceled the event and we didn’t – and we’re not going to do that,” Stenger said to reporters before the ceremony. “What you’re going to find with my administration and with me is a constant forward momentum. We are not going to let anything slow us down.”
Councilwoman Hazel Erby didn’t show up at the ceremony. The University City Democrat – who backed Stream in the general election – wrote on her Facebook page that she had “decided that it was best for me not to participate in tomorrow's ceremony.”
St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman, a Dooley ally, also wasn’t present at the ceremony and will be sworn into office tomorrow. Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, R-Town and Country, didn’t attend due to prior family commitments.
Stenger did receive endorsements from key black officials during the general election, including U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, D-University City, and former state Rep. Betty Thompson, D-University City. Asked about Erby’s absence, Stenger emphasized that he wants to open a dialogue with anybody who didn’t support him last year, including local officials known as the Fannie Lou Hamer Coalition.
“What the public is going to see and what you’re going to see is an open door in my office,” Stenger said. “And I welcome Hazel Erby and … anyone who would like to come into my office and speak. And if they would like me to come to theirs, I’ll meet them. I’ll make myself very available for dialogue.”
“We need to move forward,” he added. “We need to move past the election.”
McCulloch: 'Old wounds have been opened'
Besides Stenger’s swearing-in, Thursday was also the inauguration for McCulloch, Harder and Councilman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights.
McCulloch – who was elected to another term as prosecutor without general election opposition – faced a torrent of criticism for how he handled the grand jury process for former Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson. But he received a warm reception from the crowd after making a relatively short speech that focused on thanking his family for their support.
He told audience members that he’s “had the honor and privilege for 24 years to be trusted by them to handle the prosecution for St. Louis County.” He added: “We’ve had some difficult times in the past months and old wounds have been opened.”
“But those are the wounds that have to be addressed,” McCulloch said. “And we’ll fix those. And we’ll work on those. And we’ll keep doing that. And I look forward to working with the new county executive, with the old county council and the new county council to address an awful lot of these issues.”