The morning after their primary victories, the new nominees for St. Louis County executive – Democrat Steve Stenger and Republican Rick Stream – talked briefly before back-to-back appearances at a local television station.
Their cordial conversation is in line with what each says is a commitment to focus on the issues – not personalities -- over the next 88 days leading up to the Nov. 4 election.
That said, Stream and Stenger do plan to highlight the differences in their records, rhetoric and approaches to governing. And Stenger observed that the result likely could be “contentious.”
“This is a serious campaign for the leadership of 1 million people,” Stenger said.
Amid those differences are a lot of similarities.
In separate post-election interviews this week, both men said their key campaign message will center on the same three issues:
- Probing county government’s finances for misspent or wasted money. (Both are calling for top-to-bottom audits.)
- Wooing businesses and jobs back to the county.
And each also plans to portray himself as an apolitical guy.
"I think that my message is nonpartisan, a message that really resonates with everyone,” said Stenger. “It transcends party. It’s great for independents, it’s great for Democrats, it’s great for Republicans…I think my values and my ideas are shared with the vast majority of St. Louis Countians.”
Stream contended that the county government’s top job is “really not a partisan position. It’s more of a leadership and executive position. I think I’ve got the experience to run this county government in a very professional and competent manner.”
The questions that voters should consider, Stream added, are: “Who has the best qualifications to be a leader? Who’s been a manager?’’
Stream, 65, resides in Kirkwood and is a former budget and project manager for the U.S. Department of Defense. He was on the Kirkwood School Board when he was elected to the Missouri House, where he has served since 2007. For the past two years, Stream has been the House budget chairman.
Stenger, 42, lives in Affton and is an attorney and an accountant in private practice. He has been a member of the St. Louis County Council since 2009, including a stint as council chairman.
Both come from politically swing areas of St. Louis County.
Stenger and Stream both scored huge victories on Tuesday. Stenger overwhelmingly defeated incumbent County Executive Charlie Dooley, winning 66.5 percent of the Democratic vote.
Stream attracted 67.9 percent of the GOP vote, defeating Green Park Alderman Tony Pousosa.
But the warning sign for Republicans is that two-thirds of Tuesday’s votes were cast in the Democratic primary. So, despite their similar percentages, Stenger collected more than twice as many votes as Stream.
Stream says he’s hopeful that many of the Republicans who are believed to have crossed over to the Democratic primary will return to their political home for the general election. Stenger is confident that many will stick with him.
Political consultants on both sides of the contest say each man will have the same objective: convince voters that he’s the true change agent.
Stenger’s message of change was central to his success in knocking out Dooley. Now, said veteran GOP consultant John Hancock: “Somehow, Stream is going to have to seize the ‘change’ mantle from Stenger.”
It’s notable that both men used the magic word “change’’ in their victory speeches.
Jobs, jobs, jobs
When it comes to jobs, Stream and Stenger have each been lamenting for months what they see as a decade of job loss and missed economic opportunity.
“We need to create a climate so business wants to come back to St. Louis County,’’ said Stream. “We have have to ensure that the taxes stay low.”
Rising taxes are “an impediment for job creators,” Stream said, along with “unnecessary rules and regulations.”
He said he’s heard from many current and former county businesses that they “are just hamstrung” by county government. Stream is promising “a top-to-bottom review of all of those regulations.”
Stream says he also will promote “a collaborative effort’’ by business and labor to come up with job-friendly policies in the county.
Stenger, meanwhile, says the key questions for voters should be “What are our respective visions for economic development? What’s our vision on how to bring jobs to St. Louis County?”
He’s promising to “immediately get on top of economic development’’ and “to determine what we need in the way of corporate infrastructure.”
For example, Stenger says the county needs to seek development of high-speed data networks, such as Google Fiber, aggressively if the region is to compete with other cities.
“We’re going to identify all those things that we need to have here in St. Louis County to participate in the economy of the 21st century,” Stenger said.
Stenger added that he plans to become “the face of St. Louis County’’ in a quest for jobs and businesses.
Records to be centerpiece of contest
Stream plans to highlight his decades handling public budgets for the military, schools and now the state. He notes that the state of Missouri’s $24 billion budget is far larger than St. Louis County’s.
Stenger is emphasizing his expertise as an accountant, and his involvement in crafting county budgets – as well as his differences with Dooley on some spending issues, notably the 2011 fight over Dooley's proposal to cut spending for county parks and close some of them.
“I strongly believe in accountability and responsibility at the top,” Stenger said, adding that he’ll demand a lot from department heads and other key figures in county government.
“I’m a hands-on person,” Stenger said. “I think you will see a great deal of personal engagement on my part. … I’m going to be there every day.”
But critics promise to focus on other aspects of both men’s records. Republican consultant Jeff Roe – whose polling operation had publicly predicted a Stenger victory for weeks – contended that it should be easy for Republicans to tag Stenger with many of the problems that plagued Dooley.
Stenger, said Roe, “has all the ‘drag’ of being an incumbent and an insider. He has to defend the very policies that Dooley defended,’’ since Stenger was part of a council that approved most of those policies.
Stenger was admittedly “an antagonist” often battling Dooley, Roe acknowledged, but he added that Stenger often sided with Dooley on county government’s general operations.
Both play down social issues
Meanwhile, Stenger and his allies expect to focus on other parts of Stream’s record as well. Most of Stream’s votes have been in line with that of the Republican majority dominating the General Assembly.
“Here’s a guy who got elected in a very moderate part of St. Louis County, and went to Jefferson City and has been part of the extreme right wing of the Republican Party,’’ said Democratic consultant Mike Kelley.
“Whether it be Agenda 21, Common Core, his views on guns, Sharia Law,’’ Kelley went on, “This is not a man who has a belief system that’s consistent with people of St. Louis County, regardless of what political party they’re in.”
On the issue of reproductive rights, for example, Stenger has promoted his endorsement by Planned Parenthood while Stream has a 100 percent rating from Missouri Right to Life.
Stream and Stenger both say they don’t plan to focus on social issues, even if some of their supporters do.
Stream, for example, observed, “I’m not sure how any of those issues impact on the job of county executive.” His positions on issues like abortion or guns, Stream said, “have nothing to do with how I would govern as county executive.”
Stenger took a similar tack. “We’re going to deal with the issues that have to do with governance in St. Louis County, our respective visions for the county,” he said. “If there are social issues that impact that analysis, we may touch on those, but I don’t see those becoming the centerpiece of the campaign.”
Nuanced on city-county merger
The candidates’ divergent views on proposals dealing with merging St. Louis with St. Louis County are likely become an issue. Most merger talk centers on a plan – sought by St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay – to allow the St. Louis to re-enter the county as another municipality.
Stream says he opposes any such proposal, echoing his stance during the primary. “A merger is not going to create jobs or end the corruption,” he said.
Stenger reaffirmed his own long-standing stance – he’s waiting for the studies expected to be completed by early 2015 by Better Together, a group that backs some sort of reunification.
Stenger then took a jab at Stream, saying he questioned how Stream could declare his opposition while also accepting $100,000 from wealthy financier Rex Sinquefield, an advocate of reunification.
Still, Stenger and Stream both support regional cooperation and the merging of certain city and county agencies or services to save money.
Stream says he’s all for “more and more consolidation of services to save taxpayer monies’’ – particularly among the 90 municipalities already within St. Louis County.
Stenger also embraces “sharing of services, consolidating of services. I’m very much in favor of that, as long as it doesn’t have any qualitative impacts.”
Looking for reconciliation -- and cash
Stream says he’s already reached out to allies of GOP rival Pousosa, who was particularly popular with tea party activists.
Republicans predict that the Democratic split between the Dooley and Stenger camps could help the GOP’s cause. Most of the region’s unions sided with Stenger, while most African-American officials favored Dooley.
Stenger is confident any wounds will heal by November. He says he had a substantive talk with Dooley late Tuesday, after both had delivered their public speeches.
“It was a very cordial conversation and we wished each other well,” Stenger said. “He congratulated me on the win. I accepted his congratulations. I told him I looked forward to continuing to work with him and he said the same to me.”
Stenger and Stream also admit that, since Tuesday night, they’re spending a lot of time on the phone asking donors for dollars.
Stream noted that he spent a fraction of the combined $3 million that Stenger and Dooley spent during their battle. But it’ll be early September before campaign reports are filed that document how much was actually spent by all the county-executive hopefuls.
But Stenger predicts that the general election contest will be more costly. By Nov. 4, he said, “I plan to raise $2 million.” Stream didn’t say.