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County executive race, pitting Republican Corrigan against incumbent Dooley, is most competitive

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 26, 2010 - With just days left in their contest, St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and lawyer Bill Corrigan continue to wage the hottest battle for the county's top job in 20 years.

The latest campaign reports, filed late Monday, show that the two have raised and spent around $4 million combined -- a record. At least a quarter of their spending was just in the last month.

Dooley, a Democrat who has held the county post since 2003, is now fielding more than 200 volunteers charged with getting out the vote by next Tuesday. He's getting help from area labor groups, who say they're conducting their most aggressive field operations ever on behalf of Dooley and other Democrats on the ballot.

Corrigan's camp won't discuss its get-out-the-vote plans, but the state Republican Party has been conducting phone banks and neighborhood canvasses for months out of its regional office in Sunset Hills.

Such activities underscore that -- like the last major fight for the post in 1990 -- more is at stake than the job.

In 1990, Democrat George R. "Buzz" Westfall narrowly defeated Republican H.C. Milford, ending decades of GOP control of St. Louis County government. That loss of power also led to less Republican political clout, as Westfall become arguably the region's most powerful Democrat.

Dooley -- a former mayor and county councilman -- took over the top post unexpectedly when Westfall died in office seven years ago this month.

Dooley defeated GOP challenges in 2004 and 2006. But now, the Republican Party hopes it has finally found the right candidate in Corrigan, the son of a judge who is making his first bid for office.

Last year, a top Dooley aide called Corrigan "another lamb for slaughter." But Dooley's campaign isn't entertaining such talk now. "We always knew it was going to be really close,'' said Dooley campaign spokesman Katy Jamboretz.

Corrigan's campaign doesn't dispute that point. "It's neck and neck right now,'' said campaign spokeswoman Susan Ryan. "We're very excited."

Although their differences are sharp, the two candidates note that they have participated in eight forums, mostly before business groups, and one debate conducted by the local League of Women Voters. That's more joint appearances than any other major contest on Tuesday's ballot.

Dooley, Corrigan Both Grew Up In County

Both candidates grew up in St. Louis County.

Dooley, 62, is the son of a pastor who also held a maintenance job at McDonnell Douglas Corp. Charlie Dooley graduated from Wellston High School and served in the Army from 1965-68, including a two-year stint in Vietnam. After his honorable discharge, Dooley also was hired by McDonnell Douglas Corp., now Boeing Co. Charlie Dooley worked there 30 years, much of it as a supervisor in micrographics.

Dooley was elected an alderman in Northwoods in 1978 and became mayor five years later. He held that post -- serving a stint as president of the St. Louis County Municipal League -- until he was elected to the County Council in 1994, winning re-election in 1998 and 2002. Dooley succeeded Westfall because he was the senior Democrat on the council when the county executive died. 

Like Westfall, Dooley has cast himself as a fiscal conservative. Each of his ads cites the county's status as the only one in the state with a AAA bond rating and emphasizes the county's $26 million in spending cuts over the past two years without any layoffs.

Corrigan, 51, grew up in Florissant and University City as the son of now-retired Circuit Judge William Corrigan. The younger Corrigan attended Chaminade College Preparatory School, then went to college at Notre Dame and attended law school at the University of Missouri Columbia.

Corrigan is a partner in the law firm of Armstrong Teasdale and is a former president of the Missouri Bar.

Corrigan is promising to cut county spending and address its widely disliked property assessment system. He also says he will lobby the Legislature to cap property tax increases at the rate of inflation, and he cites his initial call last year to make the county assessor an elective post.

That's where the sparring begins.

Dooley persuaded the council to put the elected-assessor proposal on the August ballot, saying the matter should be up to county voters to decide. County voters did approve making the county assessor an elected post. Corrigan says he should get the credit for pressing the issue. Dooley says he made the move because of a statewide proposal on the November ballot, Amendment 1, which mandates elected assessors in most of Missouri's urban areas. Dooley said he wanted county voters to weigh in first.

Both sides engage in similar back-and-forths over their dueling ethics proposals (Corrigan notes that his was proposed first) and over Corrigan's job-creation proposals, which Dooley's allies say are patterned after actions already underway by the County Economic Council.

Corrigan also has repeatedly attacked Dooley over various issues, most notably the county's 2008 decision to divide unincorporated parts of St. Louis County into trash-collection districts. Waste haulers bid for the exclusive right to serve all residences in each district.

Dooley and most Democrats on the council say the districts have led to improved service and lower costs to homeowners. Critics contend that the change forced small haulers out of business and limited homeowners' options.

Corrigan joined the critics last month, after a judge ruled that the county government failed to comply with a state law requiring two years notice to the haulers. The county is appealing the ruling; Corrigan contends the misstep could cost the county tens of millions of dollars ;in damages.

Merger And Mortgages Attract Attacks

But the harshest words have been exchanged over two issues: longstanding regional talk over some sort of city-county merger, and Corrigan's personal finances.

Corrigan has been airing a TV ad for weeks that contends Dooley favors a city-county merger, which Corrigan contends could lead to the county being liable for the city's debts. Dooley maintains that he is simply supportive of discussion over whether the city could re-enter the county as the 92nd municipality. Voters in the city and the county would have to approve the idea, which Dooley acknowledges could take some time.

Dooley and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, a fellow Democrat, also hotly deny that the county would take on any of the city's debts, noting that's not the case for the 91 municipalities already in St. Louis County. Slay is so angry over the ad -- which even Democrats agree is effective, even if they question its accuracy -- that he recently donated $10,000 to Dooley's campaign.

Dooley, meanwhile, has hammered at Corrigan's refusal to make public any of his tax returns -- Dooley has released the last four years of his returns -- and Corrigan's frequent mortgage refinancings with a bank where he also serves on the board. Corrigan said he has refinanced five times over the past eight years to take advantage of lower interest rates. As for his personal finances, he says he has complied with the Missouri Ethics Commission's requirements, which don't require public disclosure of his tax payments.

Dooley's campaign also has set up a special attack website, bailoutbillcorrigan.com -- known in politics as a "micro site" -- that focuses on Pulaski Bank, where Corrigan obtained his refinancings and where he also sits on the board. Dooley has begun running an ad that notes Pulaski has received $32.5 million in federal bailout funds, but has yet to repay any of it.

Corrigan's campaign has countered with its own attack site -- dirtydooley.com -- that contends Dooley is corrupt, awarded no-bid trash contracts and has a dim view of the county's future.

For all their attacks, both campaigns say the county-executive candidates plan to focus their final pitches on their views of how best to create jobs and improve the county's economy. But both sides also acknowledge that the county isn't in a vacuum, and that its fate is tied somewhat to that of the region, the state and the country.

Another reason their contest isn't just about the job.

St. Louis County Executive

The St. Louis County executive, once known as the county supervisor, is the executive officer of St. Louis County. But because the county is made up of more than 90 municipalities and has limited jurisdiction, the county executive lacks the power and prestige that a population of nearly 1 million should give it. St. Louis County is the state's largest political jurisdiction, where races can be made or broken. This year, both political parties hope that their county executive candidates will help attract votes for their Senate candidates.

Charlie Dooley, Democrat

Was first elected in 1978 as Northwoods alderman, then Northwoods mayor in 1983. Dooley became the first black on the St. Louis County Council when he was elected in 1994. Dooley was appointed St. Louis County executive in 2003 after Buzz Westfall died. He won election to that office in 2004 and in 2006.

Bill Corrigan, Republican

First run for elective office. Corrigan is an attorney with Armstrong Teasdale and was president of the Missouri Bar in 2003. Active in the community, he has served on boards of the Edgewood Children's Center, Cardinal Glennon Children's hospital, the University of Missouri School of Law Foundation and the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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