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Verbal wars in the county still reverberate

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 7, 2011 - Even though he publicly ended hostilities with St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, St. Louis County Council Chairman Steve Stenger still had to combat lingering effects of the war of words with the Democratic chief executive.

Soon after Dooley on Tuesday announced a budgetary accord, keeping a number of St. Louis County parks open, Moline Acres Alderwoman Shonte Young asked Stenger, D-Affton, to apologize for remarks he made on KMOX's Mark Reardon Show.

During a special budget committee hearing last Tuesday, Dooley contended that being the county council chairman did not make Stenger an expert on the budget. That led to a testy exchange between Stenger -- a certified public accountant and attorney -- and Dooley.

Reardon asked Stenger later in the week about Dooley's educational background specific to the budget. Stenger responded "I don't think there's an educational background. I think Charlie graduated from high school. I don't think he has any specialized training in accounting or anything like that." Dooley sent out a press release demanding an apology, something Stenger refused to do.

During the council's public comment period, Young said Stenger's comments on Dooley's educational background were "elitist, disrespectful and I believe an opportunity for you to take a personal shot at someone who's doing nothing but support you in your political endeavors."

"While a college education is a valuable asset, it is not a requirement to become an effective elected official," said Young, noting that the small municipality in northern St. Louis County is "led by a mayor who does not have a degree, but worked as a Teamster for 28 years."

In addition to offending her and Moline Acres Mayor Michelle DeShay, Young said Stenger's words were an affront to state Rep. Tommie Pierson, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors. She said Pierson -- who "picked cotton as a child in Tennessee" and does not have a college degree -- eventually went to work at General Motors, serve on the Riverview Gardens School Board, become a pastor and get elected as a state representative.

"Most of all, you have offended each and every person who has ever learned a trade rather than attend college -- such as my husband whose electrical skills help keeps the lights on," said Young, who then asked for Stenger to apologize.

Stenger -- who said that he has spoken with Dooley about the "words he and I have exchanged" -- told Young that both of his parents were high school graduates. He added that the controversy over the parks was a "hot debate," adding that the "radio talk show in question probably had some kind of an agenda going."

"As radio talks show hosts do, they want to gin it up," Stenger said. "He asked me what my experience was. He asked me what Charlie's background was, specifically he asked about background. I merely said what I knew."

Stenger then said he had "a lot of respect" for Dooley, adding he knew "of his background" and "his struggles to get where he is."

"And I can only imagine how proud he is of his accomplishments and deserves every bit of that pride," Stenger said. "And I can only say there are so many people like Charlie Dooley in my life that I am close to and I have such a great deal of respect for that have the very same educational level that he has. And I made no qualitative remarks ... it wasn't as if I said that he has a high school education and that's in some way not good enough. And I can only speak to you about my intention - it was not even implied. "

Stenger also alluded to Dooley senior aide Mike Jones' heated back-and-forth Monday with Reardon about whether questions over the county executive's educational background were racially motivated.

Stenger said it didn't occur to him that he would "touch that nerve" by answering Reardon's question.

"I can only say that I've spent my legal career working in the areas of civil justice and criminal justice," Stenger said. "I do some of what I do for free for those causes. And many of the people that I encounter and deal with on a daily basis are minorities. And I have the greatest respect for them. And as I said, I have the greatest respect for County Executive Dooley. I certainly meant no way to impugn any of that. And I certainly did not mean for my comments to have the effect that they've had on people."

Young then said "we all get softballs lobbed at us all the time." The question, Young said, is "do we swing at it?"

She said Reardon may have "baited" Stenger, "but at the end of the day as an elected official, I have to own the words that I say."

[During Jones' appearance on his show, Reardon said he "walked Stenger into that answer." Reardon said "there was sarcasm" in that approach to make a point about Dooley's initial criticism of Stenger. Reardon also said there were "no racial implications at all" to the question about Dooley's educational background.]

"So if my words are offensive, I've got to say I'm sorry," said Young, adding 'you said nine million words except I'm sorry.' "And that's the point I'm trying to say. An apology could have ended this a long time ago."

Replied Stenger: "I certainly did not mean to intend those remarks by any means to offend anyone. If anyone was offended by those remarks, I certainly do apologize for that. There's absolutely no doubt about that."

Stenger has been bandied about as a possible rival to Dooley's 2014 re-election plans. He was one of the fiercest critics of Dooley's plan earlier this year to raise property taxes for county employee pay increases.

Jason Rosenbaum, a freelance journalist in St. Louis, covers state and local government and politics.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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