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With McCulloch at his side, Stenger kicks off campaign to oust Dooley

St. Louis County councilman Steve Stenger, left, shakes hands with St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch after announcing he is in the race for St. Louis county executive.
Bill Greenblatt | UPI | 2013
St. Louis County councilman Steve Stenger, left, shakes hands with St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch after announcing he is in the race for St. Louis county executive.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch isn’t running for county executive, but his words could have signaled otherwise Tuesday as he presented a scathing critique of County Executive Charlie Dooley, a fellow Democrat – and a call for him to be replaced by County Councilman Steve Stenger.

At Stenger’s rousing kickoff in Clayton, McCulloch blasted what he called “the total destruction of the reputation and integrity of county government’’ under Dooley’s watch.

McCulloch then listed a series of recent scandals besieging Dooley’s administration, and – in a ringing denunciation – hammered at Dooley’s public retort last week that “it is none of Bob McCulloch's business how this county is run.”

“It is my business how things are done in St. Louis County,” McCulloch said, touching off applause from the crowd packing a small ballroom in Clayton. “It’s your business how things are done in St. Louis County. It is the business of every man, woman and child who lives, works, plays, sleeps, eats... and dies in St. Louis County.”

McCulloch’s remarks arguably overshadowed those of Stenger, a Democrat from south St. Louis County who has made clear for more than a year that he was likely to challenge Dooley, who has been in office 10 years this month.

The contest’s stakes – and likely combativeness – will most likely make it the marquee race next year, regardless of whether Republicans find a well-known contender.

The crowd reflected the apparent gravity of the challenge to Dooley, a former county councilman who has held the top county post since then-County Executive George Westfall, also a Democrat, died in office in October 2003.

Besides McCulloch, the attendees included County Councilman Mike O'Mara, D-Florissant, and representatives from most of the region's labor groups, firefighters' groups and police associations.  Leaders of all said they were backing Stenger or, at minimum, no longer supporting Dooley.

Stenger, a certified public accountant and lawyer, declared that his first act, if elected to replace Dooley, will be to order a “top to bottom audit of St. Louis County government” and an equally thorough change of top county-government officials appointed and hired by Dooley.

"I'm going to choose a staff that's ethical,'' Stenger said. He also emphasized his indepth knowledge of the county budget

In his address, Stenger cited a series of disagreements with Dooley in recent years, going back to Dooley’s ill-fated effort to cut spending on St. Louis County’s expansive park system.

Stenger contended that many of the controversies -- including the scandal involving a top health department official who embezzled millions of dollars, then committed suicide -- reflected “misguided, unaccountable and really broken government.”

Stenger promised to be more of a hands-on chief executive, declaring, “We have to make county government better and smarter than ever before.”

Stenger, 41, has been on the County Council since 2009, including a stint as council chairman.  He grew up in Affton, attended Bishop DuBourg high school and graduated from the University of Missouri-St. Louis with a degree in accounting. His law degree is from St. Louis University. He is married.

O'Mara said his decision to side with Stenger reflected a number of recent differences with Dooley, but added that the last straw had been when  Dooley chose to lay off county parks employees, violating what O'Mara had said was "handshake agreement" to keep the department fully staffed.

(Councilman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights, told the Beacon Tuesday night he was also backing Stenger's bid against Dooley.)

McCulloch said in an interview that he was backing Stenger because he believed the councilman had the right skills and ethics for the job and shared the same commitment for improving St. Louis County and its government.

Stenger, in turn, said in an interview that he was particularly grateful for McCulloch's appearance and praised the prosecutor for his support. "I'm truly humbled,'' Stenger said.

Stenger puts in $100,000 of own money

Stenger’s chief job at the moment is to raise the money needed to compete against Dooley in the Democratic primary next August.

Stenger’s kickoff coincided with the filing of his latest campaign report, which showed that he had $492,637 in the bank. But that includes $100,000 of his own money that Stenger has lent his campaign.

Stenger's report showed that he raised $140,388 in the quarter, excluding a $100,000 personal loan. (The report lists an additional $100,000 in debt that those involved say represents a personal loan for Stenger's earlier campaign for county council. So his debt total is roughly $200,000.)

Stenger said in an interview that he’s prepared to put in more of his own money, if needed. But Stenger’s also banking on financial support from the various organizations and unions that showed up for Tuesday’s announcement, held at the Sheraton Clayton Plaza hotel.

His campaign report showed only a handful of donations from labor, totaling about $15,000, but union leaders said in interviews that far more will be forthcoming.

Dooley, meanwhile, reported $402,666 in the bank after raising $129,455 during the quarter. Dooley has no debts and no loans.

Dooley's campaign calls him 'proven winner'

In a statement, Dooley's campaign touted him as "a proven winner with a strong record of accomplishment and service to the citizens of St. Louis County."

"Counties across this country have been forced to file bankruptcy and are shouldering the loss of major economic engines, but St. Louis County is a bright exception to that," the statement continued. "Nothing about our strategy, our focus or our effort has changed."

Dooley's campaign added, "Despite efforts to reposition him and distort his record of accomplishment, fair-minded, forward-thinking county residents understand and support Charlie Dooley’s vision and will be with him as he continues to move this county forward."

Asked after Tuesday's council meeting about Stenger's decision to run for county executive, Dooley replied: "It's a free society. And anyone could run for office."

"There's no animosity; he's just been running for office for two years," he added.

When asked why voters should re-elect him, Dooley replied: "Let's wait until we get to that point. We're not there yet."

"Let's wait til we sign up and see who's he's running against," he said.

Jason Rosenbaum of the Beacon staff contributed information and videos for this article.

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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