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Government, Politics & Issues
On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

On the trail: St. Louis County GOP could gain if Stenger prevails

Councilman Steve Stenger announces that he is challenging St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley in next August's Democratic primary.
Bill Greenblatt | UPI | 2013 photo
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This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 21, 2013: St. Louis County Councilman Greg Quinn isn't the most likely person to be enthused about a Democratic county executive.

But the Ballwin Republican couldn't help but express optimism about the prospect of fellow Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, upending incumbent St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley.

“I think he’d do a very good job as county executive,” Quinn said. “And I think he would get right to work at fixing what’s broken in St. Louis County.”

As the most senior member of the St. Louis County Council, Quinn was in office when the GOP controlled the seven-member body. But as the county gravitated more to the Democrats, Republicans lost members -- and clout -- on the council.

The two Republicans who remain on the council -- Quinn and Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, R-Town and Country -- haven't always voted with Stenger on contentious policy issues. But the pair's influence could expand if Stenger ends up winning the county executive's office.

That's because the Republican members of the council have joined with Stenger and his two Democratic supporters – Councilmen Mike O’Mara, D-Florissant, and Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights – to oppose Dooley on budgetary and administrative matters.

(Quinn and Wasinger are up for re-election next year, but reside in heavily Republican districts.)

The Wasinger-Quinn-Dolan-O’Mara coalition could benefit Stenger’s ability to get things done if he becomes county executive, especially since only four votes are needed to pass things through the council. The other two Democratic members of the council – Councilwomen Kathleen Burkett, D-Overland, and Hazel Erby, D-University City – are generally closer to Dooley.

In recent weeks, Wasinger and Quinn helped delay businessman Dave Spence's nomination to the county police board. And they were instrumental in scuttling a marketing contract for the county parks department; they were also key to forcing Dooley to reverse course on a 2011 county budget that initially closed county parks. Without their support, there wouldn't have been enough votes to prompt Dooley to come up with a revised proposal.

For Quinn, a Stenger administration could be especially helpful for revising how the county handles contracts. Quinn is sometimes the lone dissenting vote when county contracts come up for votes.

“I don’t like no bid contracts, and I think our procurement process is broken," said Quinn. "I’d welcome someone that would get in there and really take care of that.”

To be sure, Wasinger and Quinn have parted ways with Stenger on some high-profile votes. They opposed bills setting up a foreclosure mediation ordinance, extending the county's non-discrimination laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity, and merging the city's and county's economic development agencies. Stenger voted yes on all of those issues.

Still, Stenger told the Beacon that he's worked well with Quinn and Wasinger. He added “The relationships that I have on the council and that I’ve fostered on the council and that I have established on the council will remain when I’m county executive.

“Those relationships aren’t going to change in any negative fashion, that’s for sure,” he said. “I think they’ll only change in the positive.”

Besides, Quinn and Wasinger are “the kind of people that are really wanting to work with others,” said Stenger.  “If I were county executive, I think it would only really enhance the bipartisanship because I would be looking to reach out to both sides of the aisle.”

There could be another reason Republicans might look favorably on Stenger as county executive. If Stenger wins over Dooley in the primary and then prevails in the general election, the GOP has a chance to take over his council seat once it’s up for a special election.

That's because the south St. Louis County-based 6th District is split somewhat evenly between Republicans and Democrats. Republicans could put forth a strong contender -- such as former state Sen. Jim Lembke, R-Lemay, or another GOPer with state legislative experience. That would give the party a chance to increase its numbers on the council for the first time in years.

Mayhem ahead?

Of course, Stenger is hardly a shoo-in. Dooley has won three countywide elections and could emerge in August as the Democratic nominee again.

And that may be why Wasinger is cautious. The two-term councilwoman said she wouldn't be "taking sides" in the battle between Stenger and Dooley.

“Of course, Stenger officially announced just [on Tuesday] and I certainly don’t want to pick sides,” said Wasinger. “I have to work with both of them. Whoever ends up winning, hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to work with them to continue to improve county government.”

Both O’Mara and Quinn predicted some pointed clashes between Dooley and Stenger in the next 10 months, similar to the 2011 budget process. But both added that the normal business of the council would likely continue without interruption.

“It’s going to be interesting and challenging,” Quinn said. “I think everybody on the council will do their jobs and do what they’re elected to do. I think there’s been actually a good working relationship over really the last couple of years. So I think that will continue.”

Added Wasinger: “I don’t it will effect the day-to-day operations necessarily.”

“There have been issues in the past where Councilman Stenger and County Executive Dooley didn’t agree,” Wasinger said. “And we managed to trudge through and come up with a reasonable solution.”

Dooley himself said on Tuesday that he expects the council to behave professionally over the next 10 months.

“It won’t do anything,” said Dooley, when asked whether Stenger’s announcement and O’Mara's and Dolan’s support will affect council proceedings. “We’ve got work to do in this county. And each person is responsible for his own actions and to their constituency in their particular jurisdiction. But they also have a responsibility to the entire county. And that’s what we need to move forward.”

Destination unknown

One unresolved – but salient – question is whether the GOP will field a credible county executive candidate.

While the county leans Democratic, Republican Bill Corrigan ran relatively well against Dooley, who didn’t have a primary and had more financial resources. The Democratic nominee could exhaust his financial resources in getting through a primary – which could provide opportunity for the GOP.

That may be why state Auditor Tom Schweich – a Clayton native – named the county executive’s contest as one Republicans should focus on next year.

So far, the only GOP candidate that’s made any official moves is Tony Pousosa. The Green Park alderman – who lost decisively to Stenger last year – filed papers with the Missouri Ethics Commission to raise money for a county executive bid. Other potentially strong Republican contenders – such as Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale – have publicly taken a pass on the race.

Wasinger said, “I think it will remain to be seen if anybody’s going to jump out there.”

If Republicans don't have a competitive primary, GOP voters could take Democratic ballots – which could help Stenger.

Asked about that prospect, Stenger replied: “I leave that up to the statisticians that are going to be working on the campaign. But I certainly have a universal message that applies to everyone in the county – really regardless of party and party affiliation.

“I will accept, of course, as many votes from as many Republicans that want to cross over and I welcome them to do that,” he added. “What we’re talking about is good county government. It doesn’t have a party."

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

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