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Love or war? Stenger faces crossroads as he heads toward second term

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger celebrated a narrow victory over Democrat Mark Mantovani.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger celebrated a narrow victory over Democrat Mark Mantovani.

At the end of a primary campaign that featured pointed attacks and biting television ads, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger used his victory speech to emphasize a need to come together.

Stenger barely held off businessman Mark Mantovani, who has yet to concede the race after falling about 1,100 votes short in Tuesday’s Democratic primary. It was a contentious and expensive affair that put Stenger’s dismal relationship with the St. Louis County Council in greater focus. He alluded to that seemingly endless acrimony near the tail end of his address.

“Unfortunately, my relationship with the council over the last several months has been confrontational and sometimes downright hostile. But I’m hoping now that the election is over we can all get back to work and continue moving St. Louis County forward,” Stenger said. “I also think it’s important as Democrats that we work together to bring our party together as we have a bigger battle we are going to face in just a few short months.”

Stenger was referring to the general election cycle, where Democrats will try to keep U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill in office. Stenger needs to defeat Republican Paul Berry III and several third-party candidates in November, but is favored in a county that leans Democratic.

But after losing Pat Dolan, his only reliable ally on the county council, Stenger may have to work with a group of council members who don’t like him — or face the possibility of getting steamrolled on some policies.

“He has to change,” said Councilwoman Hazel Erby, a University City Democrat who’s been a Stenger critic since the beginning of his county executive tenure. “It will not be business as usual.”

Council power

With elections looming, tensions continue between the St. Louis County Council and County Executive Stenger.
Credit File photo I Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Stenger has had a less than stellar relationship lately with St. Louis County Council. Starting next year, he'll have no reliable allies on the Council.

The county executive’s post is arguably the most powerful local government office in the state. That officeholder has wide latitude to set the budget, staffing and policy direction for Missouri’s largest county.

But there’s ample evidence that the county council is prepared to increase its power. It's likely that they’ll introduce charter amendments restricting a county executive’s ability to transfer money between departments. (A charter amendment to allow the council to add its own attorney appears to be in doubt. As of Thursday, it's down by three votes.)

Even if Stenger opposes efforts to bolster the council’s abilities, he won’t be able to use his veto to stop anything. Lisa Clancy’s ouster of Dolan means that Stenger won’t have any reliable friends on the council in the near future. The other six members have either quarreled with Stenger in the past or, in the case of 3rd District candidate Tim Fitch, have criticized many of his decisions.

“He’s got two options in front of him,” said Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin. “He can be the lone ranger going forward and make it him against us. Or, at this point, he can be conciliatory. He can be a leader. He can come up with some ideas and work in collaboration with the council — and we can get along quite well. But that hasn’t been the case for at least the last year to two years.”

Some of Clancy’s campaign involved criticizing Dolan for going along with many of Stenger’s decisions — even after 2017 when the county executive effectively lost control of the council. Back then, Stenger expressed optimism he could get along with new council members Rochelle Walton Gray and Ernie Trakas. That didn’t come to pass.

“There’s a lot of leverage now,” Clancy said the day after the primary. “The county council is in a really good place. And I think with me being added to it, I’m hoping that we can see a little bit more of a shift in terms of the types of things we’re willing to get done and how bold and big we’re willing to go. I definitely ran and am, to the core of my being, a progressive Democrat, which means I care about racial equity and I care about social justice.”

Clancy said it doesn’t serve county residents or Stenger to constantly spar with each other.

“I hope there can be a clean slate,” Clancy said. “Ultimately, this is about getting good things done for St. Louis County and for the whole region. I don’t see how that constant state of conflict with him would be a happy place for him. I hope we can figure it out.”

Post-election detente?

For his part, Stenger said early on Wednesday that much of the conflict recently with the council stemmed from the election. A similar dynamic occurred in 2014, when a council coalition aligned with Stenger fought publicly with then-St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley.

“I think that we’ll be able to move forward,” Stenger said. “There’s a natural tension between the legislative branch and executive branch. There always is going to be. You know, when you think about the presidents we’ve had of the United States and the governors we’ve had in the state of Missouri, there’s often tension.

“It’s natural — and in some cases it’s healthy,” he added. “I think in most cases it’s healthy. It’s something that we all have to get through. We all do need to work together and we need to work together to do the people’s business of St. Louis County. And I think they realize that as well, I think that’s what they hold most important as I do.”

Stenger noted that the council ended up passing a lot of his key priorities, including a sales tax increase that, among other things, brought more money to the St. Louis County Police Department.

“And there’s just also this day-to-day business we’re going to do in the county together,” he said. “So I think we have plenty of opportunities to work together. My door’s always open. I mean, I consider myself a very friendly person and am able to work well with others.”

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Follow Jo on Twitter: @jmannies

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