After Tough Primary Win, Sam Page Encounters Confluence Of Conflict
Last month when the minutes were running out on Missouri’s primary night, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page fired up Facebook Live.
With his wife, Jennifer, by his side, Page declared victory in a contentious Democratic primary in which his leadership of the state’s largest county was sharply questioned. Page, who has spent roughly two decades navigating local, state and county politics, said he was ready to move forward.
“For my part, I can say that the campaign battles are all finished and the punches are all thrown and forgotten,” Page said. “All differences are put aside so we can work through a pandemic and an economic recovery leaving no one behind.”
In some respects, Page’s sentiments on election night turned out to be wishful thinking.
Since his win, he’s faced conflict and controversy — some of which could showcase weaknesses that might affect his future political prospects. He could also face more pushback from the St. Louis County Council, a scenario that bedeviled some of his county executive predecessors.
“I think any administration has to work with the council,” said Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin. “You only get your way so far, and for so long. And then after a while, you're going to hit a brick wall. And I think Page is approaching that brick wall with us.”
And the difficulties aren’t likely to go away anytime soon, especially since the county budget is expected to be tight because of COVID-19’s impact on revenue.
Since Page’s Aug. 4 Democratic primary win over three challengers, there’s been no respite from dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. That includes Page expanding the county’s mask mandate to include most children over the age of 5 — and a requirement that businesses refuse service to people who don’t wear a mask.
“And right now, we’re focused on working with our superintendents and school districts to find the best pathway for young grade school-age kids to get back into the classroom setting,” Page said this week. “So we’re reviewing the data and having discussions about what that timeline might look like, but we don’t have that timeline established yet.”
Soon after that order, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on a draft audit that, among other things, claimed Page didn’t do enough to hamper then-St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger’s corruption when Page was on the council. It also criticized County Auditor Mark Tucker for inactivity, which was a common criticism from Stenger when he was in power.
Page said county government will respond when the final audit is released.
“We’ll be reviewing those recommendations and responding to them like a typical process in an audit,” Page said. “I’m grateful for that review, and I’m grateful for those recommendations. We’ll adjust how we operate in county government whenever it’s necessary.”
There was also the surprise resignation of Raul Banasco, who oversaw the county jail. His departure came amid accusations from staff that he fostered a hostile work environment — and counterclaims that he was facing fierce resistance to enact change.
During a committee hearing this week, members of the county council backed calls by an independent advisory board for an outside investigation.
“I do believe that we need to make some changes,” said Councilwoman Kelli Dunaway, a Chesterfield Democrat who has supported Page. “We need to innovate, we need to upgrade. And people who are going to resist change, we have to figure out a way to support them through the change.”
Erby dismissal strikes nerve
Banasco is not the only notable departure from Page’s administration. The county executive set off a firestorm when he dismissed Hazel Erby, a former county councilwoman who ran the county’s diversity efforts.
Erby says there was tension with Page over funding her department, as well as her refusal to outwardly support his reelection effort. The Post-Dispatch also reported there was, among other things, disagreement about Erby’s role and responsibility in county government.
In an interview with St. Louis Public Radio after she was dismissed, Erby pointed to a situation where one of Page’s rivals, St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman, produced an ad that claimed she should have been appointed county executive.
“He (Page) wanted me to write a statement saying, ‘I support him, he supports me, we worked very well together,’” Erby said. “And I told him I had to think about that. And then I sent him a message saying, ‘You know I thought about that, and when I think about that it would not be true.’”
Asked about those comments last month, Page said he wasn’t going to get into a back and forth with Erby — and added he had confidence that her replacement, Kenny Murdock, would do a fine job.
Still, Councilwoman Rita Days said this episode touched a nerve with people around the county who respected Erby’s public service. And Days said Page has a lot of work to do to forge trust.
“If I looked at those numbers, he had 38% of the votes,” Days, D-Bel Nor, said about the primary vote. “That's not a clear majority of anything or anybody, Black and white.”
While Page prevailed in most areas of the county, Zimmerman won a number of townships with Black majorities. That came after several Black municipal officials criticized his COVID-19 response in north St. Louis County — and also lambasted County Police Chief Mary Barton, who was selected by a police board filled with Page appointees, for her comments on racism.
Bridge building ahead?
Mike Jones, a former county official and longtime observer of regional politics, said white Democrats like Page have long struggled to foster equitable political relationships with Black county leaders.
“And it’s going to take a level of political skill on his part to actually manage himself to a better place,” said Jones, who was neutral in the Democratic county executive contest.
Page also could face challenges on the legislative front. With the defeat of Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray, a Page ally, and the fact that Days may not be a reliable vote for his agenda, Page could encounter the type of legislative turbulence that weakened both Stenger and Charlie Dooley’s county executive tenures.
“The most important part of the success of any elected executive official is their ability to manage successfully their relationship with the legislative body, whether it's the Congress, the state legislature, or your county council,” Jones said. “We now have a couple of generations of local and nationally elected executives, who've been trained in the business CEO model. And that and five dollars will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks.”
In response to a question about whether his administration needed to build bridges with Black county residents, Page replied, “There’s a lot of work to do with race relations in our community, and I’ve been out front in that and will continue to do so.”
“And I think we’ve all got a lot of work to do,” Page said. “Not just my administration, but our whole community. We all have to address these questions of equity and inclusion within our community. We have to get resources to where they’re needed the most.”
Page still has a general election contest ahead against Republican Paul Berry III. While the county is Democratic leaning, a closer-than-expected result could signify that Page has to continue to repair his political stock.
“What I see happening is there is a groundswell of people that are not voting based on what their party is telling them to vote for,” Berry said. “When you see protests at Lyda Krewson’s house, those aren’t Republicans that are going down in protesting. There’s dissension in the Democratic Party.”
Dunaway said Page and her fellow county council members have a lot of tough work ahead in bringing COVID-19 under control and dealing with the virus’ impact on the county budget.
“I think we also need to be really smart and innovative about how we look at the way we deliver government services going forward,” Dunaway said.
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum