Page touts record, Dueker change in Democratic primary for county executive
By his own admission, Sam Page enjoyed a relatively lengthy honeymoon when he was elevated to St. Louis County executive in 2019 after the resignation of Steve Stenger.
About a year later, he handily won a four-way Democratic primary in his bid to finish out the remainder of Stenger’s term. But shortly after that 9 percentage-point victory, a series of storms began to buffet Page's administration, including turmoil at the county jail and his dismissal of former St. Louis County Councilwoman Hazel Erby from an administrative post.
Other issues, and Page’s handling of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, spurred Jane Dueker, a longtime Democratic strategist and lobbyist and ally of Stenger, to become a political candidate for the first time.
“Frankly, I just thought things were going in the wrong direction,” Dueker said. “And I said, ‘You know what, I am totally qualified for this, and I need to step up.’”
Dueker filed for office on the last possible day, March 29. She’s campaigning on a platform of government competence and change.
The county is facing numerous lawsuits alleging discrimination. Nine inmates have died at the county jail since 2019. A top aide to Page, Cal Harris, left his position after a video surfaced of him involved in a sex act on county property. Another aide, Anthony Weaver, faces federal corruption charges in what an indictment calls a scheme involving federal coronavirus relief funds, though he was working for a county councilwoman at the time.
Page argued he acted quickly when he became aware of the scandals. He fired Weaver as soon as he learned of the indictment and would have fired Harris had he not resigned.
And despite appearances, he said, the county has been productive, pointing to its annual report.
“There’s a really extensive list of accomplishments that really haven't attracted much attention because there wasn't conflict around them,” he said.
Handling the pandemic
The most contentious, and long-running, battle has been over Page’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. It began in April 2020 when he pushed the council to give him the authority to spend the first round of federal coronavirus relief funds and continued on through debates over mask and vaccine mandates.
Opposition to his pandemic policies often came from within his own party on the council, where Democrats hold a 4-3 majority. But Page blames the tight partisan divide for the nastiness.
“This became partisan from the presidency to state governments all over America, and it played out in a partisan way in St. Louis County,” he said. “You saw the partisan amplification.”
Dueker says Page often went too far.
“He used an ax when he could have used a scalpel,” she said, pointing to the November 2020 capacity restrictions that went beyond what the City of St. Louis imposed.
“And he came out and bragged that he had the most restrictions in the United States. He politicized the pandemic,” she said.
Dueker is not an anti-vaxxer and did not agree with the misinformation spewed by some anti-mask commenters at public meetings, comments that got council meetings pulled from YouTube. Her opposition to the public health orders was on policy grounds.
“You have to go to the council,” she said. “You cannot pretend that they were not part of this.”
The two candidates also differ on how the county should spend the remaining $70 million it has left from the American Rescue Plan Act.
Page has already supported using some of the money to plug budget holes, and he’s not opposed to doing that again.
“I think we should hold some of them back in reserve and see what next year brings,” he said.
The county has been spending above its revenue for a while, Page said, which is why he has been delaying hires and upgrading technology, some of which was purchased with earlier rounds of federal relief. That will eventually lead to savings, he said.
“What happens when the money runs out?” Dueker asked. “There’s no plan. There has to be a restructuring of government, and we're going to have to make some tough decisions.”
She’d rather spend the money on the county’s infrastructure needs and projects where matching dollars might be available.
Dueker is also critical of what she sees as a lack of a plan to fight violent crime in the county, a topic she’s made central to some campaign ads.
Page counters that he’ll continue to follow the recommendations made in a report by the consulting group Teneo – among them was a recommendation to develop a comprehensive plan to fight crime – and in a strategy developed by the Missouri Chamber of Commerce.
"We have a very good county police department, we always have, but we know that we can make it better,” he said. “And we're going to do that.”
Path to November
With a one-on-one race this time around, Page plans to rely on traditional Democratic primary voters to give him the margin of victory. He said he’s stronger than Dueker on the issues that matter to those voters.
“Support for working families, support for abortion rights, a track record of support for environmental and conservation issues, support for public safety,” he said. “I think that’s a big difference in this race."
Dueker, meanwhile, has the backing of both the Fannie Lou Hamer coalition and the St. Louis County Police Officers Association. She’s counting on that unusual combination of endorsements to help her secure a place in the general election.
Whoever wins will likely face Republican state Rep. Shamed Dogan in November. The polls open at 6 a.m. Tuesday.
Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann