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Government, Politics & Issues

Charlie Dooley likely to be the major issue in next year's county exec race

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 13, 2009 - Bill Corrigan, a Republican candidate for St. Louis County executive, held a news conference a few weeks ago to outline his proposed ethics policy and make veiled jabs at the man he hopes to oust next year: Democratic incumbent Charlie Dooley.

But in an age of instant reaction, it took the Dooley camp almost 24 hours to respond.

The delay wasn't prompted so much by his rival's jabs, a Dooley spokesman explained, but because Dooley isn't ready to launch his re-election campaign.

With more than a year to go before Election Day, campaign treasurer and manager John Temporiti said that Dooley would, ideally, prefer to wait until candidate filing ends in late March. Only then, Temporiti added, will Dooley know whether a challenger like Corrigan has company.

But lately, Dooley has been confronted with less-than-ideal public scrutiny of his administration and his allies, which may force him to reassess his own campaign timing:

  • Dooley's governmental lobbyist, Darin Cline, resigned a few weeks ago after acknowledging he was in serious tax trouble with the Internal Revenue Service.
  • Temporiti, former chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party and a former top Dooley aide, has drawn fire over his private lunches with two Democratic County Council members. Temporiti wanted to know why they had rejected a proposed county contract involving a firm that employs his son, and if the council members might change their minds if it came up again. (The two -- Democrats Barbara Fraser and Steve Stenger -- say their opposition remains.)
  • Controversy arose over a Saturday meeting of county department heads , all appointed by Dooley, held on Oct. 3 at a private law office. An initial media report -- which the executive denies -- said the department heads were to provide a list of firms that do business with the county for possible campaign donations.

Corrigan cited these incidents as he unveiled a lengthy voluntary ethics code that he said would be instituted should he win election. While emphasizing that he wasn't accusing Dooley of any wrongdoing, Corrigan said he found the various incidents troubling.
Said Missouri Republican Party spokesman Jonathon Prouty: "Dooley clearly has had some ethics issues over the last few years. Bill Corrigan is going to run as a reformer, and that message will resonate in the county."

Dooley, Temporiti and members of the county executive's staff say such attacks on his ethics are unfair and unfounded. They also contend that unflattering accounts of the above episodes by the press and GOP critics have been, as Temporiti put it, "inappropriate, inaccurate and taken out of context."

In the case of the Oct. 3 staff meeting, for example, Dooley said the fact that it involved only his political appointees on non-governmental property underscored the care he takes to keep policy and politics separate.

Dooley added that any assertion that the department heads were to provide lists of private businesses was absurd.

Aside from the impropriety of such a request, Dooley said that it also was ridiculous for anyone to suggest that -- after six years in the county's top office and two combative elections to hold onto it -- that he would need help in determining which business people might be amenable to donating to his next campaign.

"I already have a list," Dooley said with a chuckle. "At this point, I know who to contact to raise money."

In Cline's case, Dooley said the departure was amiable and had nothing to do with Cline's private tax problems. As for Temporiti, Dooley declined comment on the lunches, but says Temporiti acted properly in not telling the council of his son's involvement before the vote. If the council had known beforehand, Temporiti might have been accused of trying to influence their vote, the county executive explained.

But what has Dooley most upset are unsubstantiated rumors that parts of county government might be ensnared by the FBI's probes of public corruption that so far have prompted the guilty pleas of three area state legislators.

Dooley, Temporiti, chief of staff Mike Jones and at least four council members in both parties say they have not been contacted or interviewed by the FBI or any other law enforcement agency. And so far, no official or political figure has publicly asserted otherwise.

Dooley says he's offended that innuendo, with no evidence to back any of it up, would generate front-page news coverage.

"We try to be straight, so nonpolitical,'' Dooley said. "I think people expect us to be more political than we are. Or that we're hiding something."

But all the attention, even if some is negative, underscores two points on which Dooley, Democratic allies and Republican critics agree:

Next year's political battle for St. Louis County executive will likely be the second-biggest in the state, overshadowed only by the race for the U.S. Senate.

And the chief issue in the county contest will likely be Dooley.

THE ACCIDENTAL EXECUTIVE

County voters are likely to encounter Charlie Dooley, a gregarious figure, at almost any public event -- whether it's a massive labor rally this summer in favor of national health-care reform, a corporate news conference or last week's grand opening of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce's new technology center, where the county executive shared the stage with the state's top Republican, U.S. Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo.

"He goes out of his way to attend things. He's more actively engaged than passively engaged,'' said Tim Fischesser, executive director of the St. Louis County Municipal League, where Dooley has been active for decades. "He enjoys the public contact."

Dooley, 61, is a county native, growing up in a working-class family supported by his father's dual employment as a pastor and in maintenance at McDonnell Douglas Corp. The younger Dooley graduated from Wellston High School and served in the Army from 1965-68, including a two-year stint in Vietnam.

After his honorable discharge, Dooley joined his father at McDonnell Douglas Corp., now Boeing Co. Charlie Dooley worked there 30 years, much of it as a supervisor in micrographics. His long tenure and that of his father are among the reasons that Dooley is a regular at Boeing's various public events touting its products and lauding its workforce.

Dooley has been a public official even longer, beginning with his election in 1978 as an alderman in Northwoods. Five years later, he became Northwoods' mayor, a post he held for a decade.

During his mayoral stint, Dooley became active in a number of governmental groups, including the St. Louis County Municipal League. He was the league's president in 1994, when Dooley was elected to the St. Louis County Council -- the first African-American to win a seat on the seven-member board. He was re-elected to the council in 1998 and 2002.

Dooley lost a bid for Congress in 2000, when he sought to succeed veteran U.S. Rep. William Clay, who was retiring. The victor was the congressman's son, now-U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay Jr. Despite the combative contest, Dooley and the Clays now are allies.

Dooley's ascension to the county's top post was the result of a tragedy. He was sworn in temporarily as county executive on Oct. 14, 2003, following the illness of longtime County Executive George R. "Buzz" Westfall, a fellow Democrat and larger-than-life political figure who had contracted an infection while being treated for chronic back problems. Dooley was then permanently sworn in Nov. 4 after Westfall died.

Dooley was next in line because he was the council's senior Democrat.

Almost at once, the GOP had a political bead on Dooley. Republicans held a majority then on the County Council, and -- until Westfall -- had also controlled the county executive post for decades.

But the GOP failed to knock off Dooley in 2004, when he ran to fill out the rest of Westfall's term, and again in 2006, when Dooley won his first full four-year term by snagging two-thirds of the vote.

COUNTY'S POWERFUL POLITICAL FOOTPRINT

Dooley's successes in those countywide contests also have had broader political implications.

St. Louis County is the state's largest voting bloc, delivering between one-fifth to one-quarter of Missouri's overall vote in a typical statewide election. Once a GOP stronghold, the county's population and politics have shifted over the past 20 years, beginning with Westfall's takeover in 1990 as the county's first Democratic chief executive.

Since then, St. Louis County has increasingly trended Democratic, giving huge margins to Democratic candidates up and down the ticket. In 2006, for example, Democrat Claire McCaskill's statewide margin of victory for the U.S. Senate was almost identical to the edge she accumulated in St. Louis County.

Ken Warren, a political science professor at St. Louis University and a demographic expert, says the county's Democratic leanings will be hard for any Republican candidate to overcome.

Barring "a major scandal,'' Warren said, "There's no way Dooley can lose."

Warren says that heightened Republican activity in the county will largely be aimed at curbing Dooley's margin of victory, in hopes of aiding other Republicans on next year's ballot.

State Republican Party executive director Lloyd Smith recently told a West County GOP group that a major goal will be improving the party's performance in in St. Louis County. Smith added that he thought Corrigan, a successful lawyer and the son of a retired judge, was the right fit.

The state GOP is setting up a satellite office in St. Louis County shortly and will staff it full-time, said party spokesman Jonathon Prouty.

For his part, Corrigan emphasizes that his objective is not helping other Republican candidates or simply "making a good showing. I'm in it to win."

In both of Dooley's countywide wins, he was aided in part by a strong turnout in the county's central and northern townships, where Democrats are dominant. He's made a point of forging close ties to labor. The pictures filling his office wall document his close ties to national and regional Democrats, including St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay.

"They are extremely cordial, both personal and working,'' said Slay political consultant Richard Callow. "Dooley has been a fixture at the mayor's political events from the beginning. These are guys who like each other and talk to each other on the phone a lot."

Although Dooley does attract strong African-American support, race has played a marginal role in his two countywide victories. For one thing, minorities make up less than a quarter of the county's population.

In fact, Dooley rarely mentions that he's the first African-American to serve as St. Louis County executive.

Arguably a stronger factor in Dooley's success has been his prowess in fund raising. With the help of Temporiti and others in 2006, for example, Dooley amassed a daunting financial lead. Dooley raised $1.7 million. Republican opponent Joe Passanise, who found himself abandoned by party leaders, collected just under $20,000.

Political activists in both camps are eagerly awaiting the next round of campaign reports by Dooley and Corrigan, due Thursday.

Dooley credits his success -- in collecting donations and winning elections -- more to his emphasis on economic issues and the involvement of his office, his staff and the County Economic Council in like-minded groups like the St. Louis County Municipal League and the Regional Chamber and Growth Association.

COUNTY'S SPUTTERING ECONOMIC ENGINE

In every public appearance, Dooley promotes his quest for job creation and growth. He readily ticks off the expansions at such major county corporations as Pfizer, Edward Jones, Scottrade, Centene, Monsanto and Express Scripts.

But lately, the job news -- like the county's population numbers -- haven't been rosy.

The most recent census estimates indicate that St. Louis County will likely record its first population decline when the official once-every-10-year count is conducted next year. The county's population was 1.016 million in 2000, but official estimates projected a drop in 2008 to 991,830.

As of last December, St. Louis County was the home to more than 600,000 jobs. But the county has also lost more than 25,000 jobs in the last six years, in part because of such high-profile closures as the two Chrysler plants in Fenton.

Corrigan and Dooley disagree on who's to blame. Corrigan says Dooley hasn't done enough to promote job growth and promises to do more.

Dooley says he's doing all that's humanly possible.

But job numbers aren't the whole story, Dooley said. "I would hope people would look at the county as a whole," he said.

Dooley points to the county's AAA bond rating, its accredited health department and its police department, which is increasingly hired under local contracts to provide protection in many of the county's 90-plus municipalities.

"The things that made this county a great place are still in place," Dooley said.

He also cites the promise of 1,000 more jobs when the Pinnacle riverboat casino opens next year.

Fenton Mayor Dennis Hancock, who made an unsuccessful GOP bid for county executive in 2004, contends that Dooley offers more cheerleading than true leadership. In the case of the Chrysler closings, Hancock contends that Dooley "wasn't part of the conversation'' of what to do next, and instead delegated any reaction to his administration's Economic Council.

But others said that the Economic Council's activities are a prime example of Dooley's success. His top aide, Mike Jones, also has been heavily involved in the regional effort to persuade China to create a cargo-transportation hub at Lambert Field. Jones is chairman of the Midwest China Hub Commission.

"Governments don't make jobs. We work with business," Dooley said. "We create the environment to create jobs. That's our No. 1 priority."

Richard C. D. Fleming, president and chief executive of the Regional Chamber and Growth Association, emphasized that his group is taking no sides in the county executive contest. That said, Fleming praised Dooley as "a forceful voice'' on economic development issues, along with Slay and St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann, a Republican.

Business leaders particularly appreciate Dooley's candor, Fleming added. "He shows up at meetings, speaks his mind and works with his colleagues."

TRASH AND TAXES

Republicans believe that Dooley may be more vulnerable in next year's election because of two major controversies since he last faced county voters: taxes and trash.

For years, St. Louis County government has come under fire for its property reassessments, which are mandated by state law every two years.

County Councilman Greg Quinn, the council's senior Republican, is among the critics who contend that county assessment hikes often have been too high -- especially during the current economic downturn.

A key factor long has been the fact that the county's assessor is appointed, as are the assessors in the city of St. Louis and across the state in Kansas City and neighboring Jackson County.

Assessors in the rest of the state are elected, which critics say has led to unfairly low assessment rates outstate.

In his kickoff speech, Corrigan called for St. Louis County's assessor to be elected as well.

Dooley defends how the county has handled assessments but says he's open to the idea of an elected assessor, if that's what the voters desire.

Such a proposed change in the state constitution is slated to go before St. Louis County voters next year, after the Legislature acted last session to put it on county ballots. The proposal would not affect any of the other urban counties that have appointed assessors, which some legal experts say could touch off court cases if the St. Louis County measure is approved by voters.

The trash fight involves the County Council's move to divide the unincorporated parts of St. Louis County into trash collection districts. One waste hauler is awarded the contract in each district.

The change has touched off lawsuits and controversy, particularly in south St. Louis County. State Sen. Jim Lembke, R-Lemay, is among the Republicans involved and says the issue still resonates among South County voters angered over the county's mandate. But while the court fights continue, Dooley and Democratic allies on the council say that public unrest has eased as the new collection system has been instituted.

County Councilman Steve Stenger, whose district spans most of South County, said that he's seen a sharp decline in trash-related complaints in recent months.

Dooley contends that's due, in part, to the lower trash-collection bills that many county residents are now receiving under the new system. The average monthly bill is about $12, he said.

The new system includes collection of recyclables. In the past six years, said Dooley, the county's collection of recyclable material has tripled, which he says is easing the region's landfill crunch.

Still, Lembke predicts the issue will resurface , especially if one of the suits succeeds.

Dooley has been less visible when it comes to two other controversial issues already headed for the ballot:

  • A proposed countywide smoking ban for most indoor public places is slated to be considered by voters on Nov. 3.
  • A proposed transportation sales-tax increase to help fund Metro, the region's public-transit agency, is expected to go before county voters in April.

Dooley, a former smoker, says it's fitting that he leave it up to county voters to decide whether to approve or reject the smoking ban. He doesn't plan to get involved in the campaign.
But when it comes to Metro, Dooley said he strongly supports public transportation and that he hopes that voters recognize that some public subsidy will always be needed. "That's why it's called 'public transportation,' " Dooley said.

But he doesn't plan to take on a high-profile role on Metro's behalf because he fears it would hurt the agency more than help it.

"I support Metro but I think it needs to be a grassroots effort. The business community needs to be engaged in this,'' Dooley said. "I should not be the face of Metro. The community should be the face of Metro."

UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL

Republican critics also have aimed at Dooley himself. Last session, a GOP legislator from St. Charles County sponsored a provision that would have required that the St. Louis County executive would have to be someone with a college degree.

Because Dooley only has a high school diploma, the measure could have barred him from re-election.

However, that effort was killed at the behest of Republicans in St. Louis County, who viewed such a move as inappropriate.

Senior GOP councilman Quinn says that he and Dooley get along well personally, although Quinn says they disagree sharply on the role of the government. As an aside, Quinn added that he's also paying closer attention to contracts that come before the council as a result of the flap over Temporiti and his son.

St. Louis County Councilwoman Kathy Kelly Burkett, a longtime Dooley ally, praises his performance and sees his personal past as a benefit -- in politics and government. "He comes from middle-class working people," Burkett said. "He knows the workings of city and county government, and he genuinely cares."

Corrigan, a Chaminade graduate with a law degree from the University of Missouri at Columbia, has been pointing out lately that he worked summers at General Motors' old North Side auto manufacturing plant.

Dooley says he recognizes that education is important. But he adds that his career has largely been shaped by his working-class roots. "Life experiences mean a lot to a lot of people,'' he said.

Dooley declined, however, to compare or contrast his past to that of Corrigan. Dooley's campaign says it's still too early.

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