Democratic candidate for St. Louis County executive Mark Mantovani is a former businessman turned politician. His name will appear next to incumbent County Executive Steve Stenger’s on the Aug. 7 ballot for Missouri voters.
On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, Mantovani joined host Don Marsh, St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jo Mannies and listeners to discuss his campaign for county executive.
Marsh: This campaign has been called raucous and vitriolic. How well served is the voting public by a campaign like that?
Mantovani: Frankly I’d prefer a campaign that focused on issues exclusively, to tell you the truth. Not having been in politics my whole life, [I] don’t particularly enjoy the negative discussion of one’s opponent and the like. I think if anybody’s looked at this campaign fairly, they’d have to acknowledge that there has been more attacks of me than the other way around. Be that as it may, the political consultants tell me the public always complains about negative ads, and negative ads continue to be effective. And so, at the end of the day, I think the voters will – not in this election, but generally speaking – will have to decide if they start punishing people who run negative ads or not. I don’t enjoy it. It is unpleasant and I think a waste of time and money, but it is influential relative to outcomes.
Marsh: Part of your history also includes support for our former governor, Eric Greitens, and much is being made of that. I think you’re on record as having said that that was a mistake. How do you assure voters that you don’t make that kind of mistake when it comes to dealing with appointees and what have you in the future?
Mantovani: If there’s anyone who’s running for this office who hasn’t made a mistake, they would get my support … How do I assure people? Well first of all, I have acknowledged that I was seeking a transformative leader for our state. In my opinion, the state of Missouri has languished for decades. It feels to me like we’re 40th or 41st in about everything. And I believed that Eric Greitens had the potential to be a transformative leader. His resume suggested as much … I made this mistake with a million and four thousand others. But practically speaking, I was very attracted to not so much his military career, but to his Rhodes Scholar designation, the fact that he’d been a New York Times best-selling author, that he had done humanitarian work with Mother Teresa and formed The Mission Continues. I was impressed by that stuff. And I attributed his move to the right over the years that I followed him to the fact that he was running for governor in a red state and kind of political reality indicated he had to move more and more to the right. Where I really jumped off the bandwagon was after he won [the] election and he continued to move to the right, which was inexplicable to me. When he started cutting education funding, I was totally off the bandwagon because again, this is one of the things in the state of Missouri that we should be investing in at a higher level, not at a lower level.
Mannies: In the case of the $20,000 to Greitens, there’s also the fact that you’ve given money to other Republicans, either running for president, or whatever. Now you’ve also pointed out that you gave money to Hillary Clinton when she ran for president ... I guess the thing is I’ve been getting emails from people who say ‘How do we know for sure this guy is a Democrat?’
Mantovani: First of all, if you look at my campaign contribution history, there are many times more contributions to Democrats than Republicans … Obviously, people who don’t know me have this question. If you look at the way this campaign has developed, five of the seven Democratic townships in St. Louis County who have looked both at Steve Stenger and myself have endorsed me. That’s five of seven Democratic townships. Three of the four Democratic council people have endorsed me – not Steve Stenger. I think my Democratic credentials by people who have gotten to know me and have listened to me are much more solid than my opponent’s and that is certainly reflected in the nature of the endorsements coming from the Democratic Party … I think you have to look at my policies, what I’ve suggested, what my views are, in order to get a fair reading of those things.
Mannies: Now one of the biggest questions about you has been the fact that this is your first bid for public office … Since you haven’t been in county government, even as a councilman, how would you deal with what you don’t know?
Mantovani: Well here’s the deal, you’ve got two candidates. So we have to compare the levels of experience of the two candidates that are in this election. In my case, I have run an organization with hundreds and hundreds of employees. To the best of my knowledge, before Steve Stenger became county executive, he had never run an organization of more than 10. My ability to deal with people from all different parts of the community I think is superior by virtue of that experience. In addition, because Trump and Greitens are fresh in our mind, we have a tendency to think that people who are new to politics may not be successful. There are cases on both sides of that outcome … The other thing that I would add, and academics don’t necessarily mean anything, but with respect to understanding the way government works, I spent a year at the Harvard Kennedy School of [Government] in 2016 focused on state and local government issues, which by the way, President Trump never did. And I don’t believe Eric Greitens ever did. And so, I think I came away with a much better handle on the distinctions between running a government and running a business than they did. These are very different functions … At their core, however, they both have an important aspect of leadership. The first thing we need in this community – and I’ve heard this for decades – the first thing we need in this community is some leadership. Leadership requires people with the right attitudes, people who accept responsibilities, people who can communicate, people who express a vision. That is, in my view, what this community needs more than anything, and I think if you listen to me, and you listen to the incumbent or watch his performance over the last four years, you’ll come to the right answer.
Kyle, a listener who chimed in to the conversation with a tweet:
Why would Mark think Greitens was only moving to the right for “show?” He told us he would pass Right to Work and do other very conservative things. How can I trust that you didn’t want those things, like RTW?
— Kyle G. (@tippy1408) August 2, 2018
Mantovani: Well, first of all, because I’m telling you I don’t want right to work. I’ve spoken on this issue a hundred times. Right to work at this point in our economic history is exactly the wrong position. Our middle class is being decimated. Why we would emaciate the power of labor unions at a point in time when we are polarized relative to economic disparity is beyond me. What we need to do is empower people to have higher wages, and that is exactly the opposite of the right to work movement is all about. I think the decline of the middle class is one of the preeminent issues of our time. And so consequently, I don’t think right to work is appropriate. With respect to Greitens and that particular issue, I think it’s important to recognize two things about that election: First of all, Greitens was a Republican who had previously been a Democrat. He was running against a Democrat who had previously run as a Republican. Both of these guys had confused pasts relative to where they came from. When I first met Eric Greitens, he had been recruited by Barack Obama to run for Congress. His history was that he was moving from left to moderate to right. And where somebody got on the bandwagon, I think colors that a little bit. But as a practical matter, both of those people were engaged in some kind of transition relative to their views. And another thing I want to say about this is I believe people who have the confidence to evolve in their thinking should be commended for that. The fact is that I don’t think the same way about every issue that I did 10 years ago or five years ago. I’m on a journey in my life to try to help other people. And as I’ve evolved over these years, some of my views have changed. If that makes me unqualified to serve, then find somebody who still thinks the way they did as a 20-year-old and put them in office, because that’s not me.
Listen to the full conversation:
Producer’s note: Stenger will be a guest on St. Louis on the Air on Friday.
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer, Evie Hemphill and Caitlin Lally give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.