For Sam Page, Monday night marked a culmination of a long and at times frustrating political journey.
After an electoral career that featured bruising primaries and crushing defeats, Page completed his startling turnaround when he was picked to replace Steve Stenger as St. Louis County executive.
But there won’t be much time to bask in the moment.
Page will have the daunting task of restoring confidence after Stenger was indicted in a pay-to-play scheme. He’ll have to bring together factions on the county council and throughout St. Louis County. And he’ll have to provide a definitive stand on the Better Together proposal to merge St. Louis and St. Louis County, something that’s deeply unpopular among African American political leaders and may be crucial to whether he serves beyond 2020.
After his now-former colleagues on the council chose him as county executive through at least 2020, Page struck a conciliatory tone with the council — which bedeviled Stenger after 2017. As county executive, Page said, “I’ll treat this council with the respect that it deserves.”
“I want to assure everyone in St. Louis County from the very beginning that we will have absolutely no tolerance for pay-to-play politics,” Page said. “No tolerance. We strive to set a new standard for ethical government — and we will be open and transparent so you can hold us accountable.”
A historic day
Page’s sudden ascension to county executive came after one of the most extraordinary days in St. Louis County political history.
Several hours after a federal indictment accusing him of honest services bribery and mail fraud was publicly announced, Stenger resigned from office. The council later voted 5-1 to have Page serve as county executive for roughly a year and half.
Page served as a member of the Missouri House before narrowly losing a race in 2008 to Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder. He also decisively lost a Democratic primary for the state Senate before winning a county council seat in 2014.
For Stenger, the change in power Monday marked a complete reversal of fortune. If convicted, Stenger is facing up to 20 years in prison and $250,000 fine. He pleaded not guilty on Monday afternoon.
Stenger started off in a strong position when he was elected in 2014, having six out of seven council members aligned with him. That gave him the opportunity to put his stamp on county government, especially since the county executive’s office has tangible power over the budget and overseeing key departments.
By the end of his tenure, every single member of the council was considered a Stenger adversary — including Page. He had soured on Stenger after the 2016 election, and used his perch as county council chairman to question the administration’s ethics and priorities. Both Page and his colleagues accused him of being vindictive and transactional — pointing to county contracts that went to Stenger’s donors.
“It’s fair to say when the county executive was in office for the first year at least, I gave him the benefit of the doubt,” Page said late last year. “I accepted what his staff brought to me and what he had to say as reasonable. And when I heard some things that I didn’t like and saw some things that I didn’t like and saw some activities I didn’t like — then I stepped back and asked questions and was met with confrontation.”
Several people that ended up voting for Page on Monday cited his leadership as a rationale for making him county executive, including Councilman Ernie Trakas. The south St. Louis County Republican said county government needs a steady hand over what’s likely to be a chaotic few months.
“This is not a day for joy or celebration,” said Trakas, who feuded with Stenger over the past few years. “This is a day for somber reflection and prayer. This is never a good thing for government when this happens. That said, the county now has an opportunity to right the ship and steer it back toward what was intended from the start — which is accountable, transparent government.”
If what Page promised and what Trakas is hoping for may sound familiar, it’s because Stenger came into office promising to clean up county government.
His aggressive criticism of then-St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley for “corruption” is cited as one of the reasons for his 2014 victory. Dooley himself believed Stenger’s rhetoric about “corruption” within his administration was a racist dog whistle aimed at getting a majority white county to vote against him.
Some African American leaders, such as Jennings Councilman Terry Wilson, saw some irony into how Stenger came into office and how he’s leaving.
“You hate to kick a man while he’s down,” Wilson said. “But at the end of the day, what’s done in the dark comes to light. I think that light was shed this week and throughout the investigation.”
Page’s selection was not received universally well within the County Council chamber.
A number of African American municipal officials, including Wilson, wanted the council to pick Councilwoman Hazel Erby to replace Stenger. Unlike Page, Erby was a Stenger critic from start to finish — something she noted when talking with reporters on Monday.
“I fought this battle for 15 years now — and certainly in the last five years since Steve Stenger was here,” said Erby, D-University City. “And I’ve watched some of the same things that he was accused of today happening. I led the charge. So, yeah. I would have liked to [be county executive] for my community, for the citizens of St. Louis County.”
In a Facebook post, the Rev. Starsky Wilson said the council erred in choosing Page over Erby. The co-chairman of the Ferguson Commission and the president of the Deaconess Foundation said council members blew their opportunity to appoint St. Louis County’s first female countywide official.
“Both the Democratic and black political establishments in St. Louis have failed black women and black people again today,” Wilson said.
It’s not the black community that’s been critical of Page. Organized labor groups pillared Page last year for voting to remove an apprenticeship requirement for county construction contracts. Page said it would allow more women and minorities to vie for those opportunities.
There’s also a new political reality on the council. With Page stepping down from his council seat, there are now three Democrats and three Republicans on the council. And it’s not out of the question that the unity council members showed in opposition against Stenger fades away.
That could affect whether Page decides to serve beyond 2020. If he does pursue another two years in office, he may face strong opposition from established county politicians, such as St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman or a host of seasoned state legislators.
One politician who does have faith in Page is Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray. The Blackjack Democrat nominated Page for county executive during Monday’s meeting. And she says it may be better for county residents if he stood for election next year.
“The one thing about an incumbent, you learn about them and you learn where they stand on the issues — and how well they work with people,” said Walton Gray. “Stenger did not build relationships well with the council. And that’s what we have to build towards.”
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