Updated at 10:50 p.m., Aug. 6 with comment from Rita Days and Kelli Dunaway —
Two Democrats captured vacant St. Louis County Council seats Tuesday, giving their party control of the governing body that was shaken up by Steve Stenger’s resignation as county executive.
Former state Sen. Rita Heard Days easily won the race in the heavily Democratic 1st District, which takes in parts of central and northern St. Louis County — including Ferguson and University City. Days beat Republican Sarah Davoli with 84% of the vote.
In the 2nd District, which includes municipalities like Maryland Heights, Hazelwood, St. Ann, Chesterfield and Creve Coeur, Democrat Kelli Dunaway bested Republican Amy Poelker with nearly 60% of the vote.
In addition to Democratic control, the wins mean the county council has a majority of women members for the first time since the end of 2010.
Stenger’s fall contributed to the two special elections. The 2nd District seat became open when Sam Page took Stenger’s place as county executive. And Hazel Erby resigned from her 1st District seat to lead diversity efforts in Page’s administration.
Dunaway will fill out a little more than a year of Page’s term in the 2nd District. She will have to run for election next year if she wants to serve a full four-year term.
“I’m just so relieved I could deliver the victory for Democrats tonight,” Dunaway said. “I’m excited about the future of our county. And I’m really looking forward to what is going to come after tonight.”
Dunaway is the director of learning and development for the Bryan Cave law firm. She had briefly run for the 2nd Congressional District seat, but ended up dropping out to support eventual Democratic nominee Cort VanOstran.
During the truncated campaign for county council, Dunaway promised to restore faith in a county government rocked by Stenger’s guilty plea on pay-to-play charges. She also pledged to make economic development decisions with racial equity in mind, citing racial segregation as a major impediment to regional growth.
“I would like to believe, and I have a great hope, that no matter how progressive or conservative each member of the county council is that we will be able to find a place where we agree and start from that point in working together,” Dunaway said.
When she takes office, Dunaway could have to make a decision on whether to void a lease St. Louis County signed with the owners of the Crossings at Northwest in St. Ann. Stenger moved a number of county services to the former mall, but some council members are looking into whether campaign contributions contributed to the decision.
While the 2nd District is Democratic-leaning, members of both political parties felt the Dunaway-Poelker race would be competitive. Poelker won numerous elections as an alderwoman in traditionally Democratic St. Ann. And she gained fans for her advocacy against a merger between St. Louis and St. Louis County.
Days returns to legislative fold
Days will serve the rest of Erby’s term, which runs through 2022.
Days is a former state senator and representative. And she also was the Democratic director for the St. Louis County Board of Elections from 2011 to 2015. In addition to her county and state service, Days was a member of the Normandy School Board.
“It is about service. I am a public servant,” Days told a crowd at her victory party that included Erby, former county executive Charlie Dooley, county prosecutor Wesley Bell and numerous other state and local elected officials. “It is not about me. It’s not about what I can do for myself. It is about what is best for the people of the First County Council District. And when you put that in front of everything else, it all falls into place. You don’t have to worry about anything else, because you will have the interest and the spirit of the people at heart.”
Days developed an extensive legislative track record in Jefferson City, serving in House leadership when Democrats had control. She served in the Senate during a time when the margins between the two parties were closer than they are today, and often was a key figure in opposing the GOP majority’s policies.
In some respects, Days’ return to county government marks the further erasure of Stenger’s political legacy. In 2015, Days says Stenger was behind her ouster from the elections board. That move angered some of the region’s African American leaders, many of whom had opposed Stenger’s election even after he won the Democratic primary.
Days is also a longtime ally of former county executive Charlie Dooley, whom Stenger defeated in a bruising August 2014 Democratic primary. Dooley served as treasurer of Days’ campaign committee for the council.
With Days and Dunaway winning, the Democratic majority now has the numbers to push through agenda items that may not have passed under GOP rule. That includes a measure that bars landlords in unincorporated parts of the county from rejecting tenants based on their source of income — such as Section 8 housing vouchers.
But unlike the state Legislature or Congress, party affiliation tends to matter less in county politics — as Republicans and Democrats worked closely together through part of Stenger’s administration. Council presiding officer Ernie Trakas, a Republican from south St. Louis County, has been complimentary of Page’s leadership as county executive.
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