Special elections Tuesday in two St. Louis County Council districts will be critical in steering key legislative priorities through the 2020 election cycle.
While former state Sen. Rita Days is widely expected to capture the 1st District seat, neither party is taking any chances in the race for the 2nd District. Democrat Kelli Dunaway and Republican Amy Poelker are making a hard push for the north St. Louis County district that will determine which party controls the council. Republicans now hold a 3-2 advantage.
Both Dunaway and Poelker say they can bring the right approach to a government still recovering from the disintegration of Steve Stenger’s county executive administration.
“I want to clear up the mess that was left behind by our last county executive,” Dunaway said. “And I want to help restore people’s faith in the county government.”
Poelker said: “The people are tired of what’s been going on in St. Louis County. They’re tired of not being able to believe in their government.”
Stenger’s downfall created the need for the Aug. 6 special elections in the council’s 1st and 2nd districts.
Sam Page vacated his 2nd District seat when he replaced Stenger as county executive. Hazel Erby resigned as 1st District councilwoman to take a post in Page’s administration to oversee county diversity efforts.
Days, a former state legislator who also served as the Democratic director for the county election board, is nearly assured to win over Republican Sarah Davoli in the heavily Democratic 1st District.
While the 2nd District is also Democratic-leaning, both parties believe that the race between Dunaway and Poelker is competitive — especially if turnout is lower than when the seat is usually up for grabs during a presidential election cycle.
Dunaway grew up in a small coal-mining town in southern Illinois. She earned a law degree from UCLA and is the director of learning and development for the Bryan Cave law firm.
She wants to make sure that the excesses of the Stenger era don’t happen again by putting safeguards in place against corruption — including an expanded open-records law. If she prevails, Democrats will retake control of the county council.
“I believe, for better or worse, Democrats are the party of the people,” Dunaway said. “And I think that we are more likely to vote for policies and laws and processes that are more inclusive of more people — and are doing more to take care of more people. And I think that the Republican Party typically wants to be more focused on economic and fiscal policy, and making sure that good law-abiding citizens have the freedoms that they want. And I think that’s a good mix. I really do. And I do want to work with Republicans and Democrats on the county council so we can find a place where we can meet in the middle.”
Poelker grew up in north St. Louis County and was a restaurant manager for Hardee’s and Wendy’s for 23 years. In addition to working as a day care operator, Poelker has served as a St. Ann alderwoman since 2011.
She said she’s managed to win re-election by listening closely to residents — including regularly knocking on doors in her ward even when she’s not running for re-election. Poelker wants to bring that experience and constituent service to county government.
“For me, it means that we’re going to be able to make some decisions, specifically economic decisions, that will hopefully turn the engine in St. Louis County around. I’m not saying either side is bad. But both sides have some things that they need to work out,” Poelker said. “And the trust issues are huge, and that’s got to turn around.”
Working with Page
Both candidates expressed a desire to work with Page, who has won praise from both parties for his tenure as county council chairman and his short stint so far as county executive. Dunaway said Page is “very smart, and he really does think through the consequences of his choices like two and three steps ahead.”
“And it is phenomenal to have somebody like that in my corner. He’s been very supportive of me. I’m very supportive of him. And I plan to be supportive of his agenda,” Dunaway said. “However, when the time comes that I disagree with him, he will know. I am not shy about that. And I feel very strongly that it is my job to do the right thing by my constituents — even if that hurts me politically or hurts my relationship with Dr. Page.”
Poelker ran against Page in 2016 — and only lost by roughly 10,000 votes despite being outspent and having less name recognition. But she emphasized that the contest was congenial, and added that success or failure of county government comes from working together.
“We have to be able to work together as a team in order to get all that stuff done — or nothing will get done at a county level,” Poelker said. “I respect him.”
Perhaps the first big issue Dunaway or Poelker may encounter is what to do with the county’s involvement with the Crossings at Northwest. Stenger was successful at moving county employees to what was formerly known as Northwest Plaza, but the council may void the lease amid questions about whether the decision was driven by campaign donations. The owners of the former mall, David and Robert Glarner, have been subpoenaed to appear before council members Tuesday but are fighting that move.
Both Dunaway and Poelker want to closely examine the contract the county signed. Dunaway said she wants to “analyze how that facility and how the jobs in that facility right now are impacting the local economic environment.”
“I am certainly not above voiding it out,” Dunaway said. “I think it’s really important that we are hitting corruption head on and undoing the damage. And if it turns out that Northwest Plaza is part of the damage that needs to be undone, I want to look very closely at that. But again, it has to be weighed with the value that it may be bringing the communities who work and live near the plaza.”
Poelker noted that most of the council signed off on the lease in 2016.
“So for them to come back a couple of years later and all of a sudden they’ve been duped?” Poelker said. “I don’t understand how that can happen. Was it because they didn’t read the contract and they were just believing in Stenger — so they were yes people like I said earlier? Or did they do the due diligence and just didn’t understand the contract when they read it?
“I’m going to have to look at the paperwork that [council members] have put together to see exactly where they’re at,” she added.
Dunaway has pledged to make racial equity a big part of how she votes on economic development opportunities. She added that “segregation is one of the biggest issues that impacts our region from being able to move forward and advance into a growing economy.”
“I just want to make sure that the decisions I make aren’t going to have a disparate impact on certain communities or come at the expense of certain opportunities for certain communities,” Dunaway said. “And I just want to see the economic prosperity that we experience in part of the district where I live expand to more of the district and to more of the communities that feel left behind.”
Poelker said a key to easing racial disparities is to place jobs closer to economically distressed areas. She adds that county and municipal leaders need to work more closely together to achieve that goal.
“If you put people in a position where there aren’t any jobs that they can get to, and if they’ve got to go 20 miles away to get a job and ride the bus to do it, and it takes two hours on a bus to get there — what are you going to expect to happen eventually?” Poelker said. “That’s five decades we’ve watched that happen, and nobody’s taken care of the problem. And it’s a problem that has to get taken care of.”
Beyond Better Together
Poelker has been speaking out against a potential merger between St. Louis and St. Louis County for years, including before the failed plan known as Better Together was put forward earlier this year. She said she doesn’t plan to stop her anti-merger advocacy if she joins the county council.
“I’m ecstatic that there’s a demise of Better Together — but don’t think they’re gone. Because they’re still in the background getting things done,” Poelker said. “It’s great that Better Together was defeated. It was a short defeat. It was just a battle. It wasn’t the war.”
Dunaway also is critical of the Better Together effort, calling it “a great example of the corruption and the backdoor dealmaking that people in St. Louis County are so sick to death of.”
She said she’s signed a petition to launch what’s known as the Board of Freeholders, a board that could produce a city-county merger plan for city and county voters to decide. Before it was scrapped earlier this year, organizers were seeking to put the Better Together proposal on the statewide ballot.
“I believe that this is a conversation that we need to be having as a region. We are pitting ourselves against one another. We’re getting in our own way of advancing our region on a larger economic scale,” Dunaway said.
No matter who wins on Tuesday, the St. Louis County Council will have a majority of women members for the first time since late 2010. The winner will have to stand for election again next year in order to secure a four-year term.
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