There typically aren’t many high-profile or high-stakes elections for St. Louis County government in odd-number years.
But with two resignations for the St. Louis County Council, 2019 is proving to be an exception.
Voters will have a chance on Aug. 6 to shape the legislative body that’s proven vital for a county executive’s success. It will also be an opportunity for Democrats to retake control of the council in a county that’s become less favorable to Republican candidates in recent years.
“I think we have a really uniquely qualified council that is used to working together in a bipartisan way,” St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, a Democrat, said soon after he took office. “And even when they disagree, I expect they will be professional and be able to move on to the next issue.”
Fixing the holes
The two vacancies on the county council are directly linked to former County Executive Steve Stenger’s downfall. The 2nd District became vacant after the council selected Page to replace Stenger, who resigned while facing public corruption charges.
And Page eventually brought 1st District Councilwoman Hazel Erby into his administration to lead county diversity efforts.
There’s not much suspense in which party will win in the 1st District, which is heavily Democratic. A number of candidates are seeking to represent the majority-African American district, including former state Sen. Rita Days, former state Rep. Clem Smith and University City Township Committeeman James Cotter. Republicans selected Sarah Davoli to run for that seat.
The dynamics aren’t quite the same in the 2nd District, which is also a heavily Democratic seat.
That’s because Democratic nominee Kelli Dunaway is running against two potentially formidable candidates. Creve Coeur Mayor Barry Glantz is running as an independent, and has name recognition and financial resources to be competitive. And the Republican nominee, St. Ann Alderwoman Amy Poelker, ran a strong campaign against Page in 2016 — even though she had less money and name recognition than Page.
“As a Republican candidate, I can say I’m pretty much a moderate,” Poelker said. “And I base my decisions on common sense that will work as a goal of fixing the entire county.”
Hazelwood Mayor Matt Robinson also says Democrats need to work hard because of what will likely be less-than-optimal turnout.
“Certainly it’s an off year. You don’t have the state elections or federal elections that we normally do every two years,” Robinson said. “So this is going to be a very low voter turnout. Even though it’s a Democratic-weighted district, that’s going to be the trick to get the Democrats out to vote.”
Democrats will gather soon to pick the 1st District nominee. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported there’s a dispute over when to hold the meeting — either Saturday or June 20 — and who will run it.
There wasn’t a struggle about the date to choose the 2nd District nominee. Last weekend, committee members selected Dunaway over four other candidates.
Dunaway, a Chesterfield Democrat who is the director of learning and development at the Bryan Cave law firm, said she’s hoping to generate a lot of excitement to make sure the district stays in Democratic hands.
She said she wants “to make sure that people who are supporters of me and supporters of Democrats more broadly are going to show up and help us get the vote out.”
“I’m going to be working my tail off,” Dunaway said. “We’re going to be knocking some doors. We’re going to be raising some money. We’re going to be doing the best we can to generate enthusiasm at every level we can.”
Unlike primaries where voters end up choosing Republican or Democratic nominees, members of party committees choose candidates whenever there’s a special election.
It often makes committeemen and committeewoman who make the big decision a lot more popular among prospective candidates.
“You hit the nail on the head when you say that you’re overwhelmed with phone calls,” said Robinson, the Democratic committeeman for Northwest Township. “Every one of these candidates are people that really were interested in being the candidate for the 2nd County Council district. And they all worked it really hard at different times.”
Mary Elizabeth Dorsey, the committeewoman for Florissant Township, said filling vacancies at a county or state legislative level are often the most important role of a committee member.
Voters elect a committeeman and a committeewoman for each township in St. Louis County every four years during August primaries.
“Committee people have an important duty, but people don’t often understand it. Because they don’t necessarily understand party structures,” Dorsey said. “But our main responsibility is organizing our party within Florissant Township. And then also, when there’s a vacancy like this, we are the people who select our party’s nominee.”
What are the stakes?
In many respects, whether Republicans or Democrats control the council may not be that important. That’s because the divisions on the council often revolve around support or opposition to the county executive — which often doesn’t fall along partisan lines.
As of now, members of both parties are getting along well with Page. Robinson said the county executive has a lot of incentive to keep that honeymoon going for the foreseeable future.
“I think Sam’s made some steps here in the last few weeks that shows that he’s crossing, if you want to call it, party lines. I don’t think there’s a line at the county council,” Robinson said. “There has been a line in the past over the years with Democrats and Republicans on the council. But recently they’ve actually been doing some good things together.”
Republican Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, said even though Republicans have a 3-2 majority, it’s not as if they can roughshod over Democrats.
“Whether it’s Democrats or Republicans, you need four votes to pass anything from a grant to a parking meter to whatever,” Harder said. “There has to be a forced level of cooperation when you’ve got a small number of people on the council.”
Dorsey, though, sees things a little differently. She said getting Democrats elected to the council can have long-term electoral ramifications.
“We have to build our bench,” Dorsey said. “And so, state rep seats, county council seats, and I’ll be honest with you, municipal seats are all important. Because those are the people that are known in their community that then move up to those other seats, whether it’s a county council, state rep or on from there.”
And for her part, Poelker said there could be big differences between how Republican and Democrats approach key issues — including how to deal with the county budget and how to approach economic development issues.
“What’s at stake is having someone who will go in and work, believes in the people, and will work through the people,” Poelker said.
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum
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