Democrat Steve Stenger eked out a narrow victory Tuesday for St. Louis County executive, becoming one of the few major Democratic wins – regionally or nationally.
After trailing for much of the vote-counting, Stenger ended up with an edge of 1,768 votes over Republican Rick Stream. That amounted to less than 1 percent of the roughly 294,000 votes cast.
"I want to say 'thank you' to the voters of St. Louis County who have placed their confidence in me to turn their county around, and to move our county forward and upward,'' Stenger said in a brief victory speech.
The narrow win was noteworthy for a county that over the past 20 years has become the state's largest bloc of Democratic support. Stream's loss was the strongest showing by a Republican in decades for the county's top post.
Stream conceded around midnight, an indication that he may not seek a recount. In his telephone call to Stenger, Stream said, "I offered my assistance to him for anything he needed to move the county forward in a positive way and to begin the healing."
Stenger, in turn, praised Stream as "a real gentleman."
Their conciliatory exchanges contrasted with the combative TV attack ads that the duo aired for weeks.
The nail-biting vote counting kept the excitement at a minimum at both candidates' election-night gatherings, as supporters milled nervously around the ballrooms as they waited for the late returns. The candidates were ensconced with their families and advisers for much of the evening until the results were clear shortly before midnight.
Clay, north county voters were key
Stenger’s razor-thin win comes just months after his blow-out victory in the Aug. 5 Democratic primary over incumbent County Executive Charlie Dooley, and it signals just how swiftly the public’s mood has changed.
Ironically, the final batch of votes that put Stenger over the top came from north St. Louis County, where the unrest in Ferguson had prompted a group of African-American Democratic dissidents to split with their party to back Stream.
Until county election officials issue a township-by-township breakdown of the votes, it's impossible to determine how successful that effort was in persuading voters to back Stream.
The dissidents' spokeswoman, County Councilwoman Hazel Erby, told reporters that she hoped their effort sent a constructive message to Democratic leaders who backed Stenger. "We worked hard and I don't feel that we lost a thing,'' Erby said. She was among those attending Stream's event.
However, the region’s top African-American official, U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, backed Stenger and conducted a last-minute robo-call on his behalf to registered voters in predominantly black neighborhoods. Clay’s support was arguably crucial, meaning that Clay’s regional influence could increase with an ally in the county government center in Clayton.
Stenger’s other high-profile supporter, County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch, told reporters that he didn’t think Stenger's narrow victory reflected the controversy over the duo’s alliance.
Ferguson tension casts shadow over victory
About two dozen protesters were escorted from Stenger’s event, held Tuesday night at a Clayton hotel, underscoring the weeks of unrest generated by the police shooting in Ferguson. McCulloch has come under fire because he is overseeing the grand jury investigating the shooting, which killed teenager Michael Brown.
The protesters disrupted Stenger's victory speech, prompting a brief shouting match as the protesters shouted, "Hands up!" and Stenger's allies countered with cries of "Stenger, Stenger!"
Stenger told reporters that he was aware that he now must focus on easing the tensions. "There's a great deal of healing that has to go on in the county and I'm prepared to begin the dialogue that's going to be necessary for that healing, and I'm prepared to take the actions needed for that healing."
Tuesday morning, as he cast his vote in Affton, Stenger reaffirmed his pledge to focus on the economic disparity in north St. Louis County that he believes has contributed to protests.
“It’s an issue on the top of my agenda,’’ Stenger told reporters. “Bringing economic opportunity…to all areas of the county is more important now than it has ever been.”
Stenger, a member of the County Council since 2009, also has emphasized his plans to conduct a full-scale audit of county government and its spending. A lawyer and a CPA, Stenger resides in Affton.
At 42, he also may be St. Louis County’s youngest top official under its current form of government.
The Stenger/Stream contest likely broke spending records for the contest, with Stenger raising and spending about $3 million as of his last campaign report. Much of his spending went for last summer's battle with Dooley. He put in at least $200,000 of his own money. Stream's last report showed that he'd spent about $500,000.
Stream, 65, of Kirkwood, displayed the strongest showing by a Republican for the post since Democrats captured the job in 1990. Since then, most Republican challengers have been defeated handily.
Some Republicans and political analysts in both parties contended that a huge surge of GOP votes in west St. Louis County contributed to Stream's vote tally.
Stream is just completing eight years in the state House and already is being touted as a likely candidate for the 15th District state Senate seat in 2016. His event at a hotel in Frontenac featured that post’s current incumbent, Eric Schmitt, who is running for state treasurer in 2016.
Stephanie Lecci contributed to this article.