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Bill McClellan is a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Steve Stenger arrives at federal court expected to plead guilty to charges

Former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger (left) arrives at federal court in St. Louis with his lawyer Scott Rosenblum on May 3. 

Friday, May 3, 2019 Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

Call me nostalgic, but I miss Steve Stenger already. He was an interesting man.

I first spoke with him in March 2013. He was a member of the St. Louis County Council. His wife was running for a seat on the St. Louis Community College board. Her opponent was Joan McGivney, who was, and is, a friend of mine. Joan was a member of an endangered species that has now gone extinct. She was a moderate Republican.

She ran against Bill Federer in the Republican 3rd District congressional primary in 2004. She confessed to moderation, but insisted that only a moderate could beat Dick Gephardt. She was trounced three to one. Later, of course, Gephardt beat Federer.

The community college board was a nonpartisan election. Joan was the incumbent. On the Saturday before the election, voters received a slick color mailer from the Stenger campaign. There were photos of Mitt Romney, Todd Akin and Joan. Romney was quoted: “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.” Akin was quoted about “legitimate” rape. Joan was not quoted, but there was a tea bag next to her photo.

“Help us dump McGivney and her Tea Party friends!” said the Stenger flyer.

I called Stenger and asked to speak to his wife about the campaign flyer. Stenger said he’d get back to me. A campaign aide later sent me an email. “Our campaign makes no apology for its mail. Joan McGivney was a Republican candidate for Congress and has been among the fringe herself for years.”

Despite the ad, McGivney won reelection.

The next year, Stenger successfully challenged County Executive Charlie Dooley in the Democratic primary. He ran on a good-government platform, and promised to clean up the county government. He was backed by the popular county prosecutor, Robert McCulloch.

Dooley had been accused of helping friends get county jobs. In the interest of full disclosure, I wrote about that a couple of times myself.

Stenger proved to be the most interesting county executive ever. If you believe what the feds say — and I do — he’d go to work wearing shorts, a T-shirt and a baseball cap. He’d shut the door and play video games. He’d arrive late and leave early.

And everything was for sale. As the feds built their case against him, I spoke with a friend who worked for Stenger. It sounds like you work for Michael Corleone, I said. No, said my friend. Sonny Corleone.

If you remember the movie, Sonny was the impetuous one. He was undisciplined, out of control and unable to run the family business.

Stenger’s demise was great theater, a train wreck in slow motion. Everybody saw what was coming — except Better Together. That organization, ostensibly dedicated to good government, wanted Stenger to serve as the unelected mayor of the new Super City that would result from a merger of St. Louis city and county.

Because the folks at Better Together knew that neither the city nor the county favored a merger, they came up with the idea of letting out-state voters decide how the city and county should govern themselves. What a wonderful concept. Trust the collective wisdom of rural Missouri, whose residents, by and large, would get up early to vote against anything that might be beneficial for their city cousins. Let them decide!

Chesterfield announced plans to secede from the county. Municipalities that had existed for years and years and years were to be erased. Chaos would reign and Sonny Corleone would be in control.

For selfish reasons, I wanted to see it all happen. But before it could, the feds moved. Only the folks at Better Together were stunned, and there was a certain Captain Renault quality to their surprise. “I’m shocked, shocked that gambling is going on here.”

Yes, I know I’m dating myself when I refer to “Casablanca” and “The Godfather.” But that’s my era. I come from a time when men were interesting.

Look around St. Louis now. Who are the interesting people in public life?

Mayor Lyda Krewson is interesting. Being mayor was not supposed to be this difficult. Tishaura Jones, the shadow mayor, is interesting. So is Congresswoman Ann Wagner, who seems like a thoroughly decent person who wrestles constantly with the choice between decency and loyalty to President Trump. Should it really be that hard? Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner is almost beyond interesting. Can a prosecutor have a successful career wishing she were a public defender?

All the interesting people are women.

I’m going to miss Steve Stenger.