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Tony Messenger is the metro columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Better Together reveals plan to merge city, county

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger talks with St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson at the beginning of a presentation by Better Together where the plan to merge the city and county was revealed at the Cheshire hotel on Jan. 28.

Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

Amid the hubbub of the indictment and resignation of former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger on Monday, a five-year-old suffered a tragic ending to its brief life.

Its name was Better Together.

Time of death was sometime Monday morning, when the nonprofit that hoped to merge the city and the county into a new metro city of St. Louis realized it would never be able to rid itself of the Stenger tumor. The patient had been ill for some time.

Signs of medical decline began showing in late January when the nonprofit, the offspring of billionaire philanthropist and political donor Rex Sinquefield, announced its ballot initiative that would merge the city and the county in a statewide vote in November 2020.

Stenger and many of his political operatives who also worked for Better Together were there to lend support. Glorious announcements were made about how the proposal would improve long-standing divides between black and white in the region, and make it easier to carry out racial equity goals outlined in the Forward Through Ferguson report.

Like the slow drip of intravenous fluid that in its final days was keeping Better Together alive, one by one black leaders criticized the plan and said it was a charade.

The Rev. Starsky Wilson, who led the Ferguson Commission that called for more equity in the region, referred to the Better Together proposal as “apartheid.” Other city and county leaders found multiple flaws and questioned its tax-cut schemes.

But the Stenger tumor is what metastasized. The proposal not only elevated him to be the first mayor of the new merged city, it did so by suspending an election, and it gave him grand powers over the new charter. This was at a time in which nearly everybody in the political world in and around St. Louis knew that the then-county executive was under federal investigation for various “pay to play” schemes.

Better Together’s family — including spokesman Ed Rhode, who had held the same job for Stenger — brushed off such criticism. After all, they knew exactly who Stenger was. They pushed to elect him precisely because of who he was.

In that election, remember, Better Together’s parent, Sinquefield, funneled $200,000 through an obscure fire district political action committee called MACFPD, to prop up Stenger’s power by trying to defeat a proposition that would allow the St. Louis County Council to rein him in.

Around that same time, using a similar scheme, Sinquefield donated $150,000 to the carpenters union’s political action committee. Shortly after Better Together announced its merger plans, the carpenters donated $125,000 to the effort.

Right around the time that the MACFPD fund was catching the eyes of federal investigators, it also gave a $5,000 donation to St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, another backer of Better Together.

The tumor grew.

Eventually, Better Together opted for surgery.

In March, its mother, Nancy Rice, said that the initiative would be refiled. Stenger would no longer be the first unelected mayor. The move had nothing to do with any federal investigation, she said. The same day, Stenger was served with a subpoena, and one of Rice’s board members contradicted her.

In April, Better Together underwent an even riskier surgery. It attached itself to John Gaskin.

The young president of the county branch of the NAACP held a news conference announcing his organization’s support of the effort. Finally, black support for Better Together!

But there was a problem. Gaskin, who had been given a job by Stenger previously in the county economic partnership that was at the center of the federal investigation, neglected to tell people that Better Together was paying him. He also didn’t tell his board members about his clear conflict of interest. Days later, he was suspended from his job by the national president and CEO of the NAACP.

Better Together was left on the surgery table, in a pay-for-play coma.

Officially, it is being kept alive by a ventilator, though doctors have declared it brain dead. Its heart and lungs are no longer functioning, and it’s impossible to know who is paying for the life-support machine. Better Together’s campaign arm, Unite STL, has filed minimal paperwork with the Missouri Ethics Commission, showing no payments to Rice nor the multitude of campaign operatives working to keep the effort alive. Taxpayers don’t know who is paying the people working for the initiative. Another dark money committee is funding ethics complaints against municipalities for daring to question some of Better Together’s multitude of flaws.

After the Stenger indictment, the wife of Better Together spokesman Rhode, Patti Hageman, resigned her position working for the former county executive.

Better Together leaves behind no survivors.

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