ST. LOUIS — It was not a festive time in the halls of St. Louis County government.
A jury had just handed the county a nearly $20 million judgment in favor of a gay police sergeant in a workplace discrimination case. The prosecuting attorney was launching an investigation into possible perjury at the trial. The county executive had ripped the county’s legal strategy and vowed to replace police commissioners to change the police department’s culture. The county counselor and the police board were blaming each other for letting the case go to trial instead of settling. And a County Council member was calling for the police chief to resign.
But the evening of Nov. 6 found St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson at a party for St. Louis County police Sgt. Keith Wildhaber, the plaintiff of the lawsuit roiling her counterparts in the county.
Her spokesman, Jacob Long, tweeted a photo of the mayor chatting with Wildhaber, whom he called “one brave dude. Standing up to discrimination and winning. A huge victory for #LGBT rights in the region and all of Missouri. Glad I could join my boss … in toasting and supporting him tonight.”
My friend @keith2691 is one brave dude. Standing up to discrimination and winning.— Jacob Long (@JacobLongSTL) November 7, 2019
A huge victory for #LGBT rights in the region and all of Missouri.
Glad I could join my boss @LydaKrewson in toasting and supporting him tonight. 🏳️🌈 pic.twitter.com/HBHE7bwk64
The image from the party at Just John, a dance club in the city’s Grove business district, raised eyebrows across political circles. And it showed the gulf between Krewson and St. Louis County leaders, including County Executive Sam Page, at a time when a Board of Freeholders begins to consider ways the city and county can work together, or even merge.
Members of Page's adminstration also attended the party later in the night, but kept a low profile. Doug Moore, Page's communications director, who is gay, said that in advance of the party he had asked his boss, chief of staff Winston Calvert, whether it was appropriate for him to drop by. He said the issues in Wildhaber's case resonated with him.
Calvert said he decided to go with Moore just to check it out. They said the mayor and Long had departed by the time they arrived, and they didn't talk to Wildhaber. Moore posted to Facebook that he was at the bar enjoying live music.
"I wanted, as a gay man, to see how he was being celebrated and see how harmful discrimination can be," Moore said. Moore said he "didn't go there to pose with Keith in a photo" and that he was not an elected official.
Ernie Trakas, presiding officer of the St. Louis County Council, said the posting featuring Krewson “shows a total lack of leadership.” Pointing to a federal civil rights lawsuit by a black undercover cop who said he was assaulted by three city department colleagues during a 2017 protest, he asked, “Should Sam Page and the whole council go down and celebrate if he wins a big verdict? Of course not.”
Krewson’s staff insists she wasn’t throwing shade on the county by toasting Wildhaber, and both Page’s and Krewson’s staff say the two sides are working together on several issues, including an agreement that the county will provide 18 police officers to patrol the MetroLink light-rail line in the city.
“I think Sam and Lyda are mature and experienced enough to not let a few petty tweets get in their way,” Page’s chief of staff, Winston Calvert, said. “They have a collaborative and constructive relationship.”
But others worry about what they see — the barbed language, coded insults.
“I think it’s more important than ever before that the city and county have a really good relationship,” said Lewis Reed, president of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen. “It never does any good to relish in the failures or the missteps of the city or the county if you are an elected official.”
Page and Krewson rose from opposing political factions within the area’s Democratic party. Richard Callow, who is directing Page’s campaign for election as county executive, supported Krewson’s rival, Tishaura Jones, in the 2017 mayoral race, and frequently criticizes Krewson, or city operations in general, on Twitter. Krewson won with the support of political consultant Michael Kelley, who helped Page’s nemesis, then-County Executive Steve Stenger, defeat challenger Mark Mantovani in the Democratic primary in August 2018.
Krewson and Stenger had supported the ill-fated Better Together merger plan that would have installed Stenger as the first “metro mayor.” At the same time, Page was leading a bipartisan County Council majority that opposed Stenger and sought to have him removed for skipping their meetings. Stenger resigned on April 29, the same day his indictment in a federal pay-to-pay case was unsealed, and the County Council picked Page as his successor.
The Krewson-Page relationship has been icy from the start. Only days before the Wildhaber party, it was Krewson saying Page and other county officials were not being good neighbors for initiating a process to study regional governance of the city-owned international airport.
Weeks before, Calvert criticized the mayor’s office for not taking advantage of a meeting with Gov. Mike Parson to ask for the county’s help in reducing crime. The mayor insisted she had asked for county police officers to patrol her city, but the county officials said they had no record of it. It turned out Krewson had sent the request to a Centene executive earlier this year who had tried to bring the city and county together on policing.
Now it seems the gloves are off, and Long, a former KSDK (Channel 5) reporter whom Krewson hired as director of communications on Oct. 17, is throwing punches. Last week, he posted a Post-Dispatch editorial about County Police Chief Jon Belmar, noting that Belmar had proposed the county take over the city police department.
“I’ve been in the job three weeks and two days,” Long said last week. “And I feel it’s really important to amplify the work we’re doing in the city and the values that we have. I don’t think anybody should read into it any more than I’m trying to do anything other than my job.”
Mantovani, whom Page appointed to the Board of Freeholders, said bickering between city and county “is exactly what we don’t need from people in positions of leadership who are allowing petty political interests to further divide this community.”
“Sometimes we have to overlook little slights and sometimes we have to put the region ahead of our micro-parochial interests … it’s counterproductive for people from the city and county to not cooperate and respect each other.”
Some, like Trakas, saw the mayor’s attendance at Wildhaber’s party as celebrating the county’s comeuppance.
“We shouldn’t be celebrating a huge judgment,” said Cara Spencer, alderman of the city’s 20th Ward. While many were glad to see justice for Wildhaber, “it’s really an indicator of a problem to be addressed, and that’s a bad day for all of us, I think, not something to be celebrated.”
County Councilman Tim Fitch said Krewson had made it clear she is a friend of the LGBT community and that “I didn’t see it as a poke in the eye to St. Louis County.”
Others said it was a smart move.
“She’s not running for office in St. Louis County,” said Ken Warren, a political scientist at St. Louis University who monitors local politics. “It’s a victory for gay rights, so she’s taking advantage of that as have so many Democratic candidates who have campaigned for gay rights. And since public opinion polls show people are in support of gay, lesbian and transgender rights, what she’s doing makes sense.”
Calvert shrugged it off.
“I think the mayor can go wherever she would like, and Just John is in the city of St. Louis,” he said. “I think my reaction is, I hope she had a good time.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated on Sunday with information that two county staffers also attended the party for Wildhaber.
Read the coverage of the Wildhaber suit, trial and decisions after the verdict
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