St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger narrowly survived a tough Democratic primary challenge on Tuesday, but there could still be trouble ahead.
More daunting than the November general election, where he faces nominal Republican opposition, may be governing Missouri’s largest county in partnership with an antagonistic county council. A bipartisan coalition there has clashed with Stenger for more than a year, and Stenger’s last consistent council ally was toppled by a young challenger in Tuesday’s vote.
“It’s going to be a very difficult four years for the county executive unless he develops some support on the county council,” said E. Terrence Jones, a professor emeritus at the University of Missouri-St. Louis whose research includes metropolitan governance.
Stenger said in an interview Wednesday that now “we really don’t have much choice but to work with each other.”
Yet several issues remain unresolved. Stenger’s move to slash the county’s budget has caused what Republican Councilman Mark Harder called “uncharted territory” that will leave the legislative branch without money to operate by Oct. 15. A lawsuit from the council challenging the move is ongoing.
“I think but for the fact that there was an election looming, they wouldn’t have filed a lawsuit,” Stenger said. “I’m confident that if all parties come to the table and we sit down and talk about it, we can figure something out.”
Even if the lawsuit is resolved, there are other major disagreements.
An ethics inquiry into the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, the agency that oversees the county’s economic development offices, is still open. An ordinance to remove St. Louis County Port Authority members that the council passed over Stenger’s veto is probably in need of judicial clarification because Stenger says it has no effect.
The meeting featured a rare appearance by Stenger with his political rivals.
Stenger has argued that the council opposition stemmed from the primary election more than anything. But Council Chairman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, said the council’s efforts to ensure “transparency and accountability,” implement campaign finance caps and assert its budgeting powers granted by the county charter would continue.
“Those can’t be dismissed or waved off as politics, so I hope we can have some real conversations about those,” Page said Wednesday. “The legislative branch has the authority that has been granted by the charter. … If he wants to take a new approach with the county council and communicate and follow the law, then we can have a better relationship.”
Even if the two sides can’t come together, Stenger maintains considerable power under the St. Louis County charter to run the apparatus of county government.
“The structure of the county charter puts a significant amount of authority in the executive branch and very little in the Legislature,” Jones said. “It’s difficult for a part-time Legislature to effectively take on a full-time executive. On the other hand, if it’s all of them, not just one or two, it’s going to be a challenge for County Executive Stenger.”
Stenger’s last consistent ally, 5th District Councilman Pat Dolan, was handily defeated in Tuesday’s Democratic primary by self-described progressive Lisa Clancy, who said she “has had concerns with the county executive’s leadership.” There is no Republican candidate in the 5th District race.
Clancy, 33, said Wednesday that she supports the council’s pending legislation to change the county charter capping campaign contributions to county officeholders, a move designed to address concern by some on the council that county contracts and other deals have gone to big Stenger donors.
She also said it “just makes sense” for the council to have access to its own lawyer. Council members say they can’t get impartial advice from County Counselor Peter Krane’s office when Krane answers to Stenger.
“The county council needs to be empowered with the tools necessary to provide strong oversight ... and that needs to be true no matter who the county executive is,” Clancy said.
A county charter amendment passed by the council over Stenger’s veto that would allow the council to hire its own lawyer when it is in conflict with the executive branch was a tossup Wednesday, with supporters just three votes behind out of about 250,000 votes cast. Some 400 provisional and overseas ballots still need to be counted, a process that will take until next week, county elections director Eric Fey said.
If the council wants to continue a push for its attorney, Stenger said he was “very willing to sit down and have discussions about it.”
“Anything and everything can be on the table,” he said. “This is nothing new. They know this.”
Stenger’s challenger, Mark Mantovani, still had not officially conceded Wednesday, with his campaign saying they would let the final vote certification play out. But his deficit of a little fewer than 1,100 votes appeared too big to overcome Stenger’s lead.
Local politics watchers had expected Stenger to benefit from the strong organized labor turnout mobilized to oppose Proposition A, the “right to work” amendment that would have weakened unions but went down to defeat in a statewide vote Tuesday.
Stenger touted endorsements from many local unions as well as law enforcement. But he beat Mantovani by under a percentage point out of more than 182,000 votes cast.
Meanwhile, Stenger ally Robert McCulloch lost the Democratic nomination for prosecuting attorney to Ferguson City Councilman Wesley Bell by some 10 points. Given Bell’s victory and Clancy’s win, UMSL Political Science Professor Dave Robertson said “it seemed like there was a real reform wave in this election” and Mantovani “rode the wave to a very close election.”
But he said Stenger’s longtime union support and opposition to right to work, combined with his fundraising advantage and large number of TV commercials, probably helped him fend off the wealthy challenger.
Many of those commercials highlighted Mantovani’s financial support for former Republican Gov. Eric Greitens, who resigned in June after months of scandal. Greitens antagonized unions during his 16 months in office by signing the right-to-work bill passed by the Republican-dominated Legislature, and Stenger questioned whether Mantovani was a real Democrat given his support for the former governor.
“Greitens signed right to work, and Greitens raised a lot of ethics issues and was a Republican,” Robertson said. “Those are three strikes against the Mantovani challenge by the Stenger campaign, and they undoubtedly did some damage.”
Stenger said his camp’s polling showed him with a strong lead among Democrats that narrowed as independents and Republicans crossed over, which the county executive suspects happened Tuesday.
“I think it was only natural with an electorate comprised of more Republican leaners (Mantovani) would do better, and he did,” he said.