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ST. LOUIS — Two days after Steve Stenger pleaded guilty to federal pay-to-play charges, Democratic consultant Michael Kelley was on television, sounding as though he barely knew the former St. Louis County executive.

“It’s a disgusting thing,” the Kelley Group principal said to Republican operative John Hancock during their regular politics show on KTVI (Channel 2). “An absolutely ridiculous thing for Steve Stenger to have been involved in.”

Left unsaid was the fact that Stenger’s campaign had paid Kelley’s Show Me Victories — the political communications arm of the Kelley Group — $550,000 during his two successful election campaigns.

Nor did Kelley mention that Stenger, as county executive, had been a regular at the Kelley Group’s offices on 15th Street downtown, visiting almost weekly for meetings in 2018. Sometimes, the county executive would even drink at the firm’s bar — where a framed photo hangs of Kelley’s late father, former area union leader Bob Kelley, celebrating the defeat of a proposed right-to-work constitutional amendment in 1978.

Those in Kelley’s orbit also had close ties to Stenger, helping him gain the most powerful elective office in the St. Louis metro area. Among them was Ed Rhode, Kelley’s longtime friend and frequent collaborator on campaigns. Rhode handled communications for Stenger’s 2014 and 2018 campaigns and was often in the former county executive’s office. Rhode’s brother, Sean, and later his wife, Patti Hageman, were hired by county government during Stenger’s administration.

For the last five years, Kelley and Rhode have been involved in a number of high-profile campaigns. Not only did they work to elect Stenger, they also ran Lyda Krewson’s mayoral campaign and met regularly with her during the first year of her administration.

In addition to the Stenger and Krewson campaigns, Kelley’s Show Me Victories has worked on nearly every major local ballot proposition in the last few years — both the city and county public safety sales tax increases, the St. Louis County zoo sales tax and the failed 2017 effort to dedicate a city use tax to a proposed Major League Soccer stadium. Smaller ones funded by libertarian-leaning political donor Rex Sinquefield — such as the 2017 efforts to eliminate the St. Louis recorder of deeds office and change the date of municipal elections — also resulted in payments to Show Me Victories of about $287,000.

This year, Kelley and Rhode were heavily involved in the Better Together effort, with Kelley among the speakers at the merger initiative’s January kickoff. Show Me Victories was paid $15,000 by the campaign arm of Better Together, Unite STL. Rhode also received $15,000 from the group.

Kelley said he’s proud of his successful campaigns, particularly for the region’s two biggest officeholders.

“Success in politics breeds success,” he said.

But his influence with the politicians he works for, he said, mostly ends after the polls close.

“There are some political operatives that are really good policy operatives,” Kelley said. “That would not be me. … I don’t engage in the minutiae of day-to-day government.”

As for Krewson’s visits after her election, and Stenger’s regular visits leading up to his 2018 reelection, Kelley said the focus was on campaigns. The two officials didn’t meet there at the same time, he said.

“When you run a campaign for a candidate, you have to meet with them on a regular basis,” he said. “They’re the ones who come up with their own policy. I just have to understand what their policy is.”

In an interview, Krewson said she met with Kelley as she was working to get her new administration up and running. She said she didn’t really know Kelley until she approached him to run her campaign for mayor. Richard Callow, former Mayor Francis Slay’s longtime political consultant who was once close to Krewson, was already working for Treasurer Tishaura Jones’ mayoral campaign.

“I wanted a local political consultant,” Krewson said. “There’s only a couple of people in town who do that.”

After working with him, she considers Kelley a friend now. The regular meetings at his office have stopped, but she said she will meet with Kelley for lunch maybe once a month. She hasn’t spoken to Rhode in months.

“I think having a political consultant is probably good advice,” Krewson said. “I don’t really have one at this point. ... I’m not in full campaign mode by any stretch of the imagination.”

A start with Gephardt

Kelley, 43, who ran the state Democratic Party in the early 2000s, is steeped in area politics. His father, who died last year, was the face of organized labor for 30 years.

Kelley’s appointment as party executive director was said then to have been orchestrated by former St. Louis Congressman Dick Gephardt, a close ally of Bob Kelley. Both Michael Kelley and Rhode worked for Gephardt early in their careers, and Kelley later worked on Gephardt’s 2004 presidential primary bid. “One of the finest individuals I’ve ever met in my life,” he said of the longtime area congressman.

When Bob Kelley stepped down from the St. Louis Labor Council at the end of 2004, he formed the Kelley Group with his son.

Over the years, it chalked up wins, gained a reputation and added more services. The Show Me Victories affiliate was formed in 2011 and Kelley began adding staff. About eight years ago the firm hired Megan McBride, and in 2013, Patrick Lynn left former Gov. Jay Nixon’s administration to join the group. Now, with a team of about six people, they do polling, social media, commercials, mailings, research and advice — a suite of services they say few local political shops provide.

They’ve done work in Oregon, Wisconsin, California, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, South Dakota and other places. “We do as much work out of St. Louis as we do in St. Louis,” Kelley said.

One of his first large, regional campaigns was the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District bond issue in 2012, which passed by a wide margin. Show Me Victories worked for, and won, a similar MSD bond issue in 2016.

Rhode, who helped on those campaigns, declined to be interviewed for this story but sent a statement saying that he and Kelley are close friends.

“I’m grateful we get the opportunity to work together electing candidates and passing ballot measures that are important for the region,” Rhode said.

Mayor Francis Slay rarely, if ever, used Show Me Victories for political work, opting instead for consultant Callow’s firm, Public Eye Inc. Rhode, though, worked on Slay’s first campaign and then served as press secretary to the mayor until 2009.

Show Me Victories and Rhode scored a major victory when they helped Stenger unseat incumbent St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley in the 2014 Democratic primary. Then, they helped fend off a strong Republican candidate in the November general election.

Since the Stenger campaign, Show Me Victories and Rhode have been involved with some of the biggest races in the region. Show Me Victories managed both 2017 Proposition P campaigns to pass sales taxes for public safety — first for St. Louis County, then the sales tax the city said it needed to pass to keep pace. The two campaigns paid over $500,000 to Show Me Victories. Rhode billed the two campaigns $35,000.

In 2016 and 2017, Krewson paid Show Me Victories over $300,000 in her successful election campaign.

The St. Louis Zoo’s sales tax campaign in the county last year — an effort that followed the zoo’s purchase of hundreds of acres from the St. Louis Plumbers and Pipefitters — resulted in over $750,000 in payments to Show Me Victories. Rhode received $40,000 directly from the zoo’s political action committee, Friends of the St. Louis Zoo.

Show Me Victories, Kelley said, has had big campaigns and victories before it helped elect Stenger and Krewson, such as the successful 2013 sales tax campaign that funded the revamped Arch grounds.

“I’ve been successful and successfully working on candidates and campaigns well before either of those folks ran for office,” Kelley said. “Can I point to an uptick in campaign work? No, we’ve had a steady stream in work for the entire 16 years I’ve been working.”

‘The good ol’ boys network’

Show Me Victories has also been behind the campaigns for what some consider the establishment wing of the local Democratic Party, which has lost several recent elections.

They worked for:

• Mary Pat Carl, who lost the St. Louis circuit attorney race to Kimberly M. Gardner in 2016.

• County Councilman Mike O’Mara, a Stenger ally and longtime official with the Pipefitters union, who lost to Rochelle Walton Gray in 2016.

• Longtime St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch, who was defeated by Democratic challenger Wesley Bell in 2018.

Kelley and Lynn take issue with the “establishment” label. They’d work for a self-styled “progressive” candidate such as Alderman Megan Green if she hired them. “For Democrats, if someone wants us to do direct mail, we’ll do direct mail,” Lynn said.

Yet some observers point out the same cast of professional politicos never seems too far from Show Me Victories clients. There’s Nancy Rice, who worked on Krewson’s campaign and is a senior member of Pelopidas, a consulting firm run by Sinquefield lobbyist Travis Brown that is heavily involved in discussions about privatizing St. Louis Lambert International Airport. Until this month, she led the stalled Better Together effort, and she would sometimes attend the meetings with Krewson at Kelley’s offices.

Jane Dueker, who was a political adviser to Stenger, lobbies for both the city and county police unions that benefited heavily from the two Proposition P votes. One of her legal clients was a politician Show Me Victories worked for: Penny Hubbard, a state representative unseated by activist Bruce Franks Jr. following an election fraud scandal.

And Lou Hamilton, a longtime local government lobbyist who counts Anheuser-Busch and the St. Louis Zoo Association as clients, also says in disclosure forms that he lobbies for the Kelley Group. Hamilton is close to Krewson and, after being spotted at one of the early airport privatization meetings last year, said some of his lobbying clients were interested in the process. Hamilton lists Sinquefield’s Great St. Louis and Better Together as lobbying clients.

“With the same players on a lot of different campaigns, and I’ve heard it time and time again, that you have a few people making decisions that impact the region,” said state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, one of two major candidates who challenged St. Louis Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed in the March primary. Show Me Victories was paid over $125,000 by a political action committee supporting Reed’s successful reelection. “It’s just the good ol’ boys network. They tend to go and get the same consultants. They’ve all been friends for years, and I guess that’s just how they do it.”

Often, minority groups are absent from “inside decision-making” in St. Louis, said St. Louis Democratic Central Committee Chair Michael Butler, also elected the city recorder of deeds last year.

“Everyone knows it,” Butler said. “Rarely are independent or opposition voices allowed to be part of the decision-making process. Most often decisions are made by a close group of people without the input of other voices.”

That said, Show Me Victories has worked for minority candidates. Besides Hubbard, they also worked for Congressman Lacy Clay as he and Russ Carnahan fought over St. Louis’ seat in Congress following the 2011 redistricting.

Kelley said he works with all sorts of consultants on different issues, but he does have some rules: “I won’t work against organized labor. I won’t work against gay rights. And I won’t work against a woman’s right to choose.”

Sometimes, even friends such as Rhode aren’t on his side.

“Ed was for the restaurant association fighting the (St. Louis city) minimum wage,” Kelley said. “I was for raising the minimum wage in the city of St. Louis.”

Big platform

Kelley has a media platform that few other consultants can claim, making weekly appearances on KTVI (Channel 2) and KMOX (1120 AM) with Hancock.

Frequently, they discuss national issues. But sometimes, the news of the week is local politics. Often, that means Kelley is connected somehow.

“If I was running a campaign, I have always disclosed that I was working on that campaign,” Kelley said.

He and Hancock avoided discussing Better Together, for instance. They disclosed their work on the St. Louis County public safety sales tax. If an election is over, though, Kelley said he will give his opinion on politicians he has worked for.

“For me to sit there and have to say every time I talk about a Democrat, that I worked for the Democratic party — so has George Stephanopoulos, so have countless people,” he said.

Hancock said they try to avoid topics where they are involved, and are “scrupulous” about disclosing their affiliations. He said he remembers Kelley disclosing that he worked for Stenger.

“He’s said it plenty of times, certainly when he was working for him he disclosed it,” Hancock said.

But some involved in local politics see it differently.

“That is an unfair advantage that the media, that KMOX and KTVI, have given to their clients,” said Virvus Jones, a longtime political player who sometimes supports candidates on the opposite side of those backed by Kelley and Rhode. Jones’ daughter, the city treasurer, lost her bid for mayor against Krewson. “We should know that you’re a lobbyist for a particular person or group. And these guys are lobbyists for everybody.”

In one instance, Kelley commented on the controversy between Stenger and now-County Executive Sam Page over a proposed ice rink in Creve Coeur Lake Park. The federal government had just indicated it would not approve the rink in the park. Though Page had sponsored the bill, he felt Stenger misled him about the project’s legality and was pushing to halt it. It was just the beginning of the fight between the two branches of government.

Kelley weighed in on the controversy during a segment of KTVI’s “Hancock and Kelley” show on Sept. 1, 2017.

“And now (Page is) playing politics with Steve Stenger,” he said. “Rather than pushing his own bill forward, he now wants to question the validity of his own bill. Now this man’s a doctor. He administers drugs. This was his bill. Do you support it? Do you know what you’re doing, councilman? I understand the frustration of Steve Stenger. Look, this is ridiculous politics that people don’t want to see in county government.”

Stenger had paid Show Me Victories $50,000 in July 2017 and $23,000 on Sept. 13 of that year for “communications management.” Kelley told the Post-Dispatch he believed that was for an opposition research and at the time, he wasn’t even sure he was going to be hired for Stenger’s 2018 reelection.

KMOX and KTVI representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

Just business

Kelley says now that Stenger was never one of his favorite candidates. Still, he’s “proud of the fact that in two pretty unique circumstances, we won.”

At the end of the day, it’s a business and “you do the best you can” for your client, he said.

“I couldn’t anticipate the man was out violating the law,” Kelley said. “I had nothing to do with his policy. I had nothing to do with the way he runs government. … He was a Democrat who stood for the core values that we believe in.”

At least one person on the other side of the political fight in the county said he’s not finished looking into the connections between Stenger and his consultants.

“I think they’ve been significantly wounded, perhaps not mortally,” said Republican County Council Chairman Ernie Trakas, who was part of the bipartisan opposition to Stenger. “What (they) did over the course of two years, obviously it did not bear fruit. Ultimately it backfired on them.”

Indeed, some of the access that group of consultants held has waned, allowing an old hand to reemerge in the office of a powerful regional leader. Callow’s Public Eye is the new political consultant for the new county executive.

Jeremy Kohler of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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Recent races: A sampling of recent campaigns run by Mike Kelley’s Show Me Victories

Mike Kelley’s Show Me Victories has run campaigns for several high-profile ballot propositions and politicians. Here’s a sample of recent work by the organization. Source: Campaign disclosure reports, Missouri Ethics Commission

Campaign Year Result Campaign payments
Former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger 2014/2018 Win $550,000
St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson 2017 Win $335,000
St. Louis County public safety sales tax 2017 Win $400,000
St. Louis public safety sales tax 2017 Win $135,000
St. Louis County zoo sales tax 2018 Win $750,000
Former St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch 2018 Loss $300,000
St. Louis Arch grounds sales tax 2013 Win $79,000
Former St. Louis County Councilman Pat Dolan 2018 Loss $60,000
St. Louis use tax for Major League Soccer stadium 2017 Loss $825,000
Former State Rep. Penny Hubbard 2016 Win (loss after do-over election) $15,000