CLAYTON — Many believed the race for St. Louis County executive was over when Sam Page outlasted a trio of strong candidates to win the Democratic nomination on Aug. 4.
The general election on Nov. 3 seemed a low hurdle by comparison. Page would face a Republican whom voters have often shunned before: Paul Berry III, a financially troubled entrepreneur who lost to Steve Stenger by nearly 20 points in the 2018 general election and has a record of defaulting on agreements and stiffing creditors.
But as the pandemic and recession fuel the county’s often-toxic political climate, Page has run into political headwinds. And if Berry could add to the roughly 40% of voters who supported him in 2018, and if either of the two other candidates garnered support, it could be a tighter race.
From the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Page, a medical doctor, has been more willing than GOP-led state and federal governments to restrict activities and mandate masks to protect public health. And he has been more cautious about easing restrictions.
The county suffered the worst of Missouri’s initial outbreak in the spring, but, perhaps as a result of Page’s enforcement of an emergency order, has since fared much better. Last week, the head of the St. Louis-area pandemic task force noted that surrounding areas, and not St. Louis, were driving a surge in hospitalizations for COVID-19. On Friday, the state of Missouri reported its highest-ever rate of tests coming back positive: a seven-day average of 14.5%. But the average in St. Louis and St. Louis County was just 4.8%.
But the more Page exercises his authority, the more his enemies brand him a tyrant. And the closer the election gets, the louder those voices seem to be. That has given Berry hope that voters will choose him to complete the final two years of Stenger’s term. Green Party candidate Elizabeth “Betsey” Mitchell and Libertarian Theodis “Ted” Brown Sr. are also in the race.
An instant platform
An announcement by Page on Sept. 9 handed Berry, a charismatic former bail bondsman who once hosted a political show on KDNL (Channel 30), an instant platform.
Page relaxed some restrictions on youth sports guidelines but continued to ban games and tournaments in most sports for players 14 and older. It meant that while young athletes could take the fall sports fields in St. Charles and Jefferson counties and almost everywhere else in the state, they would be sidelined in St. Louis County.
Conservative rage swelled across the county. Hundreds protested outside Page’s home in Creve Coeur and the county government building in downtown Clayton. The leader of the county’s largest school district, Rockwood, openly defied the order, scheduling games outside of the county. More than 1,000 comments have been submitted to be read at the County Council meetings. More than 12,000 joined a protest group on Facebook, and hundreds of comments indicate some people are supporting Berry.
Berry capitalized by showing up at protests with campaign signs and sued Page on behalf of his teenage daughter, a senior at Pattonville High School, who was barred from competing in cheerleading. Berry withdrew the suit when Page rolled back the restrictions in late September.
Berry also benefited from another controversy involving Page. After the primary election, Page fired longtime council member Hazel Erby from his cabinet. Erby said it was because he didn’t value Black women, but their emails revealed that he thought she was too involved with inclusion efforts for minority businesses and, after his predecessor went to prison in a pay-to-play scandal, didn’t think his office should be involved in awarding public contracts.
The Fanny Lou Hamer Coalition — a group of 20 Black Democratic leaders in north St. Louis County — endorsed Berry last week. It was not the first time the group endorsed a Republican; its members backed Rick Stream in 2014 in his race against Stenger — and he nearly upset Stenger.
Berry agreed to an interview last week, but his lawyer, Albert Watkins, intervened five minutes before the appointment requiring any questions to be emailed to him instead. Berry has repeatedly complained about the way Post-Dispatch journalists have treated him.
The youth-sports protests also converged with an uprising among members of the County Council opposing Page. Councilwoman Rita Heard Days, D-1st District, endorsed one of Page’s opponents in the primary and has recently joined the three council Republicans in a tenuous majority trying to curb Page’s powers.
Meanwhile, Page has faced increased criticism on social media from state representatives Raychel Proudie, Maria Chappelle-Nadal, Kevin Windham, Gina Mitten and Dottie Bailey with political consultant Jane Dueker and the ex-girlfriend of Page adviser Winston Calvert, Shelby Partridge, stoking the flames.
Despite all the noise, Page is not in much danger of losing the general election, according to a political scientist who tracks local politics.
“Page has taken some heat for closing down sports and a lot of people are angry about it,” said Ken Warren, a political science professor at St. Louis University.
“And I suppose some people will vote against him. … But let’s face it. There were a lot of people who were for what Page did, too. Those are the kinds of people who make up the silent majority. If they agree with you, you don’t hear them too much.”
Page, 55, said in a recent interview that he sticks by the tough choices to keep people safe in St. Louis County and warned: “The people who are not currently with me will be knocking on my door in November. That’s how this goes.”
“I think the county government has, really without too many false starts, risen to the occasion and stuck to our principles,” Page said. “And that’s making decisions based on science, following the advice of public health experts delivering our resources based on need — and doing all that with as much transparency as an urgent situation would allow.”
He said the sports protests were “50% parental frustration and 50% partisan politics in an election year, and probably 50% denial.”
Page chalked up the acrimony in local government to the national political climate. On Tuesday, in the third hour of the council’s weekly marathon videoconference, Councilman Mark Harder, R-7th District, asked Page a question while the county executive’s video was turned off. Page didn’t respond, indicating he wasn’t there, which was Harder’s point.
It was an especially cutting maneuver by Harder, one of the ringleaders of dissent against Page. Just last year, Harder and Page had worked together to ask the prosecuting attorney to kick Stenger out of office for skipping meetings. Page has missed only a few of the council’s weekly meetings since that time.
Page said last week that he had turned his attention on Tuesday to the presidential debate, which he called “a reflection of where we are as a country, how partisan we’ve become and how acrimonious we’ve become.… I expect that we’ll be able to get past the partisan political environment that we’re in and govern responsibly over the next few years.”
About three bills heading for a final council vote that would take some authority from him, Page said his job “is to look out for the health and welfare of people in St. Louis County. And if I’m delivered legislation that doesn’t do that, then I won’t support it.”
As for Berry, Page said “I do take his candidacy more seriously than he does. Running for office really isn’t just a string of publicity stunts.” Asked whether someone with Berry’s financial problems should lead a county, Page said the answer to the question was “relatively obvious.” The county “has almost a $1 billion budget and 4,000 employees and touches the lives of 1 million people. It’s an enormous amount of responsibility,” he said.
Berry, 42, of Maryland Heights, told the Post-Dispatch in 2018 he wanted to be county executive because it was a good-paying job that would help him repay many entities to whom he has defaulted on contracts and agreements.
The Post-Dispatch found he had been evicted from apartments five times in 14 years and owed landlords at least $40,000 in back rent.
Those debts and judgments continue to pile up for him. Earlier this year, a judge ordered Berry’s car seized as the court tried to enforce a November 2018 judgment for $19,000 against him in favor of a woman who claimed he had never repaid a personal loan. Berry settled to get the car returned.
In mid-September, the Associated Press won a $14,000 judgment against Berry for defaulting on a contract by failing to pay for AP stories and images on his now-defunct political website. Berry failed to appear in court on the case three times, leading to a default judgment.
Mitchell, 60, is a retired school teacher from University City who is seeking office for the first time. The widowed mother of two grown children makes and delivers meals for at-risk youth through the Mathews-Dickey Boys’ & Girls’ Club in St. Louis. She also works with Carol Jackson, a retired University City police captain who operates a police-focused ministry.
Mitchell published a five-part platform focused on eliminating racism in policing, increasing economic opportunities, equitable use of coronavirus testing and other health services and addressing environmental problems that disproportionately harm Black people.
In an interview, she said she would lead by setting up task forces across the county to help her stay in contact with residents and make their voices heard.
Mitchell said she taught in the Special School District from 1986 to 1991, when she moved to the St. Louis Public Schools. She taught at the University City School District from 1997 until her husband died after an operation in 2001.
Mitchell said she was a Democrat until the Green Party asked her to run for county executive. “It gave me an opportunity to run for the general election, because I was running unopposed.”
As for high-contact sports, “I just think we need to give it a little more time. You can always reschedule.”
Brown, the Libertarian candidate, is a former Kinloch police chief and fire marshal and perennial candidate for public office. He said he is chief of the nonprofit Castlepoint Fire Protection Association. He was elected to the St. Louis Community College board of trustees in April 2014 and resigned in September 2015. Brown, 71, is married with five grown children.