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ST. LOUIS COUNTY • St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger is likely to remain chief of the state's largest county after fending off a challenge from a well-funded opponent to hold on to the Democratic Party's nomination for the top office.

With the Republican slate for county executive made up of candidates with little name recognition or funding, the winner of the Democratic primary is expected to cruise to victory in the left-leaning county.

"It was a long hard fought campaign," Stenger said early Wednesday morning, as the final vote tally rolled in. "Today’s victory shows voters believe we are moving St. Louis County in the right direction."

Stenger’s opponent, Mark Mantovani, put up a spirited challenge in a campaign that saw the retired businessman accuse the incumbent of corruption and Stenger call Mantovani a phony while highlighting his financial support for former Missouri GOP Gov. Eric Greitens. 

Mantovani fell just more than 1,100 votes short of winning the Democratic nomination in an election that featured heavy turnout from organized labor — whose leaders have endorsed Stenger — driven to the polls to oppose the right-to-work measure that went down in defeat.

But Mantovani declined to concede early Wednesday morning, citing reports of issues at some polling places. He said that he did not want to "hang on to a potential election win or loss at all costs," but because of reports irregularities and general uncertainty about how votes were counted he would not concede until further review. 

While Stenger appeared to hold on, he suffered peripheral losses. His ally, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch, lost the Democratic nomination for the job he has held for nearly 28 years. And Stenger’s sole remaining ally on the seven-member County Council, Pat Dolan, fell to opponent Lisa Clancy of Maplewood who has criticized “cronyism” in county government.

The election was marked by fundraising — a lot of it. Stenger raised more than $4.2 million. Mantovani, raised $2.5 million, with about half of that coming from the retired businessman’s own pocket.

The fundraising became a liability of sorts for Stenger, who faced criticism for instances where big donors got county contracts. In the most extreme case, he accepted $365,000 from the owners of the former Northwest Plaza, where the county signed an ironclad lease worth at least $69 million over 20 years.

Mantovani, 64, who retired as CEO and later chairman of the marketing firm Ansira, blasted Stenger for “pay to play” politics that favored donors who made large donations to his political campaign. And he portrayed himself as a collaborative leader who would try to bring together a county government that had devolved into fighting.

Stenger, 46, cited a list of accomplishments that included the inception of a prescription drug monitoring program. He spearheaded Proposition P, a sales tax approved by county voters in 2017 that helped fund raises for police officers and will help the county police hire more than 100 officers. He pointed to a diverse cabinet with African-Americans and women in leadership positions.

And Stenger frequently emphasized the county’s relatively strong financial position, with a balanced budget and excellent credit.

Yet the end of Stenger’s first term was marked by a sour relationship with the County Council. Three Democrats and three Republicans on the council opposed Stenger at nearly every turn after accusing him and his staff of misleading the part-time legislators on several measures. They have opened ethics inquiries into county government, but Stenger argued most of the problems were inside baseball that didn’t affect the typical county voter and were part of election-year politics.

Stenger had endorsements from law enforcement and labor unions. Political watchers predicted that strong labor turnout to oppose Proposition A, the right-to-work measure that would weaken unions, would help Stenger.

The county executive’s campaign featured frequent ads pointing out Mantovani’s campaign donations to Greitens, who resigned in June under a cloud of scandal. Greitens had signed the right-to-work bill into law, which unions got on the ballot as Proposition A by collecting enough signatures to try and overturn it.

Stenger’s only ally on the county council, Dolan, Missouri AFL-CIO apprentice coordinator, lost his 5th District seat that covers the inner-ring central suburbs. Clancy, a 33-year-old associate director of the Public Policy Research Center at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, took nearly 58 percent of the vote.

And two changes to the St. Louis County charter pushed by the council as part of its fight with Stenger appeared to pass Tuesday.

Charter Amendment 2, which would have let the county council hire its own attorney when it is in conflict with the executive branch — a frequent occurrence these days — edged ahead by just more than 10 votes out of nearly 250,000 cast.

Also passing with a more comfortable lead was Charter Amendment 3, which would amend the charter’s definition of employment to match state law in an effort to head off an attempt to remove County Councilman Ernie Trakas for violating the county charter by performing legal work for school districts.

Post-Dispatch reporters Jeremy Kohler, Jack Suntrup, Nassim Benchaabane, Joel Currier, Janelle O’Dea and Jacob Barker contributed to this report.

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