The group advocating for the merger of St. Louis and St. Louis County, after a week on the defensive, now faces aggressive opponents promising a countercampaign pushing into the suites of St. Louis businesses.
At the same time, some area corporate executives continue to consider — or reconsider — their support of the merger plan.
Better Together spent the week deflecting concerns that a federal investigation into the administration of St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger would derail the group’s effort to pass a statewide constitutional amendment combining the city, county and all 88 county municipalities into one metropolitan city.
Municipal mayors, steadfastly against the amendment, have already begun calling businesses in their communities, pressuring them to reconsider support for Better Together. Some executives, even a few who supported the group’s early work, said they were not ready to support the amendment — and might never be.
And financier Rex Sinquefield, who bankrolled much of Better Together’s early work, warned that he would not support the campaign if he was the only donor.
“I am committed to making St. Louis an even greater place to live, work and play,” Sinquefield said in a statement. “Uniting the city and county is the way to accomplish this for the region and accelerate growth for the entire state. I have not been and will not be the sole contributor to the campaign.”
Together, the actions of the past week create a make-it-or-break-it moment for Better Together, several business and civic sources said.
“If our corporate leaders begin having concerns, or their support starts waning, that could really change the landscape of this,” said Michelle Harris, incoming mayor of Clayton. Her city is headquarters to local businesses such as rental car giant Enterprise Holdings, health insurance manager Centene Corp. and electrical supplier Graybar.
Last week, St. Louis County Council Chairman Sam Page told the Post-Dispatch that a federal grand jury had issued a subpoena looking into Stenger’s administration, its activities and his communications.
The next day, Better Together withdrew its amendment from state consideration, removed clauses that would have made Stenger the automatic mayor of the new metropolitan city, and inserted new language that instead requires an election to fill the seat.
“They dropped him like a dirty sock, as soon as they could,” said County Councilman and Stenger critic Tim Fitch. “They don’t need him anymore.”
Under the new plan, Stenger could still serve as a transitional mayor alongside St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, guiding the creation of the new metropolis for two years — but only if both stay in office through Jan. 1, 2021, the effective date of the new amendment.
Nancy Rice, executive director of Better Together, wouldn’t say whom she talked with before pulling Stenger’s automatic appointment out of the amendment. She said only that she had contacted key campaign consultants — and that the decision was ultimately hers. “The buck stops with me,” she told the Post-Dispatch on Thursday.
Rice also said that the federal investigation had nothing to do with the move, that Better Together had been working on it for weeks, and that she had decided to withdraw and resubmit before she learned of the federal investigation.
“I don’t think it factored into the decision,” Rice said. “But certainly I was really aware of it — and troubled by it.”
But Joe Adorjan, former president of Ferguson-based Emerson and chairman of Better Together’s board, said the federal investigation did matter.
Better Together was fielding a lot of public anger at Stenger’s role in the proposal, and although that was the primary motive, Adorjan said, the federal investigation made Better Together move more quickly.
“I think this probably accelerated it,” Adorjan said. “It was a pretty quick decision.”
Some business leaders, however, remained uncertain of their support last week. Even some who donated to Better Together in previous years, as it compiled data, said that early support didn’t mean they now approved of the specific plan.
Duane Simpson, vice president of North America government and industry affairs for Bayer, said he was surprised that Monsanto — acquired last year by Bayer — was listed as a donor on Better Together’s website.
“Funding those efforts,” he said in an email, “is not an endorsement of the final work product.”
Greg Smith, chairman of the 700-lawyer firm Husch Blackwell, said much the same.
“The firm’s support in the past,” Smith said, “does not reflect any formal endorsement of the proposed constitutional amendments.”
In February, two of the region’s most prominent business organizations, Civic Progress and the St. Louis Regional Chamber, publicly committed “time, energy and resources” to the effort. But a third major organization — the Regional Business Council — still hasn’t decided.
“Since there is a wide variety of opinions within our membership, for now our role is to educate them on the initiative,” RBC President and CEO Kathy Osborn said on Saturday. “We are aware, though, that our fragmented governmental structure is not sustainable.”
Other business leaders said they were waiting — some with more skepticism than others — and declined to comment.
Meanwhile, municipal officials said they had been calling businesses in their communities and urging them to carefully consider their support.
Chesterfield Mayor Bob Nation said the city had called Bayer and asked if it could have “an opportunity to educate” the company. Nation said he personally called Spire Inc. CEO Suzanne Sitherwood.
Creve Coeur Mayor Barry Glantz has called Bayer, too. And outgoing Clayton Mayor Harold Sanger said he called several companies headquartered in Clayton — but declined to say which.
“Everybody’s just shaking their heads,” he said. “They’re all kind of spooked.”
Rice said last week that she worried she had lost an ally in Stenger when she removed his appointment from the amendment. But she is certain that it made the proposal stronger and that donors will come when asked.
“Maybe they’ll hold back on giving Steve money,” she said. “But I don’t think they’re going to hold back on us. I mean we are talking about changing the government. And the donors that we’re talking to understand that.”
Still, the amended petition — Better Together’s third effort — leaves the advocacy group with a tight timeline.
“Contrary to popular opinion, we do not have a ton of time,” Rice said. “Now we’re starting back over.”
And that, she said, will make the work harder and more expensive.