Message to Stenger
An excellent column by Tony Messenger in the Post offering some suggestions for County Executive Stenger as he will begin another term with both the Council and Prosecuting Attorney lined up against him. If Stenger operated at all honestly his job would be easy. Written by Paul Dribin.
Two years ago, Sam Page asked me for a favor.
We had been talking for a couple of weeks about his work behind the scenes to help St. Louis County create a prescription drug monitoring program to fight the opioid epidemic. As a physician and state lawmaker, Page had worked extensively on the issue, but he was stymied by another physician-lawmaker, Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, who consistently protected Missouri’s status as the only state in the nation without such a program.
So Page, the chairman of the St. Louis County Council, with the help of the medical community and full support of his then-ally, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger, helped set St. Louis County up to operate its own program, which has turned into a de facto state monitoring program, with more than half of the state’s population now covered by it.
I planned to break the news ahead of Stenger’s planned announcement, and Page asked me not to. The county executive wanted the headline, Page said, and he wanted him to have it.
So I waited. Stenger got his headline.
And it probably contributed to his win Tuesday, narrowly holding on to his seat by defeating challenger Mark Mantovani by around 1,000 votes. The election hasn’t been certified yet as there are still ballots being tallied. Stenger will face Republican Paul Berry, III, and Libertarian Nick Kasoff in November, but neither are expected to be well-funded candidates. So unless Mantovani or the election board find any voting oddities, Stenger wins.
By winning, though, the county executive may have actually lost. And the opioid issue is a perfect example of why.
A politician who doesn’t care about credit builds coalitions.
Stenger picks fights.
He and Page would soon be at odds over everything, mostly because the County Council chairman started to discover that Stenger was deceiving the council — on a plan to bump up Prosecutor Robert McCulloch’s pension, on a proposal to sell part of Creve Coeur Lake Memorial Park, on a bridge to nowhere, and on a scheme to move millions of dollars in county office leases to property owned by the county executive’s top donor.
Page asked questions and got shut out.
The pattern played out in county offices, too, as department head after department head quit or was forced out after they asked questions or stood up for good public policy.
In winning, Stenger said voters sent a message:
“Today’s victory shows that voters believe we are moving St. Louis County in the right direction,” he said Tuesday night.
Seen another way, voters left Stenger all alone on an island.
Challenger Lisa Clancy defeated Councilman Pat Dolan, Stenger’s last reliable ally on a council that now questions his every move. Voters approved at least one proposition meant to shift some balance of power away from Stenger and to the council, as a check to his power.
And voters overwhelmingly defeated McCulloch, perhaps Stenger’s most important supporter, who had used his office to go after Councilman Ernie Trakas when he questioned the county executive, and had refused to investigate Stenger when council investigations raised serious questions about the improper influence of donors or Sunshine Law violations.
Wesley Bell, who will become the new prosecuting attorney, might be more receptive to investigating the office of the county executive. So Stenger’s next four years, if he lasts that long, might be more uncomfortable than the first.
It didn’t have to be this way. And it still doesn’t.
If Stenger wants to leverage his narrow victory into a real opportunity for success, a path forward exists.
He could call Attorney General Josh Hawley tomorrow and commit to no more Sunshine Law violations and find a way to make that lawsuit go away.
He could accept the council’s decision to force new appointments to the Port Authority and stop trying to use that body as his personal piggy bank to help select donors.
He could commit to working on consensus with the council when it comes to developing policy priorities and awarding contracts and making appointments to boards.
He could follow Mantovani’s lead and commit to not accepting donations from companies seeking contracts with the county.
And he could actually start showing up at council meetings and rebuilding relationships with the body that voters expect him to work with to manage taxpayer dollars wisely.
This path forward is not unknown to Stenger. It’s the same one he suggested for the nephew of a major donor in the fall of 2015 when he wrote a letter to a federal judge and asked for leniency in sentencing for a convicted drug dealer:
“(He) understands and accepts full responsibility for his actions,” Stenger wrote at the time, “but also is aware that he must disassociate himself from those who would participate in illegal activity. He has made every effort to move forward in a positive way.”
Strong words. Stenger could take them to heart. Or not.
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