Police association, which endorsed Stenger over Mantovani, endorses Mantovani over Page

The St. Louis County Police Association endorsed Mark Mantovani for St. Louis County executive in the upcoming Democratic Primary, which will be held on Tuesday, August 4. The police association represents 1,300 St. Louis County Police employees.

Mantovani is one of three Democrats challenging the incumbent, St. Louis County Executive Dr. Sam Page. Page was not elected by the public but rather by the County Council. Last April, Steve Stenger resigned as county executive before pleading guilty to federal corruption charges. His successor, Page, was chosen by vote of the council. Page was then a councilman representing the 2nd District.

Though the police association praised Mantovani by saying he is “not a career politician,” this is the second time that he has filed for this political office. In the August 2018 primary, Mantovani ran head-to-head against the incumbent Stenger. Stenger won by just 1,100 votes in an election where nearly 200,000 Democrats voted for the office.

In August 2018, Mantovani was even less of “a career politician” than he is now, given that he was seeking public office for the first time. Stenger, on the other hand, had been working in government for 13 years, first as a municipal prosecutor, then as councilman and county executive. Still, the police association endorsed Stenger, the career politician, over Mantovani, a career financial consultant and attorney. Just seven months later, Stenger would resign in disgrace.

Stenger and Mantovani have something in common other than the police association’s endorsement. Stenger’s 2018 campaign was managed by the Kelley Group, which included Patrick Lynn. Mantovani’s 2020 campaign is managed by Patrick Lynn, working under the shingle of some difficult-to-trace group called Mindspring Strategies, which cashed a $10,000 check from the Mantovani campaign in its April quarterly report.

Stenger also was endorsed by the police association for county executive in the August 2014 primary when he ran against incumbent Charlie Dooley. Ironically, Stenger – much promoted by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which also endorsed him over Dooley – ran a campaign claiming Dooley was corrupt. Dooley has never even been charged with a crime, while Stenger currently languishes in federal prison.

Though Page was first elected to the Creve Coeur City Council in 1999 and also served in the Missouri House of Representatives from 2003-2008 before being elected to the County Council in 2014, he is hardly a “career politician.” A medical doctor, he was a practicing anesthesiologist for more than 20 years and took a leave of absence from his medical practice only to take on the full-time county executive role last year. 

Also challenging Page in August are Jake Zimmerman, currently county assessor, and a first-time candidate named Jamie Tolliver. Like Page, Zimmerman is a former state representative with a long career in government service; he was deputy chief counsel for Governor Bob Holden and assistant attorney general under Jay Nixon. If lack of experience in politics is what the police association wants, then Tolliver, who has never run for office before, seems best qualified by that criteria.

The message attached to this endorsement is that Mantovani is “innovative” on crime. “Crime is the top concern for county residents,” Mantovani is quoted in the announcement of the endorsement. “As county executive, I will work in partnership with law enforcement to develop innovative initiatives to reduce violent crime.”

Mantovani provides no evidence that “crime is the top concern for county residents.” In fact, it’s a safe bet that the COVID-19 pandemic is the “top concern for county residents” along with all of the other residents of planet Earth. Further, neither the police association nor the candidate offers any evidence why this financial consultant and attorney with no prior experience in law enforcement should be expected to “develop innovative initiatives to reduce violent crime.”

The county executive’s relationship to law enforcement is structurally complex. The St. Louis County Police Department is not administered by the county executive directly but rather by a civilian Board of Police Commissioners whose five members are nominated by the county executive and approved by the County Council. The police department patrols, not all of the county, but only unincorporated St. Louis County and those municipalities that contract with the county for police services. So, for most county residents, even those who would list crime as a “top concern,” their police solutions, innovative or not, will not come from the county executive, the county police board or the county police, but rather from their municipal officials and police.

That said, how is Page doing as the official who nominates the people who oversee the police who patrol unincorporated St. Louis County and those municipalities that contract with the county for police services?

When Stenger resigned and Page was voted into office by the council, the county was in the middle of defending itself against a lawsuit filed by Sergeant Keith Wildhaber, who claimed that the county police department discriminated against him because he is gay. Half a year into Page’s new job, a jury awarded Wildhaber nearly $20 million in damages (promoted to lieutenant, he would later settle for about half of that amount).

The police board soon had new leadership and new members, and another half-year later it has a new police chief. The new commissioners appointed by Page are William Ray Price, Michelle Schwerin, Thomasina Hassler and Dr. Laurie Punch. The County Council’s three Republicans, Tim Fitch, Mark Harder and Ernie Trakas, voted against Punch’s nomination. Punch is a trauma surgeon who identifies as “gender queer” and is emerging as a strong progressive community voice. Fitch – one wonders what he says among friends about the concept of “gender queer” – is a former county police chief who colluded with then St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch to drag then-County Executive Charlie Dooley in the mud at every opportunity. It may be relevant that Dooley and Punch are both African-American.

Police Chief Jon Belmar, accused by Wildhaber of fostering a homophobic culture in the police department, already had announced his future retirement when the new police board majority was sworn in. Six weeks before Belmar’s retirement date of April 30, the police board named his successor: Lieutenant Colonel Mary Barton, who became the first woman to serve as the county’s top cop. “Lieutenant Colonel Barton is an experienced leader with a clear vision of an equitable future for both the department and the community we serve,” Punch stated. 

Note the generic term “equitable,” which would encompass not only racial equity – a burning issue with the department for the entirety of its existence – but also gender equity (one would hope Barton could cover that base) and sexual orientation.

The short list of candidates for Belmar’s successor included two respected black police leaders, Deputy Chief Kenneth Gregory and Lieutenant Colonel Troy Doyle. Doyle came endorsed by a stunning list of black officials and citizens. Former state Representative Betty L. Thompson, one of Doyle’s many supporters, expressed disappointment in the police board – not Page, which suggested the disgruntled black advocates for Doyle are not looking for the county executive’s blood in this election year.

The police association endorsement of Mantovani, of course, will appeal to a certain kind of white voter – the white voter who might actually be more worried about crime than a pandemic in the middle of a pandemic. The endorsement – and Mantovani’s “innovative in crime” stance – will only steer most black voters away from this candidate. In the 2018 primary, Mantovani did garner many black votes simply as an alternative to Stenger, who had slandered the county’s first black chief executive, Dooley, for years. But Stenger is sitting out this primary in a prison cell with only his old campaign consultants in Mantovani’s corner.

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