Steve Stenger

Steve Stenger employed his infant as a prop – and, perhaps, a shield against protestors – when he was sworn in as St. Louis County executive during the height of the Ferguson unrest.

In the aftermath of Ferguson, when police violence against black bodies was finally noticed in the region’s white community, the relative silence of then-County Executive Charlie Dooley and the indifference (if not outright disdain) for the protest community shown by then-County Executive-elect Steve Stenger contributed greatly to the utter chaos in local politics. Ferguson would become the seminal issue in each man’s tenure as county executive – Exhibit A in why the county executive matters. 

St. Louis County voters will go to the polls on Tuesday, August 7 to decide who should lead St. Louis County for the next four years. The position of county executive – the "mayor of the county" – is one that does not get a lot of attention, it seems, other than when the incumbent's scandals make headlines. And it's easy to see why: As with so many things in our region's government, what the county executive does, what his responsibilities are, and what should be expected of him are often elusive, mysterious, and confusing. Despite that confusion, there should be no doubt that who the county executive is matters.  

The county executive's most important function – the most important function of any executive branch leader – is the bully pulpit, the symbolic function served by the leader of a government.  Stenger defeated the first black county executive just days before Michael Brown was shot, affording him the opportunity to lead the region out of the abyss. He could have taken a leadership role in the reform movement (by adopting, for example, a Civilian Oversight Board or backing a county-wide minimum wage increase), but his continued indifference to racial disparities contributed to the overall sense that our local government just doesn't care about black lives. 

Top on the next county executive's agenda will have to be implementation of the new laws passed by a County Council that leans more progressive than the current county executive. In recent months, for example, the County Council passed a minority inclusion bill that will, if implemented faithfully, ensure that more minorities are hired on future public projects.  Although Stenger's administration originally tried to delay the bill behind the scenes, he ultimately signed it and, just last week, he appointed the county's first chief diversity officer. As with many laws, passing and signing the minority inclusion bill was a mere promise, and it is up to the executive branch to fulfill that promise. We will be watching.

With his appointment of a chief diversity officer, Stenger has shown encouraging signs that he is starting to address issues of race and inclusion more thoughtfully – or, more likely, that he is pandering to the black constituents he routinely neglects because they are about to return to the polls. In a recent ad, in a patent effort to energize these same black voters, Stenger sounds more like Al Sharpton than the conservative Democrat lawyer and accountant from Affton that he actually is. Politics makes for strange bedfellows – and amusing acts of obfuscation and imposture.

In the next four years, the county executive will be responsible for restoring the public's faith in local government.  Whether true or not, the appearance that Stenger has awarded his campaign donors with millions in taxpayer money has fractured even further the public's confidence that the county is run for the best interests of its residents. By one count, Stenger's campaign donors have received nearly $400 million in public funds after giving his campaign almost $4 million. The perception, whether or not it’s the reality, that county government is run by insiders, for insiders, is something the next county executive will be faced with dispelling through meaningful new reforms like the campaign donation limitations proposed by the County Council.  

The man who will serve as county executive for the next four years – and, no, there is no woman on the ballot for county executive – will be called upon to lead on much more than racial issues. He will face attempts by the region's power-brokers to merge the city and the county, restructure the airport's management (the airport sits in St. Louis County and is subject to many county laws), and pick up the pieces from the ongoing battle between Stenger and the County Council. That battle, which now pits six of the seven council members against Stenger, cannot go on for much longer before county government grinds to a halt, and it will take real leadership from the county executive to resolve the alienation Stenger has caused.  

Apart from the city and county cooperating, sharing services and (hard as it may be to imagine) merging, there is the question of internal county consolidation, as the pathetic fragmentation of the county into an archipelago of municipalities was clearly an essential ingredient to the Ferguson unrest. Too many of these municipalities lack the tax base to provide necessary services, which results in many of them using their police departments to raise revenues through predatory policing for profit. Though it’s difficult to find much good to say about Stenger, he did try to strong-arm county municipalities into better police practices by setting new county-wide police standards, citing his office’s powers to regulate public health. (Interpreting predatory policing as a public health crisis is easily the shrewdest, most progressive move that Stenger has made.) This was seen by the municipalities as a power grab, which of course it also was, since the St. Louis County Police Department would have absorbed the police services from municipalities that could not get their own police departments up to code.

The municipalities prevailed in their court battle against Stenger and the new code for police departments. This makes Stenger’s Democratic primary challenger, Mark Mantovani, their natural ally in the primary, and indeed Mantovani has been endorsed by the leaders of many of the county’s municipalities with the worst record of predatory policing. The very bad news is that a vote against Stenger – which clearly appeals to many black elected officials and voters – could also be a vote for an enabler of the predatory municipal policing that makes black people suffer the most and helped to spawn the closest we have come to a revolution on the streets of the county.

The EYE will have more to say next week about the stakes in the county prosecutor race, but the same evil irony pertains to that race. Incumbent County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch has as close to no black allies as a candidate can get, and he earned this righteous opposition, but he actually has a better track record on predatory municipal policing than his challenger, Wesley Bell, a black man being hailed by progressives as a voice for reform – with no actual evidence of his having reformed anything as a municipal judge in Velda City or councilman in Ferguson. Velda City was sued by ArchCity Defenders over its predatory court when Bell was on the bench and prevailed. Discussing this matter on the record with The American’s editorial board, Bell’s explanation was that the mayor was making the calls. That was hardly the voice of a progressive reformer. On the other hand, McCulloch, who appears to have never met a black man he didn’t want to incarcerate, has actually been a progressive voice on reforming predatory municipal police departments and courts.

Back to the county executive. Although the mayor of the City of St. Louis is often seen as the region's leader, Mayor Lyda Krewson's fecklessness and lack of vision have created a leadership vacuum. It will likely be the county executive – who leads a county that is several times larger than the city – who will set the tone for what the next four years will look like in St. Louis. It is the county executive who will help to determine whether the region moves toward a more equitable, inclusive, and fair place or whether it instead simply repeats "more of the same." It is the county executive who will likely determine who is at the table when significant changes like a city-county merger arise. It is ultimately the county executive who will set the course for our region, and which direction the county takes will be decided by county voters in just a couple of weeks. Expect The American’s endorsement in this race before August 7 – and be prepared to vote on that day like the region and your future depend upon it.

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