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Is GOP gearing up to make Democratic-leaning St. Louis County GOP territory again?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 21, 2009 - Bill Corrigan, a Republican seeking to replace St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, is hinging his candidacy -- in part -- on public dissatisfaction with the county's property-tax assessments.

One of his chief campaign planks is his support for a 2010 ballot proposal that would turn St. Louis County's appointed assessor into an elected post, which Corrigan contends would likely lead to lower property assessments.

The state Republican Party, in turn, may be hinging some of its 2010 fortunes on Corrigan. Party leaders are banking on his ability to put Dooley on the defensive and curb the growing Democratic dominance at county polls.

"The Missouri Republican Party is very interested in the county executive's race and in St. Louis County,'' said state party executive director Lloyd Smith, who'd driven in from Jefferson City for Corrigan's kickoff Tuesday at the Kirkwood Community Center.

That GOP focus on the county -- which until 20 years ago had been Republican-leaning turf -- is reflected in that assessor ballot measure, which is worded so that it would apply only to St. Louis County. Other urban assessors will still be appointed.

St. Louis County is the state's largest bloc of votes, usually providing at least 20 percent of the statewide total. The county provided the victory edge in 2006 for now-U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. Last fall, the county's overwhelming preference for Democrat Barack Obama almost gave him the state in his successful bid for the White House.

Another key indication of the Republicans' St. Louis County focus in 2010 was the makeup of Tuesday's kickoff crowd. They included almost every prominent Republican consultant from every part of the state -- a rare sight, even for big-name GOP candidates, much less political unknowns like Corrigan.

Among the consultants sighted: Jeff Roe, Gregg Keller, Patrick Werner, Ed Martin and Rich Chrismer. The latter is the chief campaign spokesman for U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt, for now the only announced GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2010.

Many of the other consultants already are working for various candidates expected to be on the 2010 ballot. All had bothered to show up for Corrigan's campaign launch because of a mutual interest in seeing GOP fortunes improve in St. Louis County.

Added one in an off-the-record aside: "We smell blood in the water."

The consultant was referring to Dooley, who is seen by some Republicans as politically weak.

Dooley came into office in 2003, following the death of longtime County Executive George R. "Buzz" Westfall. Dooley kept the job by winning elections in 2004 and 2006. In that second contest, he snagged 67 percent of the vote against Republican Joseph Passanise.

As a result, Dooley's senior policy adviser Mike Jones didn't seem too concerned about Corrigan. "A sheep has to be slaughtered next year, and now we know his name,'' said Jones, who otherwise referred to Corrigan as "what's his name."

Still, even some Democrats are privately concerned that Dooley's campaign bank account showed him with less than $170,000, as of his last report.

Democrats already are zeroing on Corrigan by noting that he has never before run for public office. Corrigan allies, such as state Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, replied that his lack of political experience would be seen by the public as "a breath of fresh air."

At Tuesday's event, Corrigan sought to counter his newness by rolling out various speakers, including brother Brian Corrigan, who laid out Bill's life history:

Lived as a child in Florissant and University City, attended Chaminade College Preparatory School, then Notre Dame and law school at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

Corrigan was praised by a colleague as "a person of impeccable integrity" and by a law school friend as someone "who embodies compassion and service."

Only 50, Corrigan is a partner at the law firm of Armstrong Teasdale and a recent past-president of the Missouri Bar. His father, William M. Corrigan, is a retired circuit-court judge.

State Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, was among several area Republican officeholders in the audience who exuded optimism about his chances against Dooley. "I think he's got it; I believe he's going to win," Cunningham said.

She added that Corrigan is "very highly educated. He's knowledgeable and he's accomplished."

The implication was that Dooley, who's not a college graduate, isn't up to the job that he's held since 2003.

(That also was the inference taken from a late-in-the-legislative-session attempt by state Rep. Mark Parkinson, R-St. Charles, to amend state election law so that only a college graduate could run for St. Louis County executive. That provision was swiftly knocked out by state Rep. John Diehl, R-Town and Country, who said such an effort was inappropriate.)

Corrigan didn't get personal in his kickoff speech and said afterward he wanted to focus on issues. However, Corrigan did repeatedly hammer away at Dooley for what he said had been ineffective leadership.

Since Dooley took office, Corrigan said, county assessments have risen by about one-third, crime has shot up by 40 percent, and 25,000 jobs have been lost.

Because "we're hemorrhaging jobs,'' Corrigan said, St. Louis County government is now among the county's top 10 employers. Corrigan contended that Dooley hasn't done enough to keep and attract more private-sector jobs.

Dooley advisor Jones declined to offer a point-by-point rebuttal.

"For the next 15 months, the county executive has a government to run,'' Jones said. "Until that time, 'what's his name' will have to find someone else to play with. The adults are busy."

When Dooley feels it's appropriate to begin campaigning, Jones added, Corrigan "won't need to hunt for us. We'll find him."

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.