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Dooley and Corrigan race for county executive heats up -- but is anyone watching?

St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and Republican rival Bill Corrigan sharpened their attacks today during their second public forum, held over lunch before members of the Northwest Chamber of Commerce.

Dooley, a Democrat in office since 2003, accused Corrigan of "having something to hide'' because the latter has declined to release his personal income tax returns, as the county executive did last week.

Corrigan, in turn, accused Dooley of improperly spending county money on "$150,000-a-year consultants'' and opinion polls.

The sniping got even sharper afterward, when both candidates vented their ire in interviews.

Dooley accused Corrigan of being evasive about his personal and professional finances, while engaging in "innuendoes and lies'' about Dooley.

"He's a Ladue lawyer. Who are his clients?" Dooley said. "He's refinanced his home eight times in three years. Why?"

Dooley asserted that in his own case, "people know who Charley Dooley is."

Corrigan replied that he'd refinanced five times in eight years, "to take advantage of historically low interest rates," and said his refusal to release his tax returns was irrelevant to the job of county executive.

Corrigan accused Dooley of tossing out "red herrings'' to distract the public and the press from alleged missteps and misdeeds in the county executive's office.

"This is a desperate attempt by a 30-year politician,'' said Corrigan, adding that he planned to keep his campaign focused on the issues.

Today's event was the second forum in a row between the two candidates, who are still negotiating on when, where -- and, perhaps, whether -- to engage in debates before the Nov. 2 election.

Corrigan accused Dooley of dragging his feet, while Dooley's spokeswoman said that the League of Women Voters -- who will host the debate -- are looking for the appropriate venue and date.

As we reported Wednesday:

Today was literally High Noon in the contest for St. Louis County executive.

At noon before the Lemay Chamber of Commerce, and less than two months before the Nov. 2 election, Democratic incumbent Charlie Dooley and Republican rival Bill Corrigan  finally faced off in their first forum.

Although their time was brief, a few verbal shots were fired, and both sides believe they collected some political ammunition.

The topic of contention? Taxes.

Corrigan contended that county taxes are too high and he pledged to oppose tax increases.

Dooley maintained that St. Louis County government is "the biggest bargain in our town,'' and he cited a decline in the county government's tax rate from 58 cents per $100 assessed valuation in 2003 to the current 52.3 cents.

Dooley emphasized that county residents upset over their property taxes need to be aware that more than 70 percent of the their tax payments go to area public schools, junior colleges, the special school district and fire districts. The county government has no control over those rates, he said.

In any case, some tax increases are good, Dooley added, citing the county voters' decision in April to increase the sales tax to provide additional money for Metro, the public transit system.

Corrigan's advisers said afterward that they expect to hammer at Dooley for his views on taxes, and took particular note of the county executive's question to the audience, in which he asked if anyone had seen a decline in their property tax bills or their assessments. Corrigan's camp contends that Dooley appeared surprised when most people said their taxes had gone up.

Dooley said afterward that Corrigan didn't understand how property taxes were assessed, or the fact that the county government portion accounted for so little.

"The man's incompetent,'' Dooley said. "He doesn't know what he's talking about."

Corrigan consultant Jeff Roe replied later, "That's like the Scarecrow calling the Tinman 'stupid.'"

In any case, both candidates hope that the public now will begin paying attention.

For months, Dooley and Corrigan have parried over such matters as jobs, county cars, campaign contributions, ethics codes and assessors as they compete for the post in charge of the largest county in the state.

Corrigan portrays himself as a fresh-faced outsider and "self-made man." Dooley's campaign casts the incumbent as a political veteran who's "a doer, not a talker."

But for the most part, both campaigns acknowledge that their sparring has been overshadowed and overtaken by several other contests -- most notably, Missouri's combative battle for the U.S. Senate between Republican Roy Blunt and Democrat Robin Carnahan.

The county as political battleground

Ironically, the St. Louis County executive race is politically intertwined with the Senate contest. Both Senate candidates have located their state headquarters in the county, underscoring its importance as key political turf. Both major parties also are banking on Dooley and Corrigan to attract key constituencies to the polls in November, in part to help out the statewide tallies of the Senate contenders.

Also at stake is the county's political history. The county executive post was held by Republicans until Democrat George R. "Buzz" Westfall won the post in 1990 and held it until his unexpected death in 2003.

Dooley, the senior Democrat on the County Council, was named as his temporary successor and then won subsequent elections in 2004 and 2006, prompting the state GOP to set up a satellite office in the county as part of its bid to elevate the Republican profile and, possibly, political fortunes.

Corrigan, a lawyer who is making his first bid for elective office, is the son of retired Circuit Judge William Corrigan.

Corrigan spokeswoman Susan Ryan says he was heartened by the fact that more county Republicans than Democrats cast ballots in the Aug. 3 primary, seen by some as a sign of GOP resurgence.

"We have been very encouraged by the public interest in the race,'' said Ryan. "Maybe the media haven't shown the attention we would like, but the public has."

Dooley's campaign manager John Temporiti and spokeswoman Katie Jamboretz also say that the public is tuning in -- particularly as both candidates highlight their differences.

On the attack

The contest also is turning somewhat personal. Last week, Dooley released the last four years of his income tax returns and called for Corrigan to do the same. Temporiti said the county executive believes that public disclosure of his personal finances underscores Dooley's belief in transparency.

Corrigan has no plans to go beyond the Missouri Ethics Commission's personal financial disclosure requirements, his spokeswoman said. She accused Dooley of trying to divert attention from Corrigan's year-long assertion that Dooley has been engaging in inappropriate activities.

In particular, Corrigan has pointed to campaign contributions from a number of Dooley's department heads, which Corrigan contends were improper and perhaps coerced. Dooley, in turn, has said any staff donations were voluntary.

Dooley's campaign also has countered with a special attack website -- known in politics as a "micro site'' -- that is focusing on Corrigan's status as board member for Pulaski Bank, which accepted $32.5 million in federal bank bailout funds. The site, called "Bailoutbillcorrigan.com," focuses on the bailout money and Corrigan's home-refinancing loans with the bank.

Dooley's campaign says Corrigan has refinanced eight times in the last three years, and asserts they may have been "sweetheart'' deals with the bank; Ryan says he has refinanced five times to get lower rates and that he received no special treatment.

Corrigan most recently has been attacking Dooley because over the years he received close to $30,000 in campaign contributions from troubled developer John Steffen, who's now accused of bank fraud.

Jamboretz said Dooley has given to charity $10,000 representing Steffen's donations since 2006, the last time Dooley ran for re-election. Corrigan contends that the full $30,000 should be given back. He also asserts that the donations resulted in Steffen's receiving special treatment for close to $10 million in tax breaks or loans from government entities in the county. Dooley's campaign says he played no role in any of Steffen's business dealings and cites numerous donations that Steffen gave to Republican candidates and entities -- including former Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt.

In any case, today's forum will mark the first time that both men will be in the same room to discuss their differences. And both candidates pledge that it won't be their last.

In fact, both have agreed to show up for another verbal duel at noon Thursday before the Northwest Chamber of Commerce in Bridgeton.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.