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Two of the biggest names on April 2 ballot battle for fire district post

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Six months ago, then-state Rep. Cole McNary was engaged in a tight race for Missouri state treasurer. A year ago, then-state Sen. Jane Cunningham was seen as a likely candidate for Congress.

Now, the two Republicans, both from Chesterfield, are battling each other in one of the liveliest and most unusual races on the April 2 ballot. 

At stake? A seat on the nonpartisan board governing the Monarch Fire District in west St. Louis County. The victor will be paid $200 a meeting.

Their prominence, and political ties, have prompted three other candidates to drop out.

Both McNary and Cunningham have been raising money for campaigns that are expected to get expensive in the final weeks, with radio spots likely to be added to the yard signs and mailers already flooding the district, which takes in all or part of Chesterfield, Wildwood, Clarkson Valley, Ballwin, Creve Coeur and Maryland Heights.

The sprawling district includes five firehouses and about 125 employees, most of them firefighters.

McNary said he’s seeking the post to keep politics out of the firehouse, while Cunningham said she’s running because she believes politics already are improperly influencing the district’s operations.

As evidence, each pointed to the rival’s endorsement list. Cunningham is backed by many of the state’s top Republicans, including former U.S. Sen. Jim Talent, Auditor Tom Schweich and House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka.

McNary’s supporters include Monarch board secretary Steven Swyers and many of the district’s firefighters and officials with the Missouri State Council of Firefighters.

Mark Habbas, district vice president of the Missouri State Council of Firefighters, said that some are concerned that Cunningham would be a divisive board member committed primarily to spending cuts and tangling with firefighters and the union.

Said McNary: “She would wreck havoc on the board. It’s just a matter of taking over the board and wanting to make political decisions that are not in the interest of providing service.”

Cunningham's campaign flier – with the headline “Keep Our Tax Rates Down” -- includes a graph that portrays a typical Monarch firefighter’s pay as higher than counterparts in New York, Chicago, Ladue and St. Louis.

Cunningham doesn’t apologize for that focus. “We can’t have the ‘union fox’ watching the taxpayers’ hen house,’’ she said.

Cunningham wants to re-examine the district’s pay and pensions for the firefighters, saying that some suburban mayors have told her that the Monarch pay package often is a template in union negotiations with other fire districts.

McNary’s campaign theme also centers on finances – “Living Within Our Means” – but he emphasized that the district has done just that in recent years, as a result of newer board members like Swyers.  Running a fiscally tight ship can be done without being combative, he said.

McNary, 48, served two terms in the Missouri House, ending with his unsuccessful bid for state treasurer, when he narrowly lost to Democratic incumbent Clint Zweifel.

McNary previously worked in business and most recently is a former teacher. He is the son of former St. Louis County Executive Gene McNary.

Cunningham, 66, served on the Ladue School Board from 1988-91. A decade later, she was elected to the Missouri House, where she served from 2001-2009.

Cunningham won a spirited race for the Missouri Senate in 2008 and was prepared to run for re-election last fall when legislative redistricting moved her 7th District across the state. She considered running in 2012 for the then-open 2nd District congressional seat now held by fellow Republican Ann Wagner.

Cunningham is particularly known for her outspoken opposition, while in the state Senate, to the federal health-care law, the Affordable Care Act. She was a leader in the successful 2010 effort to pass Proposition C, which sought to exempt Missouri from many federal health-care mandates.

Jones said he likes both candidates but that he endorsed Cunningham because of her longer political career, her history as a fiscal conservative -- and because she asked him first. Jones noted that although he doesn’t live in the Monarch district, his law firm is within its borders.

Talent lives within the district and says he endorsed Cunningham because they're longtime friends. He added that he has no quarrel with McNary.

Cunningham emphasized that she has taken no money from any firefighters and contended "the union" is working hard to elect McNary.  McNary said he hasn’t sought anybody’s endorsement but welcomed any support.

Both advocate “transparency,’’ although Cunningham noted that she – but not McNary – is voluntarily filing her campaign finance reports with the Missouri Ethics Commission so that they can be viewed on the internet. McNary is filing his reports with the county Board of Elections.

One of the duo’s hottest issues centers around Swyers, the current board member. Cunningham said that she led a successful effort to force Swyers and the board to rescind a $1 million tax-rate increase in 2011. She also accused Swyers of being too close to firefighters and reneging on his 2011 campaign promise against tax hikes.

Swyers said he and the board had decided to eliminate the rate hike, initially put in place because of declining property assessments, before Cunningham showed up at a meeting to complain about it. Swyers, an accountant, said he personally went through the district budget to identify $900,000 in trims.

McNary praised the board’s recent actions since Swyers came on board, citing cuts in legal fees and other spending that took place while Cunningham's ally Rick Gans was board president. Gans lost to Swyers in 2011.

To keep politics out of the district, McNary said he recently proposed to Cunningham that both drop out of the race and endorse a compromise, nonpartisan candidate. She says his proposed candidate, Russ Lake, wasn't really a compromise option.

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