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Despite controversies, Dooley says he still has 'fire in the belly' for re-election bid

Charlie Dooley
Provided by Mr. Dooley

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - In early December, just days after his 66th birthday, St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley plans to launch his bid for another four-year term.

Tentatively scheduled for Dec. 5, the kickoff is to be held at the Hilton Garden Inn in the county’s new NorthPark development near Lambert St. Louis International Airport.

The location is intended to showcase Dooley’s successful economic efforts since taking office 10 years ago.

“They said it never would happen,” Dooley said, referring to the development in what had been a rundown section of north St. Louis County. “Look at it now.”

That same rise-from-the-ashes approach also could illustrate Dooley’s strategy as he seeks re-election while weathering a series of controversies that have plagued his administration in recent months.

The fallout includes an announced challenge from a fellow Democrat, County Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, who already has been endorsed by two fellow councilmen, several area labor unions and the region’s senior Democratic officeholder, County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch.

It's a sharp contrast from the last kickoff for his campaign in 2010, when all of the region's Democrats were solidly in his camp.

Even though his administration was not immune from controversies in the past, Dooley had solid support from the region’s labor unions and top Democrats, including McCulloch -- unlike now.

In mid-September, some of the region’s top labor leaders told Dooley that they likely wouldn’t back him in 2014 because of disagreements over some appointments and a dispute over the use of non-union electricians during the construction of a new 911 emergency call center.

Representatives of several labor groups, including the firefighters, joined Stenger at his kickoff. But Dooley says he’s confident that some labor groups will remain in his corner, and that others may return as the contest proceeds. He maintains that he’s the staunchest pro-union candidate for county executive and that the contrast will become clear as the campaigns kick in next year.

So far, Green Park Alderman Tony Pousosa is the only Republican to announce his candidacy for county executive. Pousosa unsuccessfully sought last year to oust Stenger from the County Council. 

Dooley says he’s not worried about Stenger or the GOP.

For one thing, two of the region’s top Democrats – St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay – are slated to join Dooley at his kickoff and endorse his re-election. Also in Dooley's corner is St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman, who along with Dooley and McCulloch is the only other official elected countywide. Zimmerman has been seen in some quarters as a potential candidate for county executive in the future. 

“We’re going to win this election. I’m very positive about it,’’ Dooley said in an expansive interview held in his office on the 9th floor of the County Government Center.

His longevity, as a man and a politician, also is being played up as an asset. “I still have the fire in the belly,’’ Dooley said. “I really do.”

Region's top contest in 2014

There’s little argument that the St. Louis County executive race is shaping up to be the marquee battle next year in eastern Missouri. 

State Democratic Party chairman Roy Temple said the state party is staying out of the likely Dooley-Stenger faceoff, but added, “I don’t know that it’s inevitable that it will be a nasty primary.”

Other Democrats privately say that both camps have been cautioned about igniting any racial tensions within the party’s ranks because Stenger is white and Dooley is African-American.

In any event, Dooley believes that the public and fellow Democrats will look at broader issues.

“People want an experienced leader. Somebody who has been tested…in the most difficult times,” Dooley continued.

Recently, the county executive has had his share of “difficult times,” including:

  • The appointment of a county real estate official with a felony conviction for embezzling federal housing funds;
  • The hiring of a tax collector who owed back taxes;
  • A $3.7 million crime lab contract that has drawn in the FBI;
  • Trouble filling three vacant spots on the county’s Police Board, including the decision of two nominees to drop out;
  • Possible embezzlement of more than $1 million by a top administrator in the county health department, who directed county money to a company that he set up. The administrator, Edward Mueth, committed suicide when his supervisor raised questions. ”

Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, blames this latest blitz of bad news for Dooley's political predicament and perceived vulnerability, even by some Democrats.
"It's because these controversies came more closely together," Robertson said. "They make him more vulnerable to a long-term 'media trial' " of bad publicity.

"All of these things together have raised a lot of questions, prompting a lot of Democrats to want to put their eggs in a different basket."

Robertson predicted that continued concerns about Dooley's political strength were likely to prompt a stronger Republican effort to snag the county executive post, which had been in GOP hands until the early 1990s.

Dooley said he and his top aides are well aware of issues that need to be addressed involving the various controversies. But then Dooley added with emphasis: “You don’t judge missteps. You judge what you do with the missteps.”

“No administration can escape missteps,” he said. “But what we can do, is when that happens, we can correct them, make it better and move forward.”

In politics since 1970s

The son of a pastor, Dooley was in the military after high school – serving a stint in Vietnam – and then worked 30 years at McDonnell-Douglas Corp., now the Boeing Co.

Dooley also has been in public office 35 years, beginning with his 1978 election as an alderman in Northwoods.  Five years later, he became Northwoods' mayor, a post he held for a decade.

As mayor of Northwoods, Dooley was active in a number of government groups, including the St. Louis County Municipal League, where he served a stint as president.

In 1994, Dooley became the first African-American elected to the seven-member St. Louis County Council. He was in his third term when – as the council’s senior Democrat – he was suddenly elevated to county executive.

The occasion was a tragedy: the unexpected death in late 2003 of longtime County Executive George R. “Buzz” Westfall, a fellow Democrat, who became ill with an infection that turned fatal. Dooley was sworn in as his temporary replacement on Nov. 4, 2003.

Dooley won his own partial term in 2004, becoming the county’s first African-American elected to its top government job. He then won full four-year terms in 2006 and 2010 – the latter a particularly combative contest with Republican Bill Corrigan.

The Dooley-Corrigan battle centered on various controversies that had plagued Dooley’s administration at the time. But unlike now, Dooley had solid support among Democrats. He also had strong backing from the county’s African-American voters, who make up about a fifth of the county’s population.

Health Department and Police Board troubles

The two most immediate issues plaguing Dooley may be filling the vacant Police Board spots, because the board now lacks a quorum and can’t take action, and the continued probe of Mueth’s activities at the Health Department.

Dooley said that his administration plans to hire an outside auditor to examine the financial systems within the county Health Department – and in all of county government – to determine what must be done to avoid a repeat of what happened with Mueth.

Mueth had set up a bogus technology companythat did business with the health department; Mueth signed the contracts. Several million dollars presumably went into Mueth’s pocket.  County officials have noted that the bogus company did supply the equipment and services that it had been contracted to do.

Dooley emphasized that Mueth had been a trusted employee. He said that the auditor will determine how much money was embezzled. The County Council will have to approve any contract, Dooley said. The probe is likely to take a while.

Action may be swifter regarding the Board of Police Commissioners.  Before Thanksgiving,  Dooley said, he plans to submit a three-person slate of new nominees to the County Council.

Dooley said he was confident the new nominees will have no problem with the new screening process that had prompted at least one of the previous board candidates to drop out. But he emphasized that he thought the process’ requirement that the candidates pass a credit check did create some problems in recruiting them.

“Credit checks are a personal thing,” Dooley explained. “Background checks or conflicts of interest are one thing. A credit check is a whole different situation.”

Dooley also denied that there was any strain between him and County Police Chief Tim Fitch, who was involved in seeking the FBI investigation into the crime-lab contract, which involved a firm with ties to a now-former Police Board member.  

Dooley said his only objection was that Fitch, in his opinion, failed to “meet protocol’’ by alerting Dooley to the problems before approaching the FBI.

“I have never asked the police chief for any accommodations at all. For promotions or anything,” Dooley said. “I have never asked a police commissioner for any accommodation whatsoever.”

Jobs and Diversity

In seeking his re-election, Dooley plans to focus on broader issues – notably job-creation, regional cooperation and diversity.

The NorthPark development is among various county initiatives over the last decade to create jobs.  Dooley said he’s been focusing even more on job creation and economic development since the economic downturn in 2008.

“That was the worst time since the Great Depression,’’ Dooley said. “There is nobody who has not been touched.’’

Dooley said he’s been very proud of his administration’s actions over the last decade, citing as he often does the county’s AAA bond rating and its status as the state’s largest county and the region’s “economic engine.”

(Update) Dooley may now have to drop the AAA reference, since the county saw its bond rating recently drop to AA+as part of a change in Standard & Poor's bond-rating process. (End update)

On the regional level, Dooley cited his support and involvement in the reconstruction of I-64, the completion of 141, the tax hike to improve Metro, last spring’s approval of Proposition P, a sales tax hike to improve the Arch and the region’s parks.

“We have done a host of things to try to move this county forward,” Dooley said.

Dooley said that he’s seeking another term because there are more things he wants to accomplish and more issues that need to be addressed.

Among them: “We need to be a more welcoming community.”

For St. Louis County and the region to move forward, he said, the county must do what it can to attract and keep talent. For example: “How can we get those young people who go to school here, to stay here?”

And there’s the matter of racial, ethnic and gender diversity. “We talk about it, but we don’t demonstrate it,” he said. Promoting diversity, said Dooley, “makes a difference in our business community, our educational community.”

For his part, he added, “What Charlie Dooley brings to the table is diversity.”

In the case of his administration, Dooley said that half of the top members of his staff are women and that major positions are held by blacks and whites.

But his key campaign pitch appears to center on himself and his achievements during a decade in office.

“Charlie Dooley has been a thoughtful and experienced leader for 10 years,” he said. When I say something, it does make a difference. Things do happen.”

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.