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Dooley kicks off re-election bid with big-name backers, cites 'experience and common sense'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 6, 2013 - St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley launched his bid for another four-year term Thursday night with an expansive speech highlighting his support for jobs, regionalism, the American Dream and mammograms.

But what Dooley said was arguably less significant than who was in the ballroom to hear it.

The county executive was flanked by two of St. Louis’ longest-serving mayors -- incumbent Francis Slay and Vincent C. Schoemehl Jr. – as well as U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay (a former rival), county Assessor Jake Zimmerman, state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, and local United Auto Workers president David Hurst.

The diverse audience also included several Republicans and representatives for some Republican-owned businesses, including Enterprise Holdings, as well as Democratic activists, black and white.

Zimmerman, who kicked off the speeches, said that many of Dooley’s allies are “people who care about the great economic development work that’s happening around St. Louis.”

Dooley said that the crowd also reflected his commitment to diversity and his own background as a working-class guy – he cited his 30 years at McDonnell-Douglas and Boeing – who found unexpected success.

Dooley’s address largely mirrored his observations during an in-depth interview with the Beacon a month ago. He said then his campaign will promote his record on job creation and his support for regional efforts, from the reconstruction of U.S. Interstate 64 (Highway 40) to the sales tax to improve the Arch grounds.

Schoemehl declared that Dooley's re-election bid was "the most important election for St. Louis County executive in my lifetime" because Dooley understands that “regions are the future of the economy of the 21sth century.”

Dooley, who is African-American, also brought up the topic of race, which he rarely does, by noting that more than 80 percent of county voters are white.  His countywide victories in 2004, 2006 and 2010, he said, “can only happen in America” and reflect a common quest for cooperation and economic growth.

Pledges to 'outraise...outwork' Stenger

His bid for office in 2014 marks the first time that Dooley’s chief rival, at least for now, is from his own party.

St. Louis County Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, is challenging Dooley in next summer’s primary. Stenger already has a raft of high-profile backers, including county Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch and several of the region’s major unions that are angry over some of Dooley’s actions regarding construction projects and appointments.

To underscore that backing, Stenger’s campaign has for weeks announced a big contribution each day of more than $5,000 each, most of them from unions.  Stenger, who launched his own campaign a couple months ago, said in a statement, "I look forward to discussing the issues with Mr. Dooley over the next several months including my plan to restore trust, credibility and a AAA bond rating to St. Louis County."

Dooley replied to reporters afterward that Stenger was resorting to such comments because “he can’t outraise me. He can’t get more votes than me…He can’t outwork me.”

Stenger’s statement alluded to various controversies that have besieged Dooley’s administration. The county executive repeated what he told the Beacon weeks ago: “The key is, what do you do about it, to fix it and correct it.”

As for the loss of the AAA bond rating – long one of Dooley's talking points – the county executive emphasized that the drop this fall came as a result of procedural changes by the rating firm, not by any problem in county finances. Dooley noted that St. Louis County still has the highest rating among all Missouri counties.

He said that Stenger won’t be able to deliver on his promise to improve the county’s rating. “You can make your mouth say anything you want to say,” Dooley said. “But saying it doesn’t make it so.”

Some Democrats have privately voiced concerns that the Dooley-Stenger could get divisive and possibly ignite racial tensions.

But Clay said in an interview that he doubted that would happen because Dooley “will dictate the tone and the tenor of this campaign.”

“Nobody knows his opponent,’’ Clay said. “Everybody knows who Charlie Dooley is.”

Dooley is banking on that familiarity to help him. His two biggest virtues, the candidate said, are “experience and common sense.”

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