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Stenger Begins TV Ad Campaign By Attacking Dooley's Record

candidate photos

St. Louis County Councilman Steve Stenger has launched  his first TV ads in the already combative Aug. 5 Democratic contest for St. Louis County Executive.

And in a break from the usual campaign protocol, Stenger has gone immediately on the attack.

Both of his two 30-second ads aim directly at Democratic incumbent Charlie Dooley and two of the hottest controversies plaguing his administration: FBI investigations and a 2011 plan to cut the county’s parks budget.

One of the ads features County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch, who calls for Dooley’s defeat.

Both ads, which began airing Thursday, also feature what may be Stenger’s campaign theme: “Ten years is long enough.” 

That’s a reference to Dooley’s tenure, which began in late 2003  following the death of then-County Executive George R. “Buzz” Westfall.

Dooley has yet to begin airing his own ads and has not said when he plans to do so. Dooley's campaign spokeswoman Linda Goldstein said, “We figured that Stenger would go out earlier (with ads) because he’s unknown and behind in (Dooley’s) polls.”

She was referring to Dooley’s internal polls. Stenger’s allies earlier circulated their own polls showing Stenger in a stronger position.

Ads feature Stenger, McCulloch

One spot has Stenger talking about the 2011 controversy over the Dooley administration’s initial proposal to cut the budget for the county’s massive parks system and close some parks as part of the county’s fiscal belt-tightening.  Amid public outcry, the plan – which called for laying off 133 parks employees -- was largely dropped.

Stenger, D-Affton, claims credit in the ad for the budget changes. “As a CPA, I knew there was no budget crisis, just mismanagement,’’ says Stenger in the ad. He is standing in front of a unidentified county park.

Dooley's allies are zeroing in on Stenger's use of digital images of vehicles which are portrayed in the ad as county-owned.  Stenger spokesman Ed Rhode said the images were "used to illustrate the point of the new parks vehicles that were purchased," and points to an audit confirming that $500,000 had been spent on new county-parks vehicles. 

During the 2011 debate over the parks budget, Stenger had faulted such spending as excessive if parks were being designated for closure as a result.  In the end, no parks were closed.

Said Dooley spokeswoman Goldstein: "We are not surprised that our opponent has started his campaign with negative ads and lies.  He is critical of vehicle purchases for the Parks Department, but the truth is that he voted to approve the budget for the purchases..."

The second ad, which features McCulloch,alleges “three FBI investigations’’ under Dooley’s watch.  The ad doesn’t make clear that Dooley himself has not been the subject of an FBI probe.

The FBI investigations include an examination of a crime-lab contract awarded by the county's Police Board, a probe of apparent embezzlement by a top official within the county health department and of the county's children's services fund.

McCulloch, who has endorsed Stenger, minces no words in the spot. “This kind of corruption is a disgrace,’’ McCulloch says in the ad.

A Stenger spokesman said both ads are running on broadcast and cable TV stations.  Ad buys on cable are usually much cheaper. The spokesman didn’t say how long the ads would run, or if others will follow.

The last campaign-finance reports, filed in April, showed Stenger with almost $800,000 in the bank, compared to $607,000 for Dooley.

Traditionally, candidates – especially ones less known to the public -- first launch a feel-good biographical spot that highlights their background and “introduces’’ them to the viewer.  However, it’s not unusual for a challenger like Stenger first to aim directly at the incumbent like Dooley to try to put the incumbent on the defensive.

Stenger also may be seeking to use the attack-ad route to force Dooley to reconsider his opposition to any debates. Dooley has made his acceptance of debates contingent on Stenger releasing his state and local tax returns. Stenger has released his federal returns for five years; Dooley has issued copies of his returns – federal and state – going back to 2004.

Stenger has agreed to debate proposals from various news outlets, while Dooley has maintained that he's waiting until the tax-return issue is resolved.

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