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Stream And Pousosa Engage In Low-Velocity County Executive Primary

Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio

As St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, duke it out in a very public fashion, a lower-key primary is transpiring on the Republican side. Missouri House Budget Chairman Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, and Green Park Alderman Tony Pousosa are angling to reach the November election, with both emphasizing their professional experience and personal styles.

Since 1991 when Buzz Westfall became county executive, the office has been in Democratic hands.  But some prominent Republicans are bullish about the party’s chances this year.

“It will be a pretty good year for Republicans. You have a very competitive, hotly contested Democrat primary where they’re already taking a lot of shots at one another and spending a lot of money against one another,” said state Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale. “It’s a unique set of circumstances.”

While the Republican candidates have refrained from name-calling, Pousosa has criticized Stream for some of his votes — and lack of votes — in the General Assembly. Stream has declined to criticize his opponent.

Both candidates, though, have similar positions on controversial issues that have percolated through the county over the last few years. And both promise a different leadership style than Dooley or Stenger.

Stream: The budget guy

Born into a family of eight children, Stream is a lifelong resident of Kirkwood. He spent four years in the U.S. Navy, including a stint in the Mediterranean Sea during the Yom Kippur War. 

Credit Marshall Griffin/St. Louis Public Radio
House Budget Chairman Rick Stream, right, is one of the most powerful lawmakers in Missouri state government. He entered the race for St. Louis County executive in March.

After graduating from St Louis Community College at Meramec and the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Stream worked as a shift supervisor at a Valley Park cotton factory. He then spent nearly 30 years at the Department of Defense as a budget and project manager.

Stream served on the Kirkwood School District Board for 12 years. He jumped into state politics in 2006 when he ran against — and defeated — incumbent state Rep. Jane Bogetto, D-Kirkwood, in a decidedly swing district.

“It was a difficult race,” Stream said in an interview. “It was a difficult year for Republicans to win in 2006. But I worked very hard on the campaign.”

After winning three more terms in office, Stream was tapped to lead the House Budget Committee. That’s one of the most powerful posts in the General Assembly because the chairman is a major influence on how billions of dollars of state money is appropriated. 

Stream said this experience would translate well into the county executive’s office. That’s because the officeholder has big influence over how St. Louis County’s budget is crafted.

“I can do a better job of managing the county than what’s occurring right now,” Stream said. “I have 42 years of leadership experience and management experience, including most of it on the budgeting side. I know how to work with people. I’ve hired people, I evaluated people, laid off and fired people when I had to. And I’ve established a good reputation of working with people all across the board. I’ve got a great track record of working with budgets on federal level, the state level, the school district level.” 

If he’s elected, Stream said he would make it a priority to bring men and women “of good character” into his administration. He would also seek to make the county friendlier to businesses. 

“Since I filed in late March, I had many, many — dozens and dozens — of small and medium-sized business owners,” Stream said. “Men and women have come to me and said ‘you’ve got to get in there and change what’s happening in St. Louis County for our businesses.’ We cannot operate effectively and efficiently and economically in St. Louis County anymore.”

Both Schmitt and former Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, praised Stream. Cunningham in particular said Stream’s steady hand allowed him to tackle tough issues, such as the student transfer legislation.

“Rick has a very professional way about him. He’s a calm, collected, logical, reasonable officeholder. He’s always worked that way,” Cunningham said. “He has a calming influence. He doesn’t raise his voice. He’s had to work with people across the aisle in the legislature. He has done it successfully.”

'Constitutional conservative'

A first-generation American, Pousosa works an operating room nurse at Barnes Jewish Hospital Center for Advanced Medicine. His father came to the United States from Cuba.

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Green Park Alderman Tony Pousosa talks to a St. Louis Public Radio reporter at his campaign headquarters in Ellisville.

Pousosa lives in Green Park, a municipality in south county. He first got involved in politics there after St. Louis County’s controversial decision to set up trash districts in unincorporated parts of the county.

“Green Park was trying to follow that model of a trash district,” Pousosa said. “And they wanted to set up one trash hauler. That meant I no longer had a choice of whom I wanted for my trash hauler. And it just happened that one of the trash haulers they wanted at the time was one I had already gotten rid of because they had poor service. And that’s when I said that I need to get involved because the government is working against the people’s will.”

Pousosa was eventually elected to the Green Park Board of Aldermen. In 2012, he unsuccessfully ran against Stenger for 6th District County Council seat.Despite the loss, he regularly showed up at council meetings along with other conservative-leaning county residents to speak out against some priorities of Dooley and Democratic council members.

“People are busy with their lives and they’re not really aware of what their government’s doing to them,” Pousosa said. “And I realized after the 2012 election that I needed to go find these people and let them know that we can make a difference if we take a stand together.” 

Pousosa was the first Republican to jump into the county executive’s contest. He said was dismayed how St. Louis County government had become insular — and hostile to businesses.

“I’m the only constitutional conservative on the ballot. The others I would consider to be either progressive Republicans who will put their finger up and test the winds and hope that it’s blowing in their direction that particular day,” Pousosa said. “And I will stand by God and country, which means the constitution. If as county executive, if we’re going to pass legislation that puts us in tyranny or puts us in freedom, those will be the decisions I make that would be for freedom.” 

At his kickoff event last year, Pousosa received the backing of some prominent conservatives — including state Rep. Paul Curtman, R-Pacific, former Sen. Jim Lembke of Lemay and former U.S. Senate candidate John Brunner. They contended Pousosa would bring needed conservative leadership.

When he kicked off his campaign last year, The Call reported thatBrunner praised Pousosa for having a “real job, real ideas, and real experience that he can bring to the table.”

"We don't need career politicians," he said.

Low boil 

Stream and Pousosa have similar views on the issues and both want to bring a different administrative style. Pousosa, in particular, wants state Auditor Tom Schweich to audit the county’s government and departments.

“This is something that should have been done probably years ago,” Pousosa said. “And it hasn’t been done. And it probably won’t be done (to know) the full extent of where the county truly stands with taxpayers funds.” 

Primary Election 2014: This article is another in a series of stories on the candidates and issues that will be on the Aug. 5 primary ballot.

Both expressed either indifference or outright opposition to a merger between St. Louis and St. Louis County. 

Pousosa said any proposal — whether it's the city joining as a municipality or a more expansive push — would make an already large government even more remote for residents. And Stream said the push for a city-county distracts from more pressing issues within the county.

“I don’t see it as practical at this point in time,” Stream said. “You have two entities — the city and the county — that at best are struggling to serve taxpayers and citizens right now. Merging these two weak entities into one strong one, I don’t think is realistic. We have limited resources, and I don’t support diverting those resources chasing after a city-county merger.”

Stream and Pousosa both said that Dooley and the county council should have sought more public input before going forward with a controversial senior housing development in Oakville. They also expressed opposition to a now-defunct foreclosure mediation ordinance and an effort to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the county’s non-discrimination policies.

(Click here to listen toPousosaand Stream on a variety of county issues.)

It’s fair to say that the Republican primary is far less acrimonious than the Democratic side. But Pousosa criticized Stream for not voting on so-called “right to work” legislation. He was also critical of Stream’s vote to place a 0.75 percent sales tax increase for transportation on the ballot.

“He’s voted to put the largest sales tax increase on the ballot this Aug. 5,” Pousosa said. “And who does that affect? It affects everyone. It doesn’t matter if you make one dollar or a million dollars. You’re going to have to pay that sales tax.”

Stream said it was important for Missourians to vote on a mechanism to fund transportation infrastructure improvements. He added: “I don’t have a problem letting the people decide if they want to raise their own taxes.”

He also said he didn’t vote on “right to work”because it’s a “divisive issue that would clearly block cooperation in St. Louis County.” And he added, “No major St. Louis regional business organization has made passing 'right to work' a priority.”

“It was not going to pass through the House or the Senate,” Stream said. “By voting for it, it would have undermined my ability to bring together the groups we need to move this region’s lagging economy forward."

Big opportunity?

It wasn’t too long ago that Republicans had a firm grip on St. Louis County’s government. GOP county execs like Larry Roos and Gene McNary served for many years, often with majority Republican support on the county council. But as the county's demographics changed, so did the fortunes of the GOP.

But some Republicans believe that the acrimonious Democratic primary could give the GOP candidate an advantage in the fall. That’s because Stenger or Dooley will come out of the battle with depleted financial resources — and a Democratic base that might be splintered.

Bruce Buwalda, the chairman of the St. Louis County Republican Party, said his party has a big opportunity to prevail.

“One’s going to have dirt on him for doing something wrong, the other is automatically going to have some dirt. Because he had the power of voting on stuff,” said Buwalda, referring to Stenger’s votes on the county council. “I don’t think either one can be considered completely clean.”

State Sen. John Lamping, R-Ladue, noted that Stream entered the county executive’s race much later than Bill Corrigan did in the 2010 election cycle. Corrigan raised well over $1 million for his unsuccessful bid against Dooley, and neither Pousosa nor Stream has come close to either Democratic candidate in terms of fundraising. 

“A lot of people who have coalesced around Stenger would have potentially coalesced around a number of Republican candidates had they stepped forward,” Lamping said. “At the end, Rick decided to run as a Republican nominee. He announced relatively late. So it’s something that wasn’t on his mind this time last year.”

If the GOP manages to win, Schmitt said it could have statewide implications.

“I’m a particular believer that it’s important to have Republicans in those kinds of offices, whether it’s state Senate or county executive, that are the faces of what the GOP is,” Schmitt said. “And so in these swing areas in particular, having Republicans represent a broad constituency is important. I think having a Republican in that spot is important for what the brand is, what it can be moving forward.”

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Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.