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Stream and Stenger Head Into Final Stretch In Battle For County Executive

Rick Stream, left, and Steve Stenger
Parth Shah | St. Louis Public Radio intern

With the nationally watched unrest in Ferguson as a backdrop, St. Louis County’s contest for county executive may well live up to its hype as the region’s marquee contest on the Nov. 4 ballot.

And although Election Day is a month away, Republican Rick Stream and Democrat Steve Stenger, both St. Louis natives, already are running attack ads – a sign that their battle may be tighter than the county’s Democratic-leaning demographics might indicate.

Their pitches fit in with their parties’ traditional jabs:

Both are promising in-depth reviews of how county money is spent, and both are emphasizing their commitments to attract more businesses and create more jobs.
Stenger, 42, (a graduate of Bishop DuBourg High School) has been on the County Council since 2009. He is an accountant and a lawyer. Stenger highlights his financial background and his budget battles with outgoing County Executive Charlie Dooley.(Here's Stenger's profile from this summer.)

Stenger pledges “to audit every account, every program.” He is proposing to revamp some county operations and eliminate others.

Stream, 65, (a graduate of Kirkwood High School) has been in the state House since 2007 and most recently chaired the Missouri House Budget Committee. He spent four years in the Navy and almost 30 years with the U.S.  Department of Defense as a budget and project manager.(Here's a closer look at Stream from this summer.)

Said Stream: “I know how to manage people. I know how to manage budgets.” Stream is proposing to curb county regulations and cut some taxes.

Major focus on Ferguson

Aside from their common focus on county spending, both candidates appear to be embracing similar themes when it comes to the Ferguson police shooting that’s sparked weeks of protests.

Both express sympathy for the family of slain teenager Michael Brown, and both pledge to address economic equality that both men believe underlie the controversy.

“We need to build trust in each other,’’ said Stenger. “We cannot let our community remain divided. That will be my mission as county executive.”

Stream, meanwhile, says he’s the “healer’’ that county residents need, especially those who reside near the unrest. “People in north county are tired of the way they’ve been treated,’’ he said. “They want somebody new.”

Such promises reflect, in part, the impact that Ferguson’s ongoing protests have had on the contest.

Recent elections have shown that St. Louis County is now roughly 60 percent Democratic, with Republicans concentrated in west St. Louis County and in pockets of south county.  Democrats are everywhere else.

But thanks to Ferguson, Stream and his allies are confident that the GOP has a real shot of taking back a post that it hasn’t held in almost 25 years.

Stream is upfront about his belief that he’s the beneficiary of a Democratic originating in the nasty primary between Stenger and Dooley this summer. Even before the Ferguson shooting, said Stream, “I began to get many inquiries from Charlie Dooley supporters.”

Many of the region’s African-American politicians had backed Dooley, a fellow African-American who lost badly to Stenger on Aug. 5 after holding the office for almost 11 years.  That primary defeat, and the racial issues elevated by the Ferguson protests, continue to put Stenger in a delicate position.

On Wednesday, a group of county African-American elected officials announced they were endorsing Stream because they were upset with the county Democratic Party.  Dooley's defeat and the unrest in Ferguson contributed to their decision, speakers said.

Stenger particularly has come under fire because of his support from County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch, a law-and-order Democrat who is in charge of the county’s grand-jury investigation into the Ferguson police shooting.

For weeks, McCulloch has been weathering a barrage of attacks from African-American protesters and politicians who have sought to have him replaced by a special prosecutor. They question whether McCulloch can be fair because his father, a police officer, was killed by a black suspect in the 1960s.

McCulloch has sought to ease those concerns with a series of interviews over the past week, including an appearance on St. Louis Public Radio’s noon show, “St. Louis on the Air.”

Contrasting views of McCulloch

Meanwhile, Stenger made his firstgeneral-election ad all about Ferguson. But he has declined to “denounce’’ McCulloch as some Ferguson protesters have demanded. Stenger explained in an interview that he sees no need for McCulloch to step down as head of the local investigation, and he noted that the U.S. Justice Department is conducting a parallel probe that is focusing on civil rights.

St. Louis Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch
Credit UPI/Bill Greenblatt
St. Louis Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch speaks to reporters.

“My heart goes out to the Michael Brown family,’’ Stenger continued. “I want justice for them. I want a fair process for them. I believe (McCulloch) can provide a fair process.”

Stream holds a different opinion. He has suggested that McCulloch should consider stepping down as head of the local investigation.

“I’m not calling on him to step aside,” Stream said in the interview. “But I do think, if a quarter of the population in the county has no confidence in your ability to do an impartial investigation, that’s something that should be seriously considered by the prosecutor. That’s his decision.”

Stream also has promised to lobby for a change in state law to require that any fatal police shootings require the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the matter.

Stream and Stenger both say they’ve been meeting with African-American politicians, pastors and residents. Both have made low-key appearances at various events focused on Ferguson and the issues ignited by the police shooting.

Stream under attack for views, votes

Stenger has sought to shift off defense by going on the offense. In particular, he’s highlighted Stream’s legislative votes.

Stream’s record includes opposition to Medicaid expansion -- and support of a new gun law that allows open carrying of firearms and arming teachers and of a 72-hour waiting period for abortions without exceptions for rape or incest.

Stenger’s newest ad highlights those votes, among others, as evidence that Stream is “extreme.”

“Rick Stream’s record is not a record of inclusion,’’ Stenger said.

Stream says Stenger's attacks are unfair, but adds that he makes no apologies for his views or his votes. “I don’t flip flop from one day to the next,’’ he said. Even his critics, Stream added, “appreciate the fact that I’m consistent.”

Stream observed that many of his views, such as those on abortion and gun rights, would have little to do with the job of county executive.

Officially, the county executive also has no role in public education. But Stream makes clear that he hopes to use the post as a bully pulpit to encourage county residents to focus more on improving access to education on all levels.

Economics also front and center

All the talk about Ferguson also has affected the candidates’ economic themes which, until the police shooting, had been expected to be their prime campaign focus.

Stream contends that his call for cutting business regulations, and reducing some taxes, could help attract more county jobs. He has repeatedly highlighted the county’s loss of 55,000 jobs since 2000.

Stream asserts that a Republican economic approach could lead to more jobs throughout the county, but especially in north St. Louis County, which has suffered much of the job loss. “I want to give business incentives to move into north county,’’ he said.

Stream contends that electing Stenger would be tantamount to re-electing Dooley.

Stenger is proposing to set up a special county division to focus on issues affecting poor residents.  He says his economic approach reflects a similar philosophy. Stenger says he’s committed to “equal access to jobs and a county government that is accessible.”

So far, the two have agreed to at least two debates to air their differences and agreements.  The first is set for 9 a.m. Monday, Oct. 13, on KTRS (55o AM). 

The second is set for noon, Tues., Oct. 14 before an audience at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and will be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio’s “St. Louis On The Air.”

Also on the ballot for county executive are Theo (Ted) Brown, Sr., for the Libertarian Party and Joe Passanise of the Constitution Party.

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