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Stenger In-Depth Interview: 'We Need To Move Forward Together ... Now'

Steve Stenger celebrates a victory.
Chris McDaniel | St. Louis Public Radio
Steve Stenger celebrates his victory in his race for St. Louis County executive..

A day after his narrow victory, St. Louis County Executive-elect Steve Stenger says he’s “certainly willing to extend an olive branch’’ to those fellow Democrats who had opposed his election.

But that said, Stenger made clear Wednesday that he expects those critics — many of whom were African-American officials in north St. Louis County — to do their part as well.

“We saw political motivations of all sorts, and we need to set them aside,’’ Stenger said during a wide-ranging interview on St. Louis Public Radio's Politically Speaking podcast.

“We need to move forward together and we need to do it now,’’ Stenger said. “We have a very small window.”

He added, “Many of the individuals involved are going to set aside their current feelings (about his election) because their community’s best interests are going to require it.”

During the podcast, Stenger's key points included:

  • It's up to current County Executive Charlie Dooley to address any unrest produced by the grand jury's decision on the Ferguson police shooting, until Stenger takes office Jan. 1. Stenger emphasized that he'll support any of Dooley's actions.
  • He reaffirmed plans to create a new county agency, called the Office of County Empowerment, to focus on directing state resources to low-income areas.
  • He said he already is reaching out to fellow Democrats who opposed him and praised U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay for aiding in that effort. Stenger predicted that the splits will heal sooner than some may expect.

Protests continue to target Stenger

Stenger, a county councilman from Affton, edged out Republican rival Rick Stream by fewer than 1,800 votes out of almost 300,000 cast. Stream was endorsed by some black elected officials who had formed the Fanny Lou Hamer Democratic Coalition to highlight their differences with Stenger and his allies.

Protest at Steve Stenger's election party
Credit Chris McDaniel | St. Louis Public Radio
Protesters at Steve Stenger's victory party.

Some of those differences smacked Stenger in the face late Tuesday, when several dozen protesters crashed his victory party in Clayton and reaffirmed their opposition. A melee briefly ensued, and a handful were arrested.

Stenger played down that incident, while emphasizing that he understands the frustrations feeding the unrest that began with the Aug. 9 police shooting in Ferguson that killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown.

A grand jury investigating the shooting is expected to release its findings within weeks.  The probe is being overseen by County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch, a Stenger ally who has been the target of questions about McCulloch’s impartiality.

Stenger said that he, like many county residents, is concerned about how those critics react to the grand jury’s findings. Some officials are predicting that the jury will not indict the police officer involved in the shooting, Darren Wilson.

When the decision comes down, “I’m going to do all I can do’’ to ease tensions, Stenger said. As a member of the County Council, “I do have a seat at the table.”

Still, he said that the chief responsibility for keeping the political peace will lie with County Executive Charlie Dooley.  “I don’t have the authority of the county executive,’’ Stenger said. “Out of respect for the current county executive, it’s not really my place to try to step into his shoes.”

“What I can do is offer my support and I do offer my support and I will offer my support,’’ Stenger said. “I also would like to know what his intentions are, what his plans are.”

Looking beyond the jury’s decision, Stenger said his own responsibility will be to do more to direct county attention and resources toward residents who most need the help. And that particularly includes low-income residents throughout the county, he said.

Stenger reaffirmed his plans to set up a new county agency, called the Office of Community Empowerment, to use existing county money but target it toward low-income areas in the county.  He said that agency will be set up within the first 100 days after he takes office Jan. 1.

Pledges to seek more diverse police force

Stenger, who was endorsed by area police groups, said he plans to use those ties to promote better relationships between police in the county and the people they serve.

Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Protesters and Ferguson police at a demonstration in September.

But Stenger emphasized that the county executive’s role in law enforcement is limited, aside from the county government’s control of the budget for the county police department.

Stenger cited his work already to encourage the hiring and promotions of more minorities in county law enforcement. “I’d like to see a police force representative of the people it represents,’’ he said.

Still, he said he had no plans to call for the county’s municipalities to dismantle their local police operations, noting that the county executive has no such power. Stenger said he expected many local communities to decide on their own to contract instead with the county police, which is providing law enforcement for an increasing number of communities.

“I don’t think you’ll get very far as county executive if you tell these municipalities what to do,’’ he said.

Praises Clay, hopes to work with Erby

Stenger acknowledged that he’ll need support from County Council chair Hazel Erby, D-University City, a leader of the Fanny Lou Hamer group. She has been critical of Stenger ever since he decided to challenge Dooley.  Stenger handily ousted Dooley in the Aug. 5 Democratic primary.

Hazel Erby at Rick Stream's post-election party
Credit Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio
Hazel Erby at Rick Stream's post-election party.

“Hazel Erby is going to be an important part to how we move forward,’’ Stenger said.

Stenger made a point of praising the region’s top African-American official — U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-University City — who endorsed Stenger and campaigned on his behalf.

Stenger characterized Clay’s endorsement as crucial is facilitating behind-the-scenes communications with African-American Democrats, some of whom were allied with the Hamer group.

“Lacy Clay’s endorsement opened up a lot of dialogue,’’ Stenger said. He also cited support from former state Rep. Betty Thompson, a prominent figure in the civil rights movement, and Leslie Broadnax, a lawyer and Democratic activist who had challenged McCulloch in the primary but has backed Stenger since then.

Overall, Stenger said his chief post-election message is that he welcomes communications with critics as well as supporters.   As county executive, Stenger pledged to display “an open mind and an open heart.”

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.
Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.